But Where Are the Giants?

When Friedrich Drrenmatt sat down in the winter of 1968 to adapt August Strindberg's The Dance of Death, he wound up not revising, reworking or reconstituting, but rather regurgitating-chewing up Strindberg's tragedy of a married couple locked in mutually assured destruction and puking up something much different, much funnier and, oddly enough, more disturbing than the original. Play Strindberg, Drrenmatt's "adaptation," is a brutal comedy far more compelling than Strindberg's tragedy. It doesn't so much reveal the rancid core of traditional spousal relationships so much as rub your face in it.

Play Strindberg has a strong blood line. Drrenmatt, a Swiss native, is generally considered the finest German-speaking dramatist of the past 40 years. The Swedish-born Strindberg is one of the protean figures of modern drama, every bit as revolutionary and important as Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill but more rarely produced.

After working with his three actors in the winter of 1968, Drrenmatt discovered something: he didn't like Strindberg's play. He kept the story and dramatic idea, but he eliminated the literary side of Strindberg, "depoeticizing and deflating" the language, he said.

The result? If you believe Drrenmatt, it's a thoroughly modern Strindberg. And how is it modern? A bunch of words are taken out, and most of the lines are simplified into punch-in-the-head poetry-like transforming "All that is left of us could be put in a wheelbarrow and used to fertilize a garden plot" into "We're nothing but a barrowload of shit for the rosebeds."

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Drrenmatt turned Strindberg's rather conventional, well-made tragedy into a boxing match. Literally. Characters are introduced like fighters at the beginning of the play, and they start each scene by giving a round number. Director Hope Alexander runs with the boxing metaphor, injecting even more quirky spirit into an already quirky play.

That play concerns the married couple of Alice, a failed actress, and Edgar, a failed military officer exiled to an island military post. It's the eve of their 25th anniversary, an event that neither finds interesting. They've settled into a quite comfortable, if garishly absurd, routine: they bicker, spar and insult each other relentlessly. And it's clear they're content with this Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? routine. Together, they're at least a pair; alone, they'd have no one to blame for their intense unhappiness but themselves.

Into this volatile relationship comes Kurt, Alice's cousin and the man who arranged the marriage in the first place. Kurt's entrance ignites the production, with Edgar laying into him at every opportunity and a web of deceits and deceptions forcing a rapidly changing set of alliances.

What happens in the play isn't that important: the plot is iffy, the conclusion disappointing, the story uninteresting-think Noel Coward with a mean streak. But just like with Coward, as long as the acting is up to snuff, it's impossible to resist this play for its verbal barrage and the malicious glee the characters find in inflicting petty-and not so petty-cruelties on one another.

And the acting is perhaps the best you'll see. A trio of South Coast Repertory founding artists do stunningly good work: Hal Landon Jr. plays Edgar, with Don Took as Kurt and Martha McFarland as Alice. It's easy to imagine that Landon, a veteran of lead roles at SCR, is making up for 20 years of playing Ebenezer Scrooge to middle-of-the-road Christmas audiences. He bites into the abhorrent character of Edgar with remarkable relish. As written, there's nothing subtle about Edgar, and Landon portrays him that way-no subtext, no depth, just a smirking, irascible bundle of bitterness, ragged edges and cruelty. It's an entirely unpredictable and completely engrossing performance. Anyone who has seen Landon act knows he's good; after seeing this Edgar, you know he's capable of comic brilliance.

Don Took thrives in Landon's shadow. His Kurt is disarmingly simple at first, but he slowly grows into a most eager participant in this battle of one-upmanship. Martha McFarland's subtle Alice has moments of poisoned sweetness but not the gusto for her husband's maliciousness.

Add to the acting Alexander's expertly paced direction and Angela Balogh Calin's creative set design (which subtly incorporates boxing motifs), and you get a winning production all around.

Given such greatness, it's still possible to feel cheated-not by the excellent production, of course, but rather by the curious choice of plays. Play Strindberg is Drrenmatt's most produced play in the English-speaking world (SCR first produced it in 1973, in a production that also starred Landon and Took), but it's hardly his best. His The Visit, which is about a vengeful millionaire who bribes the inhabitants of a village to put her former lover to death, is a disturbing condemnation of society. The Physicists indicts our insane thirst for weapons of mass destruction. Both plays are confrontational, dark and cynical; both are vastly superior in theme, ideas and language to Play Strindberg. Neither has been produced by SCR during its 36-year history.

It's far worse for Strindberg, whose work has never been produced at SCR. This from a playwright who ranks among the greatest dramatic innovators and experimenters. Ever. In fairness, his plays are windy and complicated, but the intense psychology of plays like The Fatheror Miss Julie or the absolutely mind-blowing imagery and symbolism of Dream Play or The Ghost Sonata ought to have piqued SCR's curiosity at some point.

It doesn't end there. SCR's familiarity with the giants of modern drama (beginning in 1880) is amazingly thin, with the most innovative and challenging dramatists virtually absent. Along with Drrenmatt and Strindberg, you'd have to add Luigi Pirandello (no productions); Bertolt Brecht (two non-musical productions, none since 1986); Samuel Beckett (one production, Waiting for Godot); Jean Genet (none); Eugene Ionesco (none); and Ibsen (the oft-produced A Doll's Houseand Hedda Gabler).

There's a similar syndrome in SCR's selection of great American playwrights. SCR launched its much ballyhood American Classics Series, for which they get lots of grant money to produce great American plays. Thus far, those plays have all been great: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Thornton Wilder's Our Town and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men-all great plays, all absolutely done to death. But you'll look in vain for Edward Albee (no productions) and O'Neill (two productions-neither his best or most provocative-A Moon for the Misbegottenand his only comedy, Ah Wilderness!).

There's nothing wrong with biases in programming-theaters thrive and die because of them. SCR founders Martin Benson and David Emmes are quite open about theirs: they love Anton Chekhov, Harold Pinter and George Bernard Shaw, three modern giants who have received 22 productions among them. They're not big fans of "experimental dramatists."

You can't fault Benson and Emmes for ignoring certain plays or playwrights. Nor can you fault those of us who wish this immensely talented and financially blessed theatrical giant would challenge themselves and us with an occasional reminder of the works that made the Giants of the Modern Stage true giants.

Play Strindberg at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through April 11. $18-$43.

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