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Jessica Chastain is already seated onstage, in character as Nora Helmer, when the audience starts filing in for A Doll’s House. Looking every inch the gorgeous, troubled trophy wife in a period-nonspecific black dress, her expression a mask of numb absence, she circuits the stage over and over on a slow turntable. She will rarely leave that chair over the course of this transfixing slow-boil take on the landmark Ibsen drama, which builds a bridge between its original 1879 setting and the present day in Amy Herzog’s laser-focused new modern adaptation.
Mounted with daring austerity even by the usual pared-down standards of director Jamie Lloyd, the production finds scorching intensity in stillness. Simple wooden chairs — plus the wheelchair used by actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who plays sickly cynic Dr. Rank with delicious bone-dry affectlessness and simmering sexual tension — are the only scenic or prop elements in the stark playing space. There’s no set to hide the bare brick walls and wings of the Hudson Theater stage.
Right up until a stunning coup de théâtre in the closing moments (no spoilers here), the sole directorial assists are audio of Nora’s unseen children; the frequent buzz of the doorbell, announcing visitors both welcomed and dreaded; unsettling ambient music by the great Ryuichi Sakamoto and German electronic composer Carsten Nicolai, who records as Alva Noto; and Jon Clark’s merciless lighting design, engulfing Nora in shadow as her world closes in on her.
The minimalism might look more like a rigorous acting exercise than a top-dollar Broadway revival, but peeling away the accoutrements to dig into the emotional and psychological subtleties of the text is Lloyd’s signature.
This staging is even more bare-bones than the director’s devastating revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, led by Tom Hiddleston and seen on Broadway in 2019; or his equally lauded take on Cyrano de Bergerac with James McAvoy, which played the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater last year. Both those productions transferred from London, while A Doll’s House — originally planned for the West End — is debuting on Broadway.
Herzog is one of the most perceptively humanistic American playwrights to emerge in the past 15 years, her sensitivity and gift for fine-grained portraiture on display in works like After the Revolution, 4000 Miles, Belleville and Mary Jane, the latter a wonderful vehicle for Carrie Coon in its New York premiere.
She deftly condenses Ibsen’s traditional three acts into an uninterrupted two hours that heighten the original playwright’s intention to show the ways in which a patriarchal society stymies women’s personhood. That applies here as much to the constricting covenant of a 19th century European marriage as it does to women all over the world today, still fighting for a seat at the table as equals.
The three acts may have been squeezed into one, but the ternary trajectory of Nora’s character remains sharply defined in Chastain’s performance. At first, she’s flighty, vain, coquettish, playing the role that’s expected of her. She’s thrilled with the new position of her husband Torvald (Arian Moayed) as bank manager, which will finally ease their money worries and permit her the materialistic pleasures she craves.
Occasionally adopting the tiniest hint of a simpering child’s voice to get what she wants, Nora seems only mildly irked by Torvald’s creepy, controlling side. He forbids her from eating sugar, supposedly out of concern for her teeth but more likely to keep his “sweet baby bird” petite. And his words when he gently chides her for expressing herself poorly — “That’s okay, you little lunatic” — speak volumes about his view of her intelligence.
What’s surprising is how far this production nudges Nora into self-absorbed, manipulative narcissism, courting antipathy rather than concern for her airless existence. She’s condescending and tactless with both her widowed, cash-strapped school friend Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze) and Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence), the nanny who raised her and now performs the same duties for her children.
Kristine bluntly observes that Nora is still a child, and there’s truth in that assessment of this coddled woman, infantilized first by her adored father and now by her husband. Nora mentions doing some needlework to help out financially during tough times, but she has no concept of how hard it’s been for Kristine, even if she does agree to put in a word for her with Torvald for a job. Herzog’s adaptation doesn’t soft-pedal Nora’s sense of privilege, relishing the sudden power Torvald has over an entire staff while at the same time mischievously yearning to tell her husband, “Fuck it all.”
