Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 25, 2009
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. New adaptation by Christopher Shinn. Literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey. Directed by Ian Rickson. Set design by Hildegard Bechtler. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by John Gromada. Original music by PJ Harvey. Makeup & hair design by Ivana Primorac. Wig design by Peter Owen. Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Michael Cerveris, Paul Sparks, Peter Stormare, with Lois Markle, Ana Reeder, and Helen Carey.
With Parker’s Hedda prone to strangulated hissy fits and bulging-eyed appraisals of everything around her and Cerveris, playing Hedda’s new husband Jørgen Tesman, impersonating a tipsy forest sprite, these results are perhaps not so shocking. The dangers an impacts of personal neuroses, confusingly evolving sexual roles, and the stifling curse of domesticity must all be subservient to that favored topic of today’s artistic ruling class: the early-30s blahs.
It’s worth noting that this debilitating (but temporary) condition has always been implicit in Hedda Gabler. Tesman’s linked quests to complete his hopelessly dry book and obtain a well-paying professorship and Hedda’s discovery that married life is rather less than she’d imagined are obvious functions of young people struggling to discover their true identities in an uninterested world. The raw-skinned emotions, which kiss drinking binges, suicide attempts, and footsy games of varying degrees of severity, are believable responses from those still learning what the boundaries really are for themselves and others.
As Shinn himself is in his early 30s and has frequently explored similar issues in his own plays (if in darker, more modern contexts), his attraction to this play is not exactly surprising. But in punching up the dialogue to help free it from the overstuffed quality that affects many Ibsen translations, he’s rendered those alluring undertones so blindingly obvious that the larger questions can never exercise the power they should. As with his virulently one-sided 2007 antiwar play Dying City, he sees a lack of subtlety as its own reward.
Rickson apparently agrees, and has packed his staging alternately with jittery reflexes that match Shinn’s nimble verbalizing and portentously unfocused emptiness that doesn’t (but snugly fit into his revival of The Seagull earlier this season). Hildegard Bechtler has designed a spacious and promising manse of a set that lighting designer Natasha Katz has drowned in shrinking shadows, emphasizing the uneasy interplay at work. It’s as if everyone wants the weight, but doesn’t want to have to work for it.
So Hedda and Tesman’s marriage has “mistake” stamped on it from the opening minutes, the tenuousness of the couple’s feelings never in doubt. Sparks plays Ejlert Løvborg, Tesman’s mild-mannered professional rival, as one of his usual, nerdfully flighty Adam Rapp heroes, never evincing the threat that Hedda and Tesman supposedly perceive. Ana Reeder plays Løvborg’s current flame, Thea Elvsted, as such a bundle of stiff-backed worry, you never believe Hedda could see her as competition for Tesman.
Watching them trudge through their drudgery, beneath the volcano-visaged glare of the opportunistic Judge Brack (Stormare, munching most of his lines, but at least armed with the properly smoldering watch-and-wait temperament) is a largely voyeuristic experience, an advanced soap opera that never encourages or allows you to absorb anyone else’s troubles. In a play that leaves so much unspoken, even the slight degradation of conflicting emotions becomes devastating, but this production thrives on nothing else, settling for being a garden-variety nailbiter when it should be ready at any moment to cut you to the cuticles.
Of course, this production’s commitment to in-the-moment thrills does mean it plays grippingly well, especially in the go-for-broke second act when all the hard-boiled schemes and mind games force the characters to abandon their coy prancing and start walking on rusty razor blades. Especially if you’re not familiar with the narrative’s twists of fate and fortune, you’ll be energized by them here in a way far more primal than is usually the case. But beyond those basics, the actors and the play itself are astonishingly hollow.
Only Helen Carey, as Tesman’s aunt, who falls immediately afoul of Hedda despite her best efforts, makes an honest connection with her character’s hardships: Her tentative love for Hedda is palpable, her voice while trying to indoctrinate her into the family a music box of warmth tinged with arch worry, as if she knows what she’s getting into, but doesn’t care.
When Parker adopts that same attitude, she’s haughtily brilliant, letting Hedda’s high-born manner crack through a façade of humorous humility that’s been chained to a stone floor. But when she plays kittenish or coquettish, as she does far too often, she’s at her falsest, dumping herself into the same mannered, nasal unwatchability that characterized her last New York stage performance, in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Playwrights Horizons last year. That makes her character far more self-conscious than the independence-minded text has any hope of supporting.
Like Hedda, Parker cannot successfully revel in the artifice surrounding her. What both women need, and what they too seldom get, are respectfully oppressive men, the kind that understand and respect their woman but sometimes know when to leave well enough alone, who will push them into the regimented insanity in which so much of the play operates. Instead, they’re forced into a hyperextended adolescence, never allowed access to the potential freedom (and imprisonment) of modernity, and forced to be less intensely suffering adults than whiny college girls who just need to grow up.