What wisdom could an old, white, 19th-century Norwegian man possibly have to impart about the psychology of marriage and a woman’s emancipation from expected social norms? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Henrik Ibsen, considered by many as one of the most influential playwrights of all time, is currently represented on Broadway in a revival of his classic play, A Doll’s House.
Jamie Lloyd directs a figurative and literal bare-bones version that has been pruned with careful thought by Amy Herzog. Herzog herself is making great strides in the American theater, having been a Pulitzer prize finalist and earning numerous other accolades.
With A Doll’s House, she was tasked with a huge undertaking: trim excess from a classic play. Certainly, there are reasons why great works endure. If we’re willing, they leave us with life lessons and offer a mirror for the human condition. But they are also incredibly chatty. Sensibilities have shifted drastically within the last five years, so one can only imagine how verbose a play from 1879 could be.
With all due respect to drama’s “father of realism,” it took a woman to convey all that needed to be said in a fraction of the time. Usually, the three-act play clocks in well over two hours. Herzog has whittled it down to just under two intermission-less hours.
Oscar winner Jessica Chastain, last seen on Broadway in a 2012 revival of The Heiress, stars as Nora Helmer, a mother of three and wife to Torvald (Arian Moayed, Succession), a bank manager who dotes on Nora and refers to her as his “little bird” (a clever irony that birds mature and fly away).
Within the first few minutes, Torvald is mildly scorning Nora for having spent too much money on Christmas gifts. Chastain’s restrained but yearnful delivery makes it painfully obvious that Nora wants out of the marriage.
Between the affluent and now dying Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton), who has confessed his unrequited love to Nora, a widowed friend, Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze), who is seeking a job to help support her family, and Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan), an unscrupulous employee at Torvald’s bank, there is more tension and mystery than exists in a film-noir story.
This is presumably the goal of Lloyd’s production. Gone is the grand, well-furnished, Victorian home. Gone are the props and accessories that should inhabit such a palace. Gone are ladies’ ornate dresses and well-tailored suits that men of this pedigree would adorn. On Soutra Gilmour’s set, we are left with an empty stage, enhanced with a turntable — and a cast dressed completely in contemporary black clothes.
Although effective, one must wonder why two costume designers (Gilmour and Enver Chakartash) are credited in the program. To quote This is Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnel, “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”
There is little humor to be found in this tale of an unraveling marriage. Any moments of audience laughter are at the expense of Torvald, who is blissfully ignorant that he is suffocating his spouse. There is also some unexpected laughter from the play’s ending, an unfortunate directorial choice that might have seemed effective in theory but lacks emotional punch in execution.
Lloyd has assembled a stellar cast, all of whom — including Tasha Lawrence, who rounds out the cast as the Helmer’s housekeeper Anne-Marie — are in sync with his style and delivery. Theatergoers may recall his 2019 revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal — another minimalist production that left Broadway rapt and riveted.
Here, Lloyd and Herzog never underestimate the intelligence of their audience. Neither does this taut company, who navigate the work like tightrope walkers
Diehard fans of Jessica Chastain may be taken aback by the stark production. Yet she proves that she is equally as comfortable and as powerful on stage as she is on screen. For avid theater fans, A Doll’s House is a delicious feast. For those seeking lighter fare, Broadway is rife with alternatives.
A Doll’s House runs through June 4 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th St. Call 855-801-5876 or visit www.adollshousebroadway.com.
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