NEW YORK — CREDITORS Play by August Strindberg, translated by Paul Walsh. Directed by Carey Perloff. At CSC Theatre through March 8.
ASSORTED influences inform "Creditors," the terse, tense 1888 Strindberg drama now being revived by CSC Repertory. Relevant externals range from the playwright's persisting marital problems to his interest in contemporaneous studies of human behavior. The elements are compressed into a 90-minute misanthropic work designed to be performed without intermission. Donald Eastman's spare white cubicle of a set provides a symmetrical enclosure for the uneven contest of wills culminating in the collapse of a mar riage and the destruction of its male partner.
"Creditors" moves forward through a series of mostly two-way conversations in which Gustav (Zach Grenier), a professor of dead languages, succeeds in destroying the marriage of his former wife, Tekla (Caroline Lagerfelt), a novelist, to Adolf (Nestor Serrano), a successful painter-turned-sculptor.
In the opening conversation, Gustav sets about cruelly and deliberately to demean and diminish the highly vulnerable Adolf. The interloper combines brutal frankness with a professed concern for Adolf's well-being. But the victim's suggestibility and weakened physical state cannot withstand the relentless verbal onslaught.
"You have left everything in ashes," he laments, my art, my love, my hope, my faith."
In an advisory to reviewers, CSC artistic director Carey Perloff cites an 1896 letter from Strindberg to Siri von Essen, who created the role of Tekla in the premiere of "Creditors" and whose marriage to the playwright had already broken up. Strindberg advised that the work "should be played 'in the manner of a boulevard comedy, delicately, softly, and 'elegantly.' " In his English translation, Paul Walsh has furnished director Perloff and the CSC cast with a crisp, graceful text that responds to Strindb erg's concept.
As the two men in the case, Mr. Grenier and Mr. Serrano provide the prelude to Adolf's final collapse. Even in his ironies, Grenier presents Gustav as the relentless aggressor, the kind of man who gives no quarter and takes no prisoners. Serrano personifies Adolf's fears, regrets, and jealousies - along with belief in himself as an artist. Ms. Lagerfelt's Tekla enters the scene for a tte-a-tte with Gustav which is overheard by Adolf from an adjoining room.
Although Gustav is the initial aggressor, the inconstant Tekla gradually becomes part of the conspiracy as Gustav exploits their past relationship in the pursuit of his present purposes. The handsome Lagerfelt creates a striking portrait of a 19th-century bourgeoise who combines the roles of temptress and tempted as she pursues her amoral ways with the rationale that her heart "is open to all."
The physical production responds almost literally to Strindberg's specifications: "three persons, one table, two chairs and no sunrise." Indeed, there is no sunrise on the CSC stage. The world outside the Swedish seaside resort hotel gradually darkens as the shadows gather around the wretched Adolf.
The conscientious CSC collaborators include lighting designer Frances Aronson and costumer Candice Donnelly. The CSC revival is an ensemble achievement that gives Strindberg's misanthropy its full due.