Nora, Kristine and Anne-Marie all are women compromised by money in a society that expects them only to know how to spend it. It’s to Chastain’s credit that Nora’s obnoxiousness and insensitivity toward the other women’s difficulties don’t turn her own escalating problems into a schadenfreude moment. Ultimately, Nora’s abrasive edges are exposed as a painfully thin armor, which makes the unraveling of her security cut deeper — both for the character herself and for the audience.
Chastain finds every note of cruel humor in Nora’s initial complacency — she’s hilarious vowing not to make it all about her while catching up with Kristine, then proceeding to do exactly that. She bravely keeps up the façade of breezy confidence even as anxiety begins to needle away at her. Watching her break — her rehearsal for a dance Torvald insists she perform for friends at a party is like a seizure — and slowly rebuild herself with steely resolve once the soul-deadening reality of her marriage is exposed is thrilling.
The chief architect of her undoing is Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan), the bank employee who tries to blackmail Nora after losing his job. She illegally obtained a loan to pay for a recuperative trip to Italy when Torvald was in poor health, and when her deception first threatens to come to light, she naively believes her good intentions will spare her any harsh judgment. Onaodowan, from the original Hamilton cast, uses his physically imposing presence to strong effect without the need to loom over Nora. His words are unequivocal: “I’ll tell you this… If I’m thrown back into the dirt? You’re coming with me.”
When Nora’s powers of persuasion fail with Krogstad, she enlists help from Kristine, who has a past connection to him. And her plan to hit up Dr. Rank for the cash to cancel her debt falls apart when he confesses his feelings for her, at the same time revealing that his health has turned a last terminal corner.
Chastain is superb as Nora runs out of options, her mind ticking over every possible outcome until Torvald inevitably discovers her transgression and explodes with the moralistic imperiousness of a man far more concerned with public appearances than spousal loyalty. His sense of superiority is already clear earlier when he expounds loftily on the sickness of lies that can contaminate an entire home, tracing back every criminal tendency to a deceitful mother.
All this is consistent with Ibsen’s original text. But the soft-spoken intimacy of Lloyd’s production — the actors are miked, by necessity, to accommodate the approach — and the choice to have Nora pinned in place like a butterfly through every bristling encounter, ramps up the psychological stakes, making us squirm uncomfortably right alongside her. The director ably works the spatial dynamics by having the actors — mostly dispersed across the stage and grouped in tight pairs only as dictated by the script — assemble behind Nora like a jury.
Moayed (a first-rate theater actor most widely known as Stewy on Succession) makes Torvald’s judgmental tirade chilling, especially since it’s the sole time in the play when a voice is raised. He’s equally compelling when scandal is averted and Torvald bestows his forgiveness on Nora as if it’s a magnanimous gift. This is a man who sees himself as above reproach. His condescension makes it clear that remaining in the marriage will suffocate Nora; nothing she says to explain her radical exit plan can penetrate his obtuse conviction that being a husband means ownership.
Herzog can’t entirely avoid the didacticism of Nora’s awakening, which has its roots back in the Ibsen original. But that doesn’t make the final developments any less bracing. When Torvald proclaims that no man would sacrifice his dignity, even for the person he loves, he remains clueless that for many women, that’s an unwritten clause of the marriage contract. A Doll’s House was considered shocking in its day for showing Nora’s rejection of that trap. When she steps out of the Helmer home and quite literally into the 21st century in this boldly conceived, commandingly acted production, it’s both shattering and exhilarating.
Venue: Hudson Theatre, New York (through June 10)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Arian Moayed, Okieriete Onaodowan, Jesmille Darbouze, Tasha Lawrence, Michael Patrick Thornton
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Amy Herzog
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Set designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costume designers: Soutra Gilmour, Enver Chakartash
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto
Sound designers: Ben & Max Ringham
Production: The Jamie Lloyd Company
Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Wessex Grove, Julie Boardman, Hunter Arnold, Bob Boyett, Creative Partners Productions, Eilene Davidson Productions, Kater Gordon, Stephanie P. McClelland, Tilted, Caitlin Clements/Amanda Lee, Ted & Richard Liebowitz/Joeyen-Waldorf Squeri, Caiola Productions/Kate Cannova
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