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  • Jonathan Kalb

Waiting for Nora

Stripped-down productions of classics are pretty familiar to New York theatergoers. We’ve had Ivo van Hove’s provocatively barebones O’Neill, Williams, and Moliere at New York Theater Workshop; Tea Alagić’s sleekly distilled Romeo and Juliet at Classic Stage Company; Fiasco Theater’s cleverly compressed Into the Woods at the Laura Pels; and many more. I even remember a literally stripped Naked Macbeth at the Sonnet Theater. Any seasoned theater fan expects such experimentation, even honors it, in our small and noncommercial venues, but Broadway is a tougher sell. It takes a special sort of chutzpah to be severely Spartan where orchestra seats run north of $300.

The set for Jamie Lloyd’s new nouvelle-cuisine staging of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Hudson Theatre, starring Jessica Chastain, is basically a floor-turntable and a few wooden chairs. There are no props in this rendering of the naturalistic classic, and the costumes are essentially chic black office-casualwear. Even the script has been pared down (by the playwright Amy Herzog) to a punchy, essentialized, 110-minutes, presumably for maximum thrust and efficiency. The complete play runs more than 2 ½ hours. This is Ibsen tuned to the key of Beckett.

I was gripped by this experiment. I found Chastain’s performance canny and steely and rife with nuance. I also thought the bracing directness of all the emended character interactions focused and illuminated the play’s core questions in quirky and interesting ways. I can also easily see, though, that anyone not watching from amazing press seats like mine might not have appreciated all this because they didn’t have access to the nuance.

In 2020, Lloyd planned to stage Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of A Doll’s House with Chastain in London. Then the pandemic arrived and the project was reimagined with a female adaptor (Herzog) interested in retooling the work for the #MeToo era. The result is a meditative, savvy and fascinatingly self-conscious Doll’s House. I am sure there are folks seeing the play for the first time at the Hudson (scattered audience gasps at the climax suggest that), but to me the show feels primarily intended for those who know A Doll’s House well, and may even feel overexposed to conventional versions of it.

If you arrive early you can gaze at Chastain for 20 minutes during the preshow. She sits in a plain chair staring pensively ahead, legs crossed, arms folded, her long red hair neatly tied back, as the stage turntable spins her lazily around like a frozen Petit Four on a dessert tray, or a moody kid left behind on a carousel. Or something. She stays put in or near that chair for two hours, until the famous final exit when the character leaves her marriage. The point seems to be to isolate Nora and abstract her from any realistic detail that might steal focus from her precise actions and reactions at the play’s pivotal moments. In this spirit, every entrance and exit, and particularly every approach to and retreat from her, is precisely calibrated—sometimes to powerful effect.

Her back visibly stiffens, for instance, after her tough old friend Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze) belatedly takes a seat beside her, interrupting her self-involved chatter to blurt out, “you’re basically still a child.” The intensity of this stiffening reaction is all the more noticeable and important without a fancily decorated living room to distract us. Chastain’s Nora has a solid core of self-respect to begin with, we understand. Another example is when Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan) explains his intention to blackmail Nora. Onaodowan faces upstage, never showing his face while delivering this speech so the only expressions we see are hers, and she is unforgettably ashen. Again, the shock of Nora’s learning is framed as the deservedly exclusive focus—all else is distraction.

The most fascinating and revealing device of this kind comes when Nora becomes reluctant to see her children after Torvald (Arian Moayed) scares her with his remark, “lies contaminate the entire home.” There are no child actors in Lloyd’s show—the kids are played only as voice-overs. Thus, no realistic cooing or petting or irresistibly cute little bodies muddy the troubled waters of Chastain’s storm of self-doubt here. Her worry is exposed in all its raw isolation, becoming particularly poignant in Nora’s brief nonverbal exchange with the nurse Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence).

There is a cost to all this precise calculation, of course, which leaves little room for actorly spontaneity. The physical distances on the large stage don’t help either. The cast’s head mics do amplify their quiet voices, but the end effect of that is more like a reference to intimacy than a convincing impression of intimacy. Interestingly, with the half-dozen actors dressed all in black and often casting sharp shadows on the bare stage walls, I was reminded of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is also a melodramatic family story blended with philosophical reflections about the distinction between actors and characters. Perhaps a double-reality of that sort was Lloyd’s aim with this show, which has the trappings of a workshop without a workshop’s lightness or looseness.

The actor-friend who saw this Doll’s House with me said it reminded him of a few productions he has worked on in which the spontaneous first-day table-read turned out to be the best performance the cast ever gave. There’s a dreamy quality to the show, methodical as it is, that suggests a quixotic effort to bottle some precious creative lightning. Whatever the truth of that, the experiment seems to me worthwhile.

If you attend, watch Chastain closely at the climax, at the crucial point of no return when Torvald irredeemably humiliates and degrades himself, raging (in Herzog’s pithily coarse words), “You stupid bitch!” Soon after that (spoiler alert!), she walks out the loading bay of the Hudson Theatre onto brightly lit 45th Street and disappears. No other Nora I’ve seen has more movingly conveyed the terrible experience of love melting instantaneously away into a puddle of lukewarm regret.

Photos: Courtesy of A Doll's House

A Doll's House By Henrik Ibsen

A New Version by Amy Herzog Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Hudson Theatre

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