Theater audiences are used to writers taking the classics and completely overhauling them. Last month, Off Broadway saw the openings of Thomas Bradshaw’s “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY” and Marcus Gardley’s “Black Odyssey.” And next month on Broadway, the Bard’s moody Dane is transported to a backyard barbecue in the Deep South in James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fat Ham.” Playwrights may call these updated rewrites “adaptations” of the originals, but, for the most part, they are simply “inspired by.”
Amy Herzog calls her adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” “a new version” of the classic, but curiously leaves the title unchanged. The radically reworked play opened Thursday at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre and stars Jessica Chastain in the role of Nora, the subservient and duty-bound wife who abruptly leaves her husband and children in the final scene.
The challenge of “A Doll’s House” has always been how to make that drastic transition from submissive to defiant in only three hours. Chastain, Herzog and director Jamie Lloyd do it by making it clear from the get-go that their newly headstrong Nora is determined to walk out in only two hours with no intermission.
Under her coquettish façade, Nora has always been a schemer, even before Herzog got to her. She’s a married woman with kids in 1879 – the year of the play’s first production is emblazoned on the upstage wall of the Hudson Theatre – and the only way Nora can get what she wants is to lie and impersonate a cute baby doll to both encourage and distract Torvald, her male chauvinist husband.
Putting aside for a moment Lucas Hnath’s sequel “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the last Broadway production of Ibsen’s play was presented in 1997 and starred Janet McTeer, who delivered a Nora ditzy and devious enough to star in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” That novel approach took some real acting to make convincing Nora’s big walkout at the end.
If McTeer impersonated Lucille Ball, then Chastain gives us Susan Hayward, and Herzog might consider renaming her new version “I Want to Leave!” or “Smash-Up, The Story of a Broken Doll.” Chastain coos and whistles like a little canary to seduce her husband in this production’s opening moments, but she lets us know that Nora knows that she’s merely play acting to manipulate Torvald.
Much later, Nora tells Torvald that she has never been happy, only “cheerful.” The one thing Chastain never is is cheerful. From her opening scene, she’s troubled, moody and distraught in the most glamorous old Hollywood fashion. Plus, she cries even more than Hayward ever did. Those tear gates are something to behold. Chastain’s eyes shed so much liquid that the actor has a problem drying her face in scenes where Nora’s not in a total panic.
While Hayward had composers like Alex North and Frank Skinner to cue her every anguished expression, Chastain gets similar support from an original score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. What this duo has written is a heavy, ominous dirge that begins even before the show starts: theatergoers entering the Hudson Theatre see Chastain seated on a chair (very Ikea) on a revolving turntable; she circles alone on stage before the rest of the ensemble gradually begins to join her there.
Other than the music and Chastain’s extremely emotive performance, Jamie Lloyd’s direction is a parody of minimalism in the theater. Props are banished. A few minor characters have been dropped. The actors all wear black (very Banana Republic), the costumes designed by Soutra Gilmour and Enver Chakartash. Gilmour’s set is not really a set, but an empty stage that has been painted the ubiquitous black, with a band of white spread across the bottom of the upstage brick wall so that Jon Clark’s severe lighting can occasionally throw the actors’ silhouettes against it. When the music isn’t cueing the portentousness of it all, huge banks of lighting equipment are lowered and then raised to signal ever more impending doom.
Film actors who appear on stage are often accused of not knowing how to walk or what to do with their hands. Lloyd handles movie star Chastain by having her remain seated for almost the entire performance. The Juilliard-trained actor sits with real finishing-school polish, except when Nora practices her costume-ball dance for Torvald. She’s seated for this jig, but quickly turns herself into a frenzied marionette that eventually falls to the floor, where she breaks into a spasmodic fit not seen since Harrison Ford retired Daryl Hannah’s replicant in “Blade Runner.”
Lloyd also has a novel way of handling child actors: Nora’s children don’t appear; rather, we hear only their voices (no actors are credited for these recordings) and Chastain addresses them by staring out over the audience as she wipes away yet more tears.
While we’re on the subject of amplification, this “Doll’s House” takes it to a whole new level for plays on Broadway. It wasn’t that long ago that little floor mics were discreetly placed downstage. Now, it is common for actors to wear head mics, the wires sticking out of their necks like puppet strings. Lloyd’s production is the first I’ve seen on Broadway where the actors in a play wear those rock-concert around-the-jaw mics, which here have been taped to the side of their cheeks. With Chastain crying so much, it’s a wonder her device doesn’t spring loose. In this “Doll’s House,” the actors often communicate with each other through mere whispers, which have all the immediacy of the sound on your TV set. (It’s doubtful the Hudson Theatre is doing a brisk business in renting out listening devices.)
The effect on stage of all this amplification is a kind of disembodiment that turns the other characters into mere figments of Nora’s imagination. The cast circles around its lead player, often standing still in bizarre geometric shapes (very Busby Berkeley) as the revolving stage does the work of walking for them.
Except for one outburst late in the play, Arian Moayed delivers a very subdued Torvald. He nicely underplays every note of egregious condescension. Nora’s husband is still a jerk, but now he’s a most civilized jerk. With a little work, any woman could turn him into another Chris Hayes.
The performances of Jesmillel Darbouze (Kristine), Tasha Lawrence (the nanny), Michael Patrick Thornton (the doctor) and Okieriete Onaodowan (Nils) are also understated. In fact, they’re so understated that they’re nearly interchangeable with each other. No one on stage needs to move much or raise his or her voice. Now and then, the actors softly mutter one of Herzog’s pithier phrases – stuff like “work like a dog” or “kernel of truth” or “he’s wasted” or “I’ll take you up on that” or “what’s going on with you?”
This modern slang is uttered with such casual, comic flatness that it inspires appreciative guffaws from the audience.