March 25, 2023

"A Doll's House" is Chic But Underfurnished

Despite the projection of the date 1879 on the brick wall at the back of the Hudson Theatre, the new revival of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House could be taking place in some cool Brooklyn neighborhood today. For everyone on stage is dressed in hipster black outfits. Minimalism is so prioritized that there’s no set and no props, except for some wooden chairs. And when wanting to express deep frustration, its main character Nora just utters the word “Fuck.”

 As you might be able to tell, I wasn’t thrilled with British director Jamie Lloyd’s riff on this classic proto-feminist drama about a 19th century woman finding the courage to break out of the restrictions that society has imposed on her. 

Now I do appreciate the need for revivals to make old works relevant to modern times. Although I didn't see Lloyd's Cyrano de Bergerac, which played at BAM last year, I very much liked his production of Betrayal that ran on Broadway in 2019. Both of them shared the same stripped-down aesthetic as this new production does—and did so to general acclaim. But no one-size-fits-all approach works for every show. 

And alas, Lloyd is showing signs of becoming a straight-play version of John Doyle, whose innovation of having the actors in his musicals accompany themselves on instruments started out as a novel idea but eventually became an annoying gimmick. 

Another Lloyd tic seems to be the casting of famous screen actors in his productions. Tom Hiddleston anchored Betrayal, James McAvoy starred in Cyrano and now Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain is his Nora. Chastain's centrality to this production is on display even before the show starts: when audience members enter the theater, she’s sitting silently in one of the wooden chairs as a turntable revolves so that she can be seen—and photographed—from every angle.

The Juilliard-trained Chastain is a fine actress and she is compelling to watch here (click here to read more about her involvement in the project). She’s also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Arian Moayed as Nora’s husband Torvald and Okieriete Onaodowan as the bank officer Krogstad. 

But the way this production presents them seems less like an actual play than the showcase night at a drama school where the best students get to show off how much they've learned. 

Meanwhile, playwright Amy Herzog’s updated adaptation softens the alpha-male characters, leaving Moayed and Onaodowan adrift, unsure what beats to play. Adding insult to injury, poor Onaodowan has apparently been directed to deliver many of his lines upstage, facing the wall.

It also doesn’t help that the plot of A Doll’s House pivots around Nora’s forging a bank document because women in her day couldn’t take out loans unless they were signed by a male relative. That obviously poses a problem for any updating because, of course, women now have direct access to their own finances. 

I get that the loan restrictions could be a metaphor for current-day attempts to control what women can and can’t do with their bodies but having the action (or lack of action in this case) take place in some timeless limbo undercuts that connection.

But even more egregiously, Herzog’s script and Lloyd’s direction fail to show Nora's evolving consciousness as she transforms from a flighty trophy wife into a strong woman with a mind of her own. And since that's the whole point of the play, I’m going to have to count this version of it as a failure.

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