In a gloomy fortress off the coast of Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, in a South African farm kitchen in 2012, and in a well-appointed condo in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood on the evening of October 5, 2018, battles are raging. Brutal one-on-one conflicts of class, race, inheritance — ideological, cultural, personal — and most of all, gender. The combatants enter their various domestic arenas in a state of horrible paradox: at once armed to the teeth — weighed down with weapons of history, ingrained prejudice, and crushing pain and resentment that they know how to wield but whose full deadly power they only partially comprehend — and totally naked. Defenseless and vulnerable to every blow, they are raw masses of accumulated wounds masquerading as reasonable human beings. What’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh, and in the bones of these men and women are centuries of insidious instruction in dehumanization, years and years of grievance and rage.
But all these harrowing face-offs are also, crucially, love stories. Two are versions of canonical chestnuts by the Sturm und Drang–y Swede August Strindberg — Conor McPherson’s new translation of The Dance of Death and Yaël Farber’s of Mies Julie, now running in rep at Classic Stage Company — and the third is Loy A. Webb’s ruthlessly up-to-the-political-minute two-hander The Light, inaugurating one of the stages at MCC’s long-awaited and very spiffy new midtown venue. Down by Union Square, Cassie Beck and Richard Topol are stepping somewhat monotonously through Western theater’s original take-no-prisoners marital danse macabre (without Strindberg’s Alice and Edgar, there would be no George and Martha), and Elise Kibler and James Udom, as Afrikaner mistress and Xhosa servant, are prowling more effectively around each other in a swift, gruesome postapartheid riff on Miss Julie. (The prolific, wild-brained Strindberg was destined to be a playwright’s playwright: His American counterpart Eugene O’Neill called him the “greatest genius of all modern dramatists” and Tennessee Williams also acknowledged his influence — the shades of Miss Julie and the servant Jean are always floating in the wings whenever Blanche and Stanley take the stage.) Meanwhile, up on 52nd Street, McKinley Belcher III and Mandi Masden are giving brave, excruciatingly exposed performances as a contemporary couple whose marriage proposal is quickly complicated by the most agonizing kind of questions of bias and trust.
There’s meaty stuff in all these plays, though in production Webb ultimately fares better than grim old August. Kibler and Udom’s piercing performances make Mies Julie resonate, but director Shariffa Ali never quite drives the heady electricity and malicious, unresolvable hurt of the story home. Julie (whether Miss or Mies) is always a story about a hot, heavy night — Midsummer for Strindberg and Freedom Day for Farber — the kind of riotous, on-edge celebration that leads to topsy-turvydom, sex, and maybe even death. “On nights like that,” Raymond Chandler wrote in a 1938 story called Red Wind, “every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”
And Julie is no meek little wife. She’s the strutting, reckless teenage daughter of the master of the house: privileged and caged, full of spite and venom and perverse innocence, barefoot in a sundress and pretty in a messy, luminous, dangerous way, raised in part by the black servants and in part by her powerful father, whose looming shadow is pretty much White Patriarchy incarnate. In short, a land mine of entitlement and self-loathing waiting to be stepped on. “She’s mad again tonight, ma,” the servant, here John, tells his mother Christine (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), “bewitched.”
John carries his own complex burden of desire, revulsion, and defiance for Julie, and Udom gives the wary, yearning young man weight and clarity and plenty of his own nastiness. Because this is, at the heart, Strindberg — who, remember, started as a proto-feminist but also played a lot of intellectual footsie with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and various forms of philosophical misogyny — Julie’s high-and-mighty posturing will eventually reveal a frightened little girl, primarily controlled by emotion. And the more power John gains, the more tyrannical and calculating, the more a creature of cold reason and will he’ll become. The strength of this Mies Julie lies in Kibler and Udom’s chemistry and in their ability to keep finding the contradictions in the characters. Strindberg’s plays were always more human and complex than his analyses of his own writing. He wasn’t subtle (Julie has recurring dreams of falling into a pit, and John dreams about stealing eggs out of an eagle’s nest), but he was always unsparing and often surprising. In Farber’s adaptation, which exchanges some of the original’s philosophizing for a bloodier, more visceral struggle over the land itself, Kibler and Udom take great risks with each other. Their eventual, inevitable coupling is harsh, blurry, disturbing: just the right mixture of the desire to connect, to transcend their horrible history, and the drive to possess and despoil, to perpetuate it.
As Alice and Edgar, the warring couple at the center of The Dance of Death, Beck and Topol don’t hit the same fierce pitch as their young counterparts in Mies Julie. Perhaps there’s some natural sense to this: Julie and John are barely past childhood, with all its hunger and possibility and mercurial violence — Alice and Edgar are nearing their silver wedding anniversary, and Edgar is aged and sick enough to know that, for all his bullying bravado, his time is fast running out. On a desolate island in their literal prison of a home (“It was the old jail, before they built the new one,” sneers Alice — again, Strindberg, never hesitant to smack the nail on the head), this crusty, ruthless old soldier and his equally ruthless, professionally manipulative ex-actress of a wife wear out their days together. They play cards, Alice plays piano, and most of all they play each other in a 25-year-long fight to the death. Anyone who enters the house is a pawn, a human lance for tilting at each other with renewed zest and malevolent imagination, as Alice’s impressionable cousin Kurt (Christopher Innvar) eventually discovers.
