A Doll’s House Review: Jessica Chastain Escapes Her Chair!

It’s too tempting to mock this austere version of Ibsen’s play as Broadway’s answer to the movie that just swept the Oscars. Call it: Nothing Nowhere With No Intermission! Jessica Chastain and the other actors wear hip black or midnight blue modern dress, and rarely move out of their chairs, which are the only objects on an otherwise empty black stage devoid of a set or props.  The only way we know it’s supposed to be 1879, is the projection of “1879” on the back wall.

Yet, despite my urge to scoff, I was won over by the end of this fourteenth Broadway production of “A Doll’s House,” running at Hudson Theater through June 10. Or, to be more precise, there are two main reasons I was happy to have attended director Jamie Lloyd’s often off-putting production — playwright Amy Herzog’s refreshingly idiomatic rewrite of the usual stodgy translations from Henrik Ibsen’s Norwegian, and Jessica Chastain’s performance in the last fifteen minutes of the play.

Before the play even begins, while we take our seats, Jessica Chastain sits on a chair rotating on a turntable, which brings the other actors on their chairs into view, a preview of the metaphor that dominates this production. The characters are forced to interact in an almost geometric pattern, suggesting that all their relationships are on the surface — transactional.  The director is restricting the actors’ ability to move in a natural way, or express themselves fully, just as women in particular (but men too) are restricted by cultural expectations, and also by the law. 

It takes Nora (Chastain) the whole play for her to realize the ways in which she is trapped by her marriage, by her life. But each of the characters in turn – in the turn of the turntable – illustrates this reality. 

This staging fits thematically with the financial transactions that both drive the plot and trap each of the characters. So – to give just two examples — Nora borrowed money from Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan) in order to finance a trip to Italy for her and her ill husband Tovald (Arian Moayed) in order to nurse him back to health, but forged her dying father’s signature in order to guarantee the loan. She is now subject to Krogstad’s blackmail. (Would she even have needed her father’s signature in a more equitable society?)   As it happens, Krogstad was once the paramour of Nora’s childhood friend Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze), but while Kristine cared for him, she left him for a man with more prospects, because she had an ill mother and two brothers to take care of. 

If the director’s approach has a certain illuminating, nearly mathematic logic to it, it (like the societal pressures for which it serves as a metaphor) comes at a cost.   The script has Nora as frivolous and materialistic at the outset, bubbling about how “I like to wear beautiful things,”  yet she’s wearing funereal-looking garb from the start and sitting in a plain, and plainly uncomfortable, straight-back wooden chair.  When the script calls on Nora to distract her husband by dancing the tarantella with increasing abandon, she does so (though it’s more like a seizure) but without ever standing up; she leaves her seat, yes, but only to writhe on the floor — hip-hop a century early?  Are these awkward incongruous moments meant to fit in with the director’s imposed metaphor, or are they a sacrifice to it? We are aware of the director’s heavy hand at almost all times.

Jamie Lloyd’s minimalist approach reminded me of Sam Gold’s, which is interesting for several reasons.  Although this is the first Broadway production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in a quarter of a century,  Lucas Hnath’s imaginative sequel “A Doll’s House Part 2” was produced on Broadway six years ago — a different play, although with three of the same characters – directed by Gold using a similar, though not as mannered, aesthetic. Gold also is married to playwright Amy Herzog. 

Herzog’s script is so tight that the running time is under two hours rather than the usual three (although that usually includes a couple of intermissions, omitted here.) This is not because any scenes are cut, but because she pares the lines down to the point.

Krogstad in a past translation says to Nora about himself: “A mere cashier, a quill-driver, a—well, a man like me—even he has a little of what is called feeling, you know.” In Herzog’s version, he says: “I may be a crooked loan shark, but I do have a heart you know.”

She brings to the task not just concision and precision, but a modern ear:

Nora in a previous translation: “I should just love to say—Well, I’m damned!”
In Herzog’s: “I’m just bursting to say… Fuck it all.” 

Herzog, who is making her Broadway debut, has been a playwright of note Off-Broadway whom I’ve admired for a dozen years, ever since After the Revolution and 4000 Miles; her most recent productions include Belleville,  about a troubled marriage, and Mary Jane,about  a single mother of a disabled child.  She seems the right playwright to have taken on Ibsen’s proto-feminist domestic drama. 

It’s harder for me to point with specificity to the strengths of the actors performing her script.  I’ve seen most of them before and been impressed. But how to assess Arian Moayed (The Humans, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) when he’s playing a smug, 19th century sexist who (most to the point) I don’t remember ever getting up from his chair? And I don’t know what to make of the director blocking the scene between Nora and Krogstad so that they’re seated back-to-back, which meant that Okieriete Onaodowan (Hamilton, Great Comet of 1812) was saying his lines to the back wall (rather than to the audience.) Only two actors seemed to hold their own against Lloyd’s ever-present direction. One is Michael Patrick Thornton, who portrays Dr. Rank, Torwald’s genial childhood friend and Nora’s secret admirer.  Thornton made his Broadway debut last year in “Macbeth,” directed by Sam Gold, who has made a point throughout his career of casting performers with disabilities.  Thornton is without question an appealing and talented actor, but I did wonder whether his use of a wheelchair was a particular advantage in this production, either because he’s more adept at performing while sitting, or because the audience is more ready to accept the restrictions on an actor’s movement when not imposed by the director.

And then there’s Jessica Chastain, the Juilliard trained, Academy Award winning actress, who took advantage of her experience acting in close-up (based on what I could distinguish of  her facial features from where I sat), and in modulating her voice. But, also, let’s face it, she’s a beloved movie star, and the audience is on her side from the get-go. When Nora leaves her husband, the audience was thrilled  — not just because of the unexpected coup de théâtre (which I won’t spoil), nor that Nora was asserting her independence but also, I suspect, because Chastain at long last was escaping her chair.

A Doll’s House
Hudson Theater throuogh June 10
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $132-$255. Digital rush: $35
Written by Henrik Ibsen “in a new version by Amy Herzog”
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Soutra Gilmour (scenic design and costume co-design), Enver Chakartash (costume co-design), Tony Award winner Jon Clark (lighting design), Drama Desk Award winners Ben & Max Ringham (sound design), with music from Ryuichi Sakamoto & Alva Noto, Jennifer Rias (dance choreographer),Cast: Jessica Chastain as Nora Helmer, Arian Moayed, as ‘Torvald Helmer,’ Jesmille Darbouze as ‘Kristine Linde,’ Tasha Lawrence as ‘Anne-Marie,’ Michael Patrick Thornton as ‘Dr. Rank,’ and Okieriete Onaodowan as ‘Nils Krogstad.’ The production’s understudies are Franklin Bongjio, Carey Rebecca Brown, Melisa Soledad Pereyra, and José Joaquín P

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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