Jessica Chastain revolves around the stage of the Hudson Theatre like a cheesecake at a Greek diner. Here she is, director Jamie Lloyd seems to be saying to the audience, his leading lady’s arms crossed in silent judgment. This is what you paid for.
The idea of women as a commodity is very much at the heart of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a landmark of western drama in which a wife endures all sorts of pet names from her husband like “skylark” and “squirrel” (though never cheesecake) and dares to walk out on him when she realizes that all this cutesy affection is just wallpaper in a coldly transactional household. It scandalized audiences in 1879, but in the 144 years since the “door slam heard round the world,” divorce has been thoroughly destigmatized, washed over by successive waves of feminism. Could anything about this play be truly shocking to a Broadway audience in 2023?
Lloyd and playwright Amy Herzog seem determined to find out, stripping the play back to its essentials in a new adaptation. The story is unchanged: It’s Christmas and Nora (Chastain) is ecstatic. Her husband, Torvald (Arian Moayed), has just been promoted to bank manager, which means she’ll finally have enough money to pay off the massive loan she secretly took out to finance a yearlong vacation in Italy, which restored Torvald’s health when he was at death’s door (he thinks she inherited the money). Her creditor, Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan), threatens to expose her unless she can secure his position at the bank. Torvald, who despises Krogstad and would hate to think he had any leverage over him, plans to fire Krogstad and give his job to Nora’s friend, Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze). Nora desperately tries to make everyone happy and save her middle-class life from ruin. But is she happy?
A Doll’s House unexpectedly becomes a memory play under Lloyd’s spare, moody direction. Chastain hardly ever leaves her chair downstage center as characters float around her on a turntable, which makes up the most significant part of Soutra Gilmour’s set. It’s as if Nora is replaying events in her mind, torturing herself right up to the moment of fate.
Chastain, an Oscar winner for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, thrives under this restraint, communicating thousands of unspoken words with a single glance. Her extraordinarily naturalistic performance only veers into camp once, when she is made to dance the tarantella (flailing choreography by Jennifer Rias) and ends up convulsing on the floor. Beyond that misstep, Chastain takes us along for the ride, making us feel Nora’s anxiety as the walls close in on her.
The supporting performers also tell that story: Simmering with resentment, Darbouze’s shifty Kristine made me wonder about the next move of a character in a play I’ve seen a dozen times. Michael Patrick Thornton is beguiling as Dr. Rank, bringing a gallows humor to the role of the doomed physician. And Onaodowan manages to humanize Krogstad while maintaining an air of menace, impressively holding his own even though he has been directed to play his first big scene facing the upstage wall, seated back-to-back with Chastain.
Moayed delivers the most exquisitely maddening portrayal of Torvald I have yet witnessed, concealing adolescent rage behind a goofy grin. We understand what Nora sees in this boyish patriarch, yet we suspect she has been conveniently ignoring his sharper edges for years. He’s just so convinced that he’s the good guy in this story, and we silently hope that someone will slap him out of his delusion.
Talented voice actors all, the cast deftly navigates Jamie Lloyd’s world of shadows and whispers. Actors linger off-sides, emerging from the shadows for their scenes (focused lighting by Jon Clark). As in Cyrano de Bergerac, which was also sound designed by Ben and Max Ringham, the performers are mic’d, speaking their lines in a strangely erotic ASMR (I am convinced that Lloyd’s fortune is to be made directing specialty videos for the tops stars on OnlyFans). One of the great contradictions of this production is that this titillating design choice, when employed as excessively as it is here, results in pretty sleepy theater. Not everything can be a very special secret.
It is a testament to the oppressive grimness of Gilmour’s barren set and the all-black costumes (co-designed by Gilmour and Enver Chakartash) that the reveal of West 45th Street through a loading dock door arrives like a burst of color, with Nora transformed into Dorothy over the rainbow. She instantly sold me on the wisdom of her exit, and I longed to follow her out before I lost any more of my day.
When acted as well as it is here, A Doll’s House remains indestructible, resilient in the face of directorial gimmicks. You absolutely shouldn’t feel any guilt about buying a ticket just to see the celebrity above the title, who is a marvelous actor and worth every penny — and who can also be spotted for free wandering 45th Street in the seconds before the curtain call.