A Doll's House review: Jessica Chastain works hard to bring a minimalist re-up to life
What gives art meaning, outside the framework of time? Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring famously caused riots when it premiered in Paris in 1913; four years later, Marcel Duchamp's sly, disruptive Fountain upended the idea of what a museum piece could be. Both are indisputable markers in our shared cultural history; stripped of their context, they are also, respectively, a heavy-mettle concerto and an autographed toilet.
When Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House debuted at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1879, it was both a scandal and a revelation: a proto-feminist thunderclap rained down upon the unsuspecting bourgeoisie of late-Victorian Europe. In the century and a half or so that followed, what was once a bombshell has become canon, performed not just on the world's biggest stages but by uncountable high schools and community-theater troupes — essentially anywhere a box of prop macarons and a pinafore could be found.
Its last Broadway revival, a West End import staged in 1997, took home four Tonys, including Best Actress for the towering Janet McTeer. The version that bows tonight at New York's Hudson Theater features an Oscar-winning movie star, Jessica Chastain (just last week, she had to jet out to Los Angeles during previews to pick up a SAG Award), in the central role of Nora Helmer, the flittering, coddled housewife who breaks free from her "doll life."
And it is very much built to showcase her: Director Jamie Lloyd's drastically stripped-down iteration features no sets other than a Spartan cluster of chairs and a spinning lazy Susan embedded in the floor, and the sleek, almost featureless costumes follow a sort of Everlane minimalism; even Ibsen's original text has been notably if not too disruptively updated, by the playwright Amy Herzog (4000 Miles).
Whether the work's central tenet — the radical idea that women are people too, deserving of life and liberty — remains the necessary subject of a major Broadway production in 2023 is a trickier thing. It's also hard to separate from the general fame-ringed bedazzlement of its star, who is already seated onstage, silent and resolute, when theatergoers enter the room. Soon the full cast of six materializes and she finds her voice as Nora, A middle-class Norwegian wife and mother basking in her family's newfound fortune: Her adoring husband Torvald (Succession's Arian Moayed) has been promoted to bank manager, and their budgeting days are over; now their three small children can have whatever they want for Christmas (and maybe something pretty for their mother, too).
Torvald scolds his "little bird" for overspending, then indulges her; how can he help but bend to her whims? (Besides, of course, the regular policing he does of her party-going and pastry consumption and general movements through the world.) What he doesn't know is that she's already borrowed heavily from a local part-time loan shark without telling him — in service of a recuperative trip to Italy that was strictly for his health, but still. Now that same shark, Krogstad (Hamilton's courtly Okieriete Onaodowan, eschewing easy villainy) is an employee he's about to let go from the bank as part of his new regime.
Whether Nora's deception will be revealed before she can convince a desperate Krogstad to withdraw his threats — and what will it do to her marriage if she can't — form the bulk of what follows, most of it executed on the Hudson's bare stage with a minimum of visual fanfare (chairs, lights, lazy Susan). Jesmille Darkbouze (Betrayal) is a restrained, elegant presence as Kristine, Nora's less fortunate childhood friend who comes looking for a few crumbs from Torvald's new bounty; Michael Patrick Thornton (great in Sam Gold's recent Macbeth) steals nearly every scene he's in as the ailing Dr. Rank, whom he plays as a sort of droll, damaged romantic.
It's not nothing to see two of these roles played by actors of color, and another who uses a wheelchair. But the person most ticket buyers will come to see sits center stage in a monkish midnight-blue dress, spinning a tizzied 19th-century spendthrift into being as best as she can. A protagonist who transforms so precipitously from scattered, manipulative naif to righteous freedom fighter in less than two hours onstage is an odd thing to pin down emotionally, and some of Lloyd's directing choices don't help: The language for the most part is breezily contemporary, and so is Moayed's Torvald, who speaks with the bright, sardonic inflections of a guy who seems like he would know what crypto is (in that sense at least, the casual misogyny still fits). But then the frightening sum Nora has borrowed is specified as…. [Dr. Evil voice] $4,800. So where exactly are we supposed to be, chronologically?
Chastain responds to the script's bumpier turns by treating certain lines of dialogue like free jazz, her delivery filagreed with eccentric staccato bursts of emphasis and omission. Others she drills down on with Juilliard precision; when tears fill her eyes and spill down her cheeks, it feels less like a party trick than a full-body act of will. Dramatic — some might call it startlingly abrupt — catharsis arrives in the last act (there is no intermission in the 110-minute runtime), along with a sleight-of-hand staging decision in the final moments that is truly, audaciously thrilling (reader, I gasped). By then, the little bird has found her wings and flown. Whether there's still fresh air to be found up there is a question this Doll, beyond its strenuously modern dress, mostly punts: The House has been remodeled, but the foundation rests. Grade: B–