There’s a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde that goes, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
That kind of romantic cynicism seeps into the beachy blonde floorboards of American Players Theatre’s new production of “Creditors” in the Touchstone, running through Nov. 19.
In a 2008 translation by David Greig, August Strindberg’s 1888 drama charts how quickly what we do for love can become a weapon. Centered on a toxic trio of two men and a woman, the play mingles sex and power, manipulation, affection and revenge. It’s uncomfortable, especially when it feels most true.
Adolph, played by Marcus Truschinski with wild hair and a wooden crutch, is a young man in need of an idol. Sickly and suggestible, Adolph has recently abandoned a successful painting career after a “push” toward sculpture from a sinister new mentor, a guy with a tailored heather gray suit and calculating smile.
That’s Gustav, played with a vulpine sneer by James DeVita. He’s a real peach.
It takes little effort for Gustav to coax marital woes out of Adolph, planting in their place seeds of distrust that quickly grow into noxious weeds. As director Maria Aitken noted in a preshow interview, DeVita is very good telling lies onstage. And so he does.
Opposite these two, Tracy Michelle Arnold plays Tekla, Adolph’s vain, free-spirited wife. She’s a novelist on the rise and a bit older, and she has taken to calling him “little brother” as a weird pet name. In shades of her flamboyant Arkadina in “The Seagull,” Arnold’s Tekla is hungry for admiration. Her playfulness has an edge.
“Little brother’s talking nonsense again, isn’t he?” she simpers. “The silly idiot.”
Tense, interior plays like this serve the smaller Touchstone space, showing off the chemistry of performers who’ve worked together for years. Under Aitken’s direction, Truschinski, DeVita and Arnold keep the action tightly controlled, as Gustav insinuates himself into a marriage that’s already faltering.
“The last person a man should trust is his wife. Everybody knows that,” Gustav says. “A woman’s love consists in taking.”
Designer Robert Morgan created both the period costumes and the set, an understated lounge in front of a wispy curtain edged in lace. Textured blue on a screen at the back recalls the ocean, complemented by waves (and later, subtle heartbeats) from sound designer Lindsay Jones.
Strindberg is as much known for his play “Miss Julie” as his misogyny. The latter emerges most clearly in the character of Gustav, as well as how little Tekla is allowed to defend herself. The audience may squirm as DeVita delivers lines about “the male privilege of taking the initiative in the relationship” and “she wears the trousers.”
Without giving too much away, the ending of “Creditors” feels awkward, a reach toward melodrama that doesn’t quite pay off. But Greig’s translation is clear without diluting Strindberg’s ideas about the thorny give and take in an intimate relationship. We see how quickly, how drastically, that can turn sour.