August Strindberg’s “cynical life” one-act Playing with Fire is a powder keg of emotional repression: Newt (Nathan James), a rich but unsuccessful painter, has never cared more than passingly for his wife Kerstin (Toccarra Cash). They remain cordial to each other but turn elsewhere for love and lust. Knut satisfies himself with cousin Adele (Jaleesa Capri), while Kerstin pines for their old friend Axel (James Edward Becton). For an hour or so before breakfast is served, the four play at betrayal and toy with the possibility of major life changes, while, for the most part, refraining from treating any of it seriously. An excess of money allows them the time and the safety of these games without any of the consequences.
The newly launched August Strindberg Repertory Theatre has joined with the Negro Ensemble Company for this, their inaugural production, and while they should be praised for the unusual choice of Playing with Fire, there is little else to recommend the show. Updated and relocated to 1920s Martha’s Vineyard, adaptor Leslie Lee has inserted a series of references to Black class dynamics that are awkward and forced. Occasionally, Newt’s mother (Elizabeth Flax) will allude to the NAACP or to acquaintances who have decided to pass, but the addition of race commentary is not earned; it is too sporadic and plays like an afterthought—it has not been seriously integrated into Strindberg’s original text.
All of which is moot, since the cast is horrendous enough to take down even the best conceived productions. Mr. James is so transparently false that we cringe every time he walks onstage. He is shockingly bad, striking unnatural, uncomfortable-looking poses and emphasizing his double entendres as if he were appearing in a children’s television show. It is a performance that could only charitably be called acting. Mr. Becton only fares slightly better—while delivering his lines, he alternates between impersonating a human being and HAL-9000. Meanwhile, Ms. Cash does her best Mae West impression, which is about as sexy as Mae West was in the first place.
Playing with Fire is a disaster. Let’s hope that the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre fares better next time. Because this is amateur hour at the New School.