Hedda Gabler: The Funniest, Smartest Girl in Town or What?

The new production of Hedda Gabler with Kate Burton achieves something that nobody has thought of doing in theater history. It has turned Henrik Ibsen into a comedian.

No doubt old Henrik was capable of a light moment or two as the Norwegian nights were drawing in in Christiana. But the view that his dark, great masterpiece about one of the most fascinating and destructive heroines in all of drama amounts to a drawing-room comedy would surely leave any quite sane person reeling. God knows where it leaves Ibsen.

I’ll come reluctantly to Ms. Burton’s game, inadequate Hedda when my murderous mood has passed. Nicholas Martin’s woefully provincial production at the Ambassador on Broadway is plain wrong in every detail, including the broad, foolish comedy played for all its worth between the “serious bits.” At times, the audience is enjoying the action so much it’s like watching Hedda Gabler with a laugh track. Actors can always stamp on inappropriate laughter-but not here. They’re indulging the response because they believe it’s the right one.

The question is why? A classic play messed with by simple-minded directors is becoming the norm, but how did it come to this? In a Times piece about the production, the director, Mr. Martin, explains: “I’ve always said that the tragedy of Hedda Gabler is that she’s the only woman in Scandinavia with a sense of humor.”

That’s some unbelievable claim, but let it pass. The truth is that Hedda doesn’t possess an authentic sense of humor. She has a cruel, belittling wit at the expense of all others, which is different. But Ms. Burton goes on to explain how Jon Robin Baitz, the adaptor of this colloquial Hedda , “helped her to knock General Gabler’s destructive daughter off her pedestal.” Mr. Baitz told her, “She’s the funniest and smartest person in the room.”

What next for Mr. Baitz-an adaptation of Peer Gynt subtitled “The Funniest and Smartest Person Up the Mountain”? But Hedda isn’t “funny,” least of all is she the “smartest.” To the contrary, she has absolutely no control over anything-including her own instinctive, unconscious emotions and tragic destiny. The major theme of the play is her elemental, dangerous powerlessness. It’s why we’re fascinated by her, or should be. Smart? She’s easily outwitted and entrapped by oily, predatory Judge Brack-the reason she ultimately shoots herself.

Hedda is an astonishing invention in so many ways. Ibsen must surely have been the first dramatist to dare to create a heroine whose calling card is boredom. Hedda is firstly a woman who’s dying of boredom. That prolonged, endless six-month honeymoon with her adoring petit-bourgeois mediocrity of a husband, George Tesman, must have all but killed her. She’s married her lapdog and thrown away her life.

This restless, complex woman is capable of anything. It’s as if she’s unevolved and subverted. She wants to defy petty convention, but lacks the courage. She fears scandal and ridicule. She fusses tactlessly over the correct place to leave a bonnet. She exclaims, like any dourly conventional housewife, “But what will people say!” Yet she begs to be a free

spirit and bitterly envies anyone who is. She’s a jealous woman who destroys three lives-her husband, doomed from the start; her former beau, the rebel-genius Lovborg, whose love she spurned; and her childhood friend, meek Mrs. Elvsted, who loves and saves Lovborg.

Ibsen anticipates feminism with Hedda Gabler , and more so in the earlier A Doll’s House ; without reading Freud, he anticipated modern psychology. But Hedda is less a social tract and symbol of suppressed Victorian womanhood, more a tragedy of the thwarted individual. She’s a mercurial, pampered beauty who’s a coward and admits it-a caustic egotist who must be the center of everyone’s attention. Her cruelty is clear, as well as her untrustworthiness. She’s frigid.

Hedda denies her own sexuality. She’s repelled even by her pregnancy. When she burns the manuscript of Lovborg’s unpublished masterpiece, she destroys his beautiful “child”-the priceless thing given birth to by Lovborg and the “inferior” Mrs. Elv-sted. Hedda is a voyeur who’s disgusted by sex. She and Lovborg aren’t about the loud, passionate clinches-the stolen kisses!-this production indulges in between them. Sex isn’t what she wants, but ownership. She despises Lovborg’s freedom.

The funniest, smartest girl in town? The misguided production tries to bring Hedda down to earth, which is the last place she should be. She brings herself down, but ordinariness isn’t among her attributes. If it were, she would have settled comfortably for a nice, smug pseudo-contented life with Tesman, and we wouldn’t have a play.

Ms. Burton (the daughter of Richard Burton) is a respected, well-liked actress, but her Hedda is a limited, unmysterious performance. I’m afraid that she gives us a blatant, smirking heroine who’s as simplistic as everything else at work here. The laughs are glib (and milked). But there’s an absence of all nuance and emotional sophistication. The glowering portrait of Hedda’s father hovers over the proceedings-more than enough to suggest the psychologically obvious. Must she point a pistol at it like a gun-toting Annie Oakley? Hedda’s restless, exasperated energy is clear, but is this enough reason for Ms. Burton to practically hang herself with the curtain drapes? Unless she was sort of draping herself in the drapes.

It’s a melodramatic interpretation. When Hedda’s eyes meet the tempestuous Lovborg (played most tempestuously by the histrionic David Lansbury), the silence between them is so intensely prolonged that I feared one of them must have gone up on their lines. But no, it was deliberate. It was The Look. It was The Look that spells Romance.

Perhaps the hack closing image-an old-fashioned Victorian tableau-tells us more than we might wish to know. Hedda has shot herself and, amidst great alarm, the doors to the anteroom open. Revealed improbably before us, Hedda is seated dead at the piano, but she’s facing out to the audience with her arms splayed across the piano keys in a martyr-like pose. She must have shot herself very carefully .

We have a corrupt Judge Brack played by Harris Yulin, who’s so sleepily lifeless that when Hedda threatened to shoot him , Mr. Yulin looked no more disturbed than someone who might have been hit by a playful paper dart. Jennifer Van Dyck’s Mrs. Elv-sted-dressed in black as if in mourning for her life for some confused Chekhovian reason-is too much the victim. Meek or no, she’s the one character who risks everything. Hedda’s Tesman is a blind innocent, not the buffoon of Michael Emerson, whose pale-face childishness reminds one uncomfortably of Pee-wee Herman.

This third-rate Hedda Gabler left me downcast and unforgiving, as you can tell. Needless to say, the set, which should be claustrophobic, is light and airy. Dawns are blinding. The furniture, which should be sparse, is cluttered. Everything is bleached. If it’s bleached, it must be Norway. But it isn’t. It’s Broadway, via the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, and let’s leave it at that.