Review: A Decluttered Doll’s House Speaks to Our Alienated Times 

A chilly, restrained minimalism marks this Broadway adaptation of Ibsen, starring Jessica Chastain.

Okieriete Onaodowan (l) and Jessica Chastain in ‘A Doll’s House’ at the Hudson Theatre. Emilio Madrid

A Doll’s House | 1hr 50mins. No intermission. | Hudson Theatre | 141 W. 44th Street | 855-801-5876

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So yeah: about that exit. If you know anything about A Doll’s House, you know it ends with housewife Nora Helmer leaving her husband Torvald with a defiant door slam. (Those crying spoiler, take it up with your high school.) In the current Broadway version, there’s no front door. Or any door. Instead, Jessica Chastain vamooses through a large portal that opens in the back wall of the Hudson Theatre. Nora steps into waning sunlight (for those at matinees), glances around 45th Street, and heads off—presumably to the M&M’s store. The visible “Museum of Broadway” signage lays it on a bit thick, but you work with what you got. 

Also working with received materials are adapter Amy Herzog and director Jamie Lloyd, who freshen up and pare down Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 problem drama for a fairly satisfying 110 minutes. If satisfaction should be the goal for The Handmaid’s Tale of its day. A cosseted wife realizes she will never be fully human until she educates herself about the society that, like her husband, treats her like a trained monkey. Ibsen’s domestic drama put gender inequality center stage and a succès de scandale was born. The actress playing Nora in the German-language premiere demanded a happy-ending rewrite (Ibsen complied). George Bernard Shaw rallied British theater to heed Ibsen and imitated the Norwegian master in his impish Shavian way. 

You could argue that today’s “real housewives” are even more complicit in their debasement in capitalist patriarchy, but the chestnut hasn’t shocked in ages. How to make today’s audiences jump at that proto-feminist adios in 2023? Tweak characters’ gender or sexuality? Set it in Nazi-occupied Paris? Make it pointedly America Now, as Thomas Bradshaw did with Chekhov’s The Seagull? None of the above. Director Lloyd takes a page from his own less-is-more playbook—last seen in Brooklyn with Cyrano de Bergerac and pre-pandemic with Betrayal. Lloyd dispenses with period sets and costumes; Soutra Gilmour clothes the cast in chic black and likewise strips the Hudson to its bricks. The production is intensely focused on intimate voices (amplified by body mics in Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design) and clipped, dry, frontal acting. Call it rehearsal-room aesthetic or neo-Elizabethan: let words and bodies carry the load.

Arian Moayed and Jessica Chastain in ‘A Doll’s House.’ Courtesy of A Doll’s House

Other, mechanical, elements do enhance storytelling. As he did with Betrayal, Lloyd arranges his cast on a revolving stage that creates motion for generally still blocking. At times, Nora sits center with others orbiting her like satellites. When the corrupt bank worker Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan) threaten to expose Nora for forging a signature to secure a clandestine loan, the walls start closing in. Actually, in the absence of walls, lights do: four LED battens of cold white light (designed by Jon Clark) sinisterly descend from on high, bathing all in a harsh, chalky light. Later, when Nora realizes how much she’s held in contempt by Torvald (Arian Moayed), the same rows of lights ascend, as if opening a space for revelation and escape.

Not since A Case for the Existence of God has a show so rigorously explored the dramaturgy of chairs. Having little agency in her life, Nora sits, fidgets, and sits some more. Chairs plus the rotating stage makes literal Nora’s passivity: social machinery moves her through the world. She even stays on her keister while practicing the famous tarantella dance. In the end, when Nora makes her decision to leave, the act of standing ought to strike us like a lightning bolt.

Instead, it’s just, you know, Chastain standing up. The static performance vocabulary, while it focuses attention, errs on the side of neatness and consistency—constipation, to be blunt. Even so, the lively cast infuses a fair amount of humor and warmth into the chilly, restrained minimalism. The world-weary but irreverent Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton, a sly, dry delight) punctuates a tense moment between Nora and Torvald with the unexpected, “Just do what she’s saying, man.” Nora drops the one and only f-bomb with a yearning to say, “Fuck it all.” Apart from these two cheeky flourishes, Herzog delivers a script in formal but flowing English. The always charming Moayed luxuriates in Torvald’s fussy, oblivious dickishness. Chastain, unfairly piled on for The Heiress a decade ago, is perhaps more safely cast here, using her unique blend of iciness and vulnerability to strong effect. 

The overall effect of Lloyd’s aggressive reduction—eliminating history, culture, class—is to create a clinical rather than emotional experience of the play. In this neutral arena, we can judge the ethical value of decisions made by Nora, Torvald and others, decide for ourselves if the Helmer household is or is not a prison. Like other Ibsen exposés of the period, A Doll’s House has been tagged a “bourgeois tragedy.” Aristotle defined tragedy, generally, as a great person arriving at a terrible realization and suffering a fall, prompting catharsis in the audience. By that measure, Nora would seem to be a tragic figure. But she leaves a free woman, which is surely an optimistic result. If comedy is a play that ends in a wedding, then A Doll’s House is a comedy that ends in divorce.

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Review: A Decluttered Doll’s House Speaks to Our Alienated Times