Experiencing Henrik Ibsen’s riveting new revival of “A Doll’s House,” which reduces the iconic proto-feminist drama to its basic thematic elements, is no different than listening to a podcast.
For anyone interested in Broadway trends, here’s a remarkable example of how the rise of Audible and Airpods, and the huge popularity of stories played in your ear, have made the show not only essential, but even an unnecessary risk. Even in broadwaywho made their bones into frills and feathers.
In fact, you could close your eyes for much of this show, which stars Jessica Chastain and Arian Moayed (Stewy in “Succession”) and still catch most of the ideas of the adapter, Amy Herzog, and British director Jamie Lloyd. Only in the surprise ending, and the final dramatic blow is not the famous slamming door, that does not apply.
The actors wear microphones inches from their lips, allowing the show to be even more conversational than actual conversation. The actors are dressed in black tones and there is no physical business: it does not matter if we talk about letters ex machina or cut wedding rings, the action of this famous naturalistic work is described simply verbally. She is asked to see him in his mind’s eye.
The actors barely move; Chastain’s Nora sits through most of the play as a record player brings with it her husband, her flirtatious old friend (Dr. Rank, played by Michael Patrick Thornton), the babysitter who cares for their children (Anne-Marie, played by Tasha Lawrence) and the two characters who are disrupting Nora and Torvald’s hollow marriage, Krogstad (Okierete Onaodowan) and Kristina Linde (Jesmille Darbouze).
A formidable actress of stage and screen, Chastain is asked to perform with the intimacy of a close-up on film, but also live in the massive Hudson Theatre, an exciting fusion. It’s the same with everyone: Onaodowan and Thornton’s performances are driven almost entirely by their voices.
Point? To remove unnecessary clutter, I suppose, and embellishments of original location (Scandinavia) and period (1879). This show, which has no intermission, is not a deconstruction in the common sense these days of criticizing old material while trading on its popularity. Lloyd is not after Ibsen or this canonical work in that sense; rather, he clearly wants to allow his words to float in time, perhaps to make the audience reflect on the unfortunate level of support they might find in their own relationships or, since the plot revolves around the old crimes of counterfeiting signatures, reflect on the presence. of hypocrisy in past and present societies.
In “A Doll’s House,” cornered men squirm like frightened rats in a trap. This production highlights that it is not necessary to see much to know.
The strengths of the show? Depth of intimacy. There’s something very striking about hearing these famous old lines given this kind of immediacy. The cast is comprised of highly skilled and experienced actors and it’s truly something to hear how well they all handle the need for dramatic tension to build up in their mouths, even if their bodies often seem to writhe against their own director’s constraints. The piece is not boring: it has weight, power and seriousness. And, at times with Chastain, Nora’s mental pain (and Herzog’s clever adaptation focuses heavily on the main character’s mental health) spills over onto the actress’s tear-stained face.
If you’re a fan of Chastain’s work, this isn’t something you’ll miss, if only to see how she builds to the outside from inside a theatrical, marital box.
Shows like these always raise the valid question of whether Broadway dollar-spending audiences are content with so little to see, even though there’s plenty to feel and hear here. Sometimes directors who seek to peel more and more layers of a dramatic character’s onion, always in search of the primitive, go too far for ordinary people to pay their bills. There are so many stories; how they have been framed over the years really matters. Clutter can matter; it allows the audience to find their own way without holding hands with a director.
But while I don’t think this show would have been as audience-pleasing a decade ago, cultural delivery systems have changed. And this one, about a hitherto complacent woman facing a crisis and taking charge of her own destiny for the first time, lands right on your ear.