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Two Manipulators Vie For Control Of A Man's Life In Razor-Sharp 'Creditors'

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It's a good week for new adaptations of classic plays in L.A. On the east side, Antaeus has their terrific production of Corneille's The Liar, while on the west side we're treated to the L.A. premiere of David Greig's adaptation of August Strindberg's Creditors. With its combination of wit and cruelty and theme of how badly people treat each other, this 1888 play feels like something freshly written by Neil LaBute. The new co-production by the New American Theatre and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is superb, a razor-sharp drama highlighted by Jack Stehlin's devilishly entertaining performance.

Painter Adolph (Burt Grinstead) hasn't been feeling very well, so he's taken to a seaside resort to recuperate. His wife Tekla (Heather Anne Prete) has left him on his own for a few days, which is when he meets the friendly older gentleman Gustav (Stehlin). Gustav is sympathetic and full of helpful advice, explaining how painting is an exhausted art form, which leads the malleable Adolph to take up sculpture instead. As the days go by, Gustav challenges Adolph's belief in Tekla and their marriage, declaring that she has destroyed him and that he must regain himself. Then Tekla returns, and the games really begin.

Stehlin has been a consistently excellent actor for a long time, but he tops himself here, delivering a master class of how to portray a manipulative character exactly right. He plays Gustav as calm and eminently reasonable, someone only there because of his concern for Adolph. But as Adolph suffers, Gustav clearly thrives. This is an assured and powerful performance, one of the best to be seen on L.A. stages this year. Grinstead is very good in the less showy role of Adolph, and he makes the character's suggestibility and weakness believable and tragic. Finally, Prete excels as the vain and somewhat controlling Tekla, someone who can easily dominate poor Adolph but who has met her match in Gustav.

Director David Trainer knows that this play is an exercise in tension and so successfully goes for the slow build, focusing almost entirely on the performances and letting the actors gleefully turn the screws tight. David Greig's adaptation isn't a modernization but a respectful and effective representation of Strindberg's work, and the English-speaking theatre community should be grateful for it. Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes are elegant, and Thomas A. Walsh's set has the dreamy feel of a Gauguin painting. Fans of classical theatre and great acting should definitely check out this outstanding production.

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"Creditors" plays at the Odyssey Theatre through Dec. 15. Tickets are available online.

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