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Like Albee's George and Martha, Strindberg's Edgar and Alice are a married couple in the throes of mortal combat. "Dysfunction" is way too mild a term for the workings of their relationship. As with George, Edgar looked like a good bet in his early days. But his career has come up snake eyes, and now he's sinking into senescence with nothing to ease the way but alcohol and a finely tuned cussedness. Like Martha, Alice took the bet on Edgar when she was a sought-after young thing. Losing both bet and youth hasn't been fun. The two of them live together in a tangle of rage and dependence, united only by their willingness to tear a new one in the psyche of anyone foolish enough to get between them.
Thing is, though, this 114-year-old play anticipates not just a single Albee script but a good chunk of modern Western theater. Its savagery is Pinterian, its bleak tenderness Beckettian, its ability to go completely yet somehow precisely over the top savors to me of Ionesco. And I can see why McPherson felt strongly enough to create this version of it, inasmuch as it resonates with the same odd compassion that made Writers' recent production of his own Port Authority so powerful.
Director Henry Wishcamper brings out everything that's in there, vividly, thanks to the consummate expertise of his three-member cast. Certainly, Shannon Cochran and Larry Yando stop at nothing as Alice and Edgar, making The Dance of Death a tango, a jig, and a waltz by turns. But the real revelation here may be Philip Earl Johnson's performance as Kurt, he whose psyche is torn a new one. Especially as it's conceived at Writers, the role requires Johnson to leave blood on the floor, and he quite literally, quite shockingly does.
Through 7/20: Tue-Wed 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM, Writers Theatre, 664 Vernon Avenue, Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$70.