Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 9, 2023
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jesmille Darbouze, Tasha Lawrence, Arian Moayed, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Michael Patrick Thornton
Theater: Hudson Theatre, 141 W 44th St, New York NY
The famous and frequently produced 1879 play has been considered for a long time to be a prototypical feminist work. If you should be in need of a plot brush-up, here's a quick synopsis. The marriage between Nora (Chastain) and Torvald (Arian Moayed, appropriately chauvinistic) functions quite well so long as everyone fits in with the expectations of a male-dominated world. Their three children are watched over by their nanny, while Torvald takes care of business and Nora spends her time on frivolous matters, like shopping. He calls her by a variety of pet names, "pet" being the operant word; in this version, she is frequently his "bird," or "songbird" or "birdie." Nora has been content to go along with this, for she has learned to play her role well and to her advantage. But gradually, she comes to realize that she has lost any sense of herself through most of her life, existing solely to please first her father, and then her husband. In the end, she finds she has no option other than to leave the security of her gilded cage and take flight.
What Amy Herzog's script does is to strip the story to the bones and basically set things up into two acts. In the first, we see Nora as the "birdie," using her good looks, her coy charm, and not a small amount of self-centered attitude to wrap Torvald around her little finger. And while there is no intermission or pause to formally designate separate acts, the entire tone shifts in the second half as Nora grows in self-awareness, through to her determination to stand on her own two feet, a point that is most emphatically and literally delineated in the staging.
But regardless of the reshaped script and the solid cast, it is Jamie Lloyd's vision that guides every bit of this production. Take Soutra Gilmour's set design. There basically is none to speak of. Just a few chairs that move on and off a turntable as characters are shifted about in order to interact in various configurations: back-to-back, adjacent, facing one another, and, in one particularly effective moment, sharing the same seat. If you happened to have seen Lloyd's production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal in 2019, you'll have seen this approach already. One significant variation is this: Enter the theater up to 20 minutes before the play begins and you will see Chastain seated on one of these revolving seats. She barely shifts her body the whole time, looking rather like a life-size doll propped up and moving around and around on some abandoned amusement park ride. It's actually kind of scary to watch.
To add to the overall tone, Lloyd has tapped composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto to provide a funereal soundscape, while co-costume designers Enver Chakartash and Gilmour have draped everyone in black, black, and more black. The only exception to the Nordic cold is family friend Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton), who confesses to being in love with Nora but who also happens to be on death's door. So much for a romantic subplot.
Much of Nora's transformation is triggered by a melodramatic thread that involves an unscrupulous loan shark (Okieriete Onaodowan) and an old acquaintance (Jesmille Darbouze), both of whom show up in time to push Nora over the edge and into a meltdown. Rounding out the cast is Tasha Lawrence as Anne-Marie, the competent nanny who helped raise Nora and who will now take over the care of her children after she's gone.
Many undoubtedly will want to attend A Doll's House in order to see Jessica Chastain's performance. Some will be intrigued by the subject matter or will be interested in this variation on a theme by Ibsen. Regardless, it is difficult to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the heavy-handedness of the production. Frankly, I'd rather see a revival of Lucas Hnath's funny and cleverly conceived "sequel," A Doll's House, Part 2.