A DOLL’S HOUSE, A Director’s Choice — Review


Jessica Chastain | Photo: Emilio Madrid

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 9, 2023 8:30 PM

The date ‘1879’ is projected twice, boldly, across the Hudson Theatre’s bare stage, where Amy Herzog’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s landmark of naturalism, A Doll’s House, is being directed by Jamie Lloyd. The knowledge of that year, which marks both the play’s premiere and setting, proves itself essential to hold onto in a production that makes great strides towards feeling like it takes place far past its origin—so far past, in fact, that it seems to transcend a time when humans roamed the earth. With its lead confined to a chair for almost all of its near-two-hour runtime, this misguided, if compelling, staging is practically post-apocalyptic. Its motion restricted and its urgency mostly cooled to a whisper, the effect is closer to that of an audiobook than to the proto-feminist play which prompted a critic to famously describe its door-slamming ending as one that “reverberated across the roof of the world.”

Rather, Lloyd banks on the somewhat facile choice to keep Nora Helmer—a middle-class wife and mother whose status and material comfort is threatened by the possible revelation of a fraudulent act she’d committed to save her husband Torvald’s life—seated and therefore merely reactive to those around her. What little movement there is carefully choreographed by Jennifer Rias, and Soutra Gilmour’s scenic design features no props or backdrops, only a handful of chairs.

Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain | Photo: Emilio Madrid

The spartan choice leads to an over-reliance on the face. With the valiant and endlessly emotive Jessica Chastain as Nora, this is not a terrible proposition. Before the play even begins, the chair she sits on spins around on a turntable, her eyebrow arched with puzzlement and disdain. As we learn of Nora’s noble deeds, made reckless by the fickleness of time, Chastain takes us through a cavalcade of pride, humility, resolve, and degradation in immaculate close-up. Her fine, articulate face is made to carry the entirety of the play’s emotions, and she pulls off this Sisyphean task to the best of her abilities—considering.

Because, without the possibility of a flailing arm, or a pacing body moving restlessly through its space, Lloyd’s production substitutes anxiety for absolute dread; perhaps a reality that is emotionally truthful and to-the-point for its characters, but not an engaging one for its audience. Sure, it makes Arian Moayed’s Torvald feel like a fresh take on the “nice guy” whose selfishness is masked by politeness, but the experiment seldom feels like more than just that, and one taken at the expense of the very human drama Ibsen unfolds.

The effect works best with Okieriete Onaodowan, whose businessman Nils Krogstad represents the only link between Nora’s past lies and possible future collapse. His restraint seems at odds with his character’s immediately precarious livelihood, but soon reveals itself to be a chilling resignation to the inevitable result of capitalist determinism. His calm voice has no room for pride when he tells Nora that this last year his has been lived honestly, through scrupulous business deals; he knows he will remain at the bottom all the same. 

Arian Moayed and Jessica Chastain | Photo: Emilio Madrid

As his former lover, and Nora’s renewed acquaintance, Kristine, Jasmine Darbouze also benefits from the production’s subtler moments. There is still no accounting for Michael Patrick Thornton who, as the Helmers’ close friend Dr. Rank, does not enunciate above a mutter—an ASMR imitation of a stage performance—and Tasha Lawrence’s role, as the maid, has been unfortunately diminished to the point of near-invisibility.

There production places too heavy an emphasis on the intimacy of conversation, where A Doll’s House should concern itself with appearances—the relationships we have with ourselves and others. Here, we are merely told of cigars lit, damning letters read, street coats being unexpectedly donned. Lloyd’s final directorial choice is a masterclass in unearned bravado; one that, with its self-conscious showiness, undermines the dramatic force Ibsen and Chastain have managed to summon. It’s their power against his, and though this peculiar revival offers its fair share of treasures, they are better off taking Nora’s route.

A Doll’s House is in performance through June 10, 2023 at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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