Strindberg, like Shakespeare, knew that youth is a self-absorbed tragedy and old age is a dark comedy. But this Dance of Death never fully finds either its horror or its humor. Director Victoria Clark keeps her actors talking quickly but without much variety. Topol mostly swaggers and growls, and Beck bites back acerbically, but the tone is strained and flat, lacking the sinuous — ideally, sexy — loop-de-loops that should take us on a guiltily fun, slightly sickening ride from laughter to repugnance and back again. Clark is unaided by McPherson’s translation, which feels ungrounded in a strong vernacular — noncommittally straddling the gap between 1900 and now — and more than a little phoned in. As a result, she and her actors drift toward bluster, and the whirling dervish of the play’s title starts to feel more like a forced march.
Under Logan Vaughn’s direction, The Light fares better. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare its couple — who possess little of Strindberg’s natural cynicism and much more of a conscious, contemporary desire for political and personal enlightenment — to Alice and Edgar or Julie and John. But in a way they’re somewhere in between: neither fiery youths nor embittered, scrappy old folks, but ambitious, hopeful, seemingly reasonable 30-somethings, coping with both the children they were and the adults they’ve somehow become. And they’re still reaching toward each other across a perilous gap of history and social indoctrination, of painful patriarchal norms that have subtly poisoned the groundwater of their lives.
The Light is the well-crafted flip side of the coin whose dismal face is represented by American Son. Like that play’s author, Webb is also an attorney, interested, here at least, in making drama out of headlines. Like that play, The Light is the real-time unfolding of increasingly traumatic events that mix political debate and explosive personal conflict. Inside its faithfully re-created upper-middle-class living room — Kimie Nishikawa’s set looks like a West Elm catalogue augmented with artsy prints of beautiful black women — the play doesn’t push any theatrical envelopes, but it does fill its sturdy, conventional box with affecting articulation and real feeling. Webb’s got a truthful sense of character, a charming handle on smilingly snippy lovers’ banter, and a solid feeling for the way argument ebbs and flows and ultimately spills forth like magma, laying waste to everything in its path.
The living room belongs to Genesis, or Gen (Masden), a successful school principal in a serious relationship with Rashad (Belcher III), a firefighter with a young daughter and long-ago-dashed dreams of playing in the NFL. The Kavanaugh confirmation is looming, but for Gen and Rashad it’s supposed to be a joyful evening. It’s their two-year anniversary: Rashad stages an ultraromantic proposal and surprises Gen with concert tickets for that night — then everything starts to come apart. A rapper that Rashad admires is part of the concert — there are echoes of Chance the Rapper in this fictional star, who’s devoted himself to philanthropy and activism in the black community — but Gen reacts to his name as if she’s been slapped. She’s asked Rashad not to listen to his music. She won’t go to the concert. Rashad doesn’t see what the big deal is. It’s pretty clear that this is all going to be a devastatingly big deal.
The Light’s strength doesn’t lie in unpredictability — its narrative developments are all easy to see coming — but in Webb’s and the actors’ ability to turn talking points into complex, fully felt conflict in the bodies of two empathetic characters. Masden especially is wrenching to watch as Gen has to reveal more and more of her own suffering to Rashad, who claims he loves her but can’t wrap his head around the way he keeps implicitly belittling, sidelining, and disbelieving her. Late in the play, finally starting to approach the state implied by its title, Rashad begs Gen to think of all that’s gone down between them as a “teachable moment.” Heavy with distress and exhaustion, her response lands with a familiar thud: “I’m not wasting time on anymore men who need teachable moments.” She lays it all out for him, shaking as she speaks. “See, if I didn’t have a father, son, or a man, I would care about black men who die in the street. Like Trayvon, like Eric … I care because they are human … But for us, the issues don’t matter unless it’s your ‘girl, daughter, or mother.’ Oh no, us being humans worthy of compassion is not enough … You said exactly what you meant. I’m not worth marching over. We black girls and women never really are. We are always told that men, little black girl, are more important than your protection.”
There’s an undeniable didacticism to Webb’s project, along with an embrace of symbol that August might tip his hat to: The play starts with Genesis and ends with revelations. It’s also strictly, purposefully linked to its moment — to figures like Brett Kavanaugh and R. Kelly on one side, and on the other to the hundreds of women who have come forward seeking justice, demanding some grievously overdue recalibration of a world that values male success over female life. I hope to God that in ten years, The Light feels like a period piece, a time capsule of 2019 teachable moments. But perhaps that’s grossly optimistic. Strindberg would certainly think so. Right now, the play works because Webb, Vaughn, Masden, and Belcher III give us not only ideas and arguments but full, familiar, suffering and striving human beings. They’re working inside a form that has its literalism and its limits, but they’re bringing dimension, tenderness, and the audacity of hope to the task.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death are at Classic Stage Company through March 10.
The Light is at MCC through March 17.