by John Heilpern

Notes toward enjoying August Strindberg's grotesque tragicomedy or marital blood sport, Dance of Death, starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren as Edgar and Alice in perfect, abusive harmony:

You won't want to miss these two great actors at the top of their game, that's for sure. But my surprise in seeing the renowned play for the first time is how funny it is. To be sure, Strindberg's image of marriage—and of all loving relationships—is hell on earth. On the other hand, there's nothing to beat the gallows for a good laugh.

The key to its wickedly dark sense of humor is found among the last, bemused lines of the wife-hating Captain Edgar, who can't figure out whether life is a tragedy or a joke. "When it is a joke, it can be so terribly painful—while being tragic can be quite pleasant, quite tranquil …. "

Strindberg reverses the rules of the game. The extraordinary hatred between Edgar and Alice—such ordinary names for monsters!—welds them together so completely that it's touching. Cut off from the world in a fortress tower, without friends, alone by bilious choice, they're always talking. Silence is Death for them. Their easeful mutual bombast is Life—a sign that they're still breathing astride the grave.

In many psychological ways, Dance of Death, written in 1900 and adapted here by Richard Greenberg, can be seen as the father of modern drama. It created new horizons; its influence over Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee, for example, is well-known. But Beckett's publicly expressed debt to Strindberg puzzled me until I saw the play. Edgar and Alice are pure Beckett in the making. They live in a no man's land. They cope, in their own miserable fashion. There were fun patches. "Do you remember the navarin aux pommes at Nimb's?" asks the Captain, brightening at the memory. They can't go on, but they must.

Both have been passed over. The career soldier, never promoted higher than captain of some godforsaken fortress, possesses the same motiveless malignity as Iago, without the successful cunning. He's a man who tried to push his wife into the sea because it seemed like a good idea at the time. But she survived, as witches do. More likely, he didn't push hard enough, offering last-minute reprieve in grudging exchange for a half-life of burnt-out companionship.

Alice had hopes, too. She was a young actress with a bright future before she married Edgar on a whim and he forced her to give up the stage. But does a mournful day pass by when she doesn't remind her yawning husband what she gave up for him? All days are alike in this toxic wasteland, every conversation the same. But remember: once an actress, always an actress.

Alice's role-playing is central. "Play for me, won't you?" says the Captain in the opening line of the play. It could mean he wants her to play the piano for him, but she adds indifferently, "You don't like my repertoire." The two of them are acting out a drama of their own invention. Sometimes life is easier that way, more manageable. But anyone who enters their orbit will be drawn into their fiction and scorched—burned alive, as it were.

Sean Mathias' new production does not understate its diabolical delights—the ghostly foghorns and ominous ticking clocks, the mysterious, convenient mists, the deranged squall of the usual birds. But though he goes to the rompish, dangerous edge and overdoes it, Mr. Mathias knows what he's doing. The remarkable thing about Dance of Death is that it takes the shape of a children's fable for adults. "Baron Bluebeard and the maiden captive in the tower!" the captain announces, mocking his sour marriage. Who, then, will rescue the old bag from the wicked devil?

Ian McKellen brilliantly conveys the vampire for whom enemies are essential blood and life an eternal feud. The Captain is described amazingly as "a despot with the character of a slave," and Mr. McKellen manages to achieve the near impossibility of a toadying bully who can make an affectionate greeting suggest a death grip. He strokes a cat tenderly as we half expect him to throw it gleefully out the window. His stagecraft is beyond question; his Dance of Death vain, proud and pathetic. Some—myself included—have found him too theatrically showy on occasion. Give Mr. McKellen a winding staircase with a banister, and he'll take the banister—sliding down it cheerfully. But it is this great actor's unflinching portrait of the Captain's battle with the specter of death that we will remember. Mr. McKellen's terror at the abyss—his heroic, granite will to carry on—makes the monster ultimately humane.

Helen Mirren is, of course, a supreme stage actress (who's playing a stage actress), and those who know her only from her cool, intelligent detective in Prime Suspect will be delighted here. Ms. Mirren is having a ball, and so shall you. Her Alice has seen better days—like Beckett's Winnie, buried up to her waist with airs and graces in Happy Days. She is all nightmares to all men: timeless nag, hag, drudge, wicked witch, femme fatale, self-deluding narcissist—"I'm in my prime!"—cruel manipulator and poor, entrapped Woman. Ms. Mirren plays all the notes—and all the roles—with a wonderful sense of freedom and daring. Her "hurrah!" at the apparent death of her beloved husband has us rocking with laughter. Her exultant, erotic seduction of cousin Kurt is another story.