We all remember Nora's "door slam heard round the world" in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, but few people recall the Captain's inferno in August Strindberg's The Father. This fact would certainly irk Strindberg to no end were he still alive today (Sweden's famously melancholic son eventually blamed the loss of his family and career on his 10-year struggle against the more popular Norwegian playwright). Thankfully, visitors to Theatre for a New Audience can now experience director Arin Arbus' excellent repertory productions of both plays at the company's Brooklyn home, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Uncomfortably timely, both dramas track the struggle between a resourceful (perhaps unscrupulous) woman and a neurotically insecure man.
The better known of the two is Ibsen's A Doll's House (presented here through Thornton Wilder's tasteful translation). When it premiered in 1879, it offered upper-middle-class theatergoers a radically different way to look at love and marriage, questioning the unconditional legitimacy of the latter. It tells the story of Nora Helmer (Maggie Lacey) and her husband, Thorwald (John Douglas Thompson). To save Thorwald's life during a period of illness, Nora secretly borrowed a large sum of money from shady banker Krogstad (Jesse J. Perez), forging her dead father's signature on the promissory note. Since then, she has scrounged to repay the loan. When Thorwald becomes bank president, he fires Krogstad for unethical behavior. In retaliation, Krogstad threatens to reveal Nora's secret.
Like a 1950s sitcom wife, Lacey endows Nora with innately comedic qualities. She's flighty and cartoonish, leaping in the air and shouting, "money," when Thorwald opens up his wallet. It's not only funny, but provides for a thrilling transformation as Lacey's Nora awakens to the unjust realities governing her marriage. By contrast, Thompson's Thorwald seems blissfully unaware of the negative effects of his paternalism. His epic meltdown in the final scene is one for the ages: We would leave him too.
Strindberg's 1887 play, The Father, almost seems like a direct response to A Doll's House. It's about a military Captain (Thompson) who wants to send his daughter, Bertha (Kimber Monroe), away for school. His wife, Laura (Lacey), would prefer she stay home and become an artist. The law gives all power to the father in such matters, but Laura attempts a hostile takeover, provoking the Captain into madness by suggesting that Bertha isn't really his child.
In truth, it doesn't take much prodding. As played by Thompson, the Captain comes across like an innocuous nut job, especially when he shares that he thinks he's found aliens with his spectrometer. "The booksellers of Europe are conspiring to deny me my discoveries," he raves.
By contrast, Lacey's Laura is calculating in her malice: "I've yet to meet the man I can't defeat," she tells her husband, her icy gaze freezing him in his tracks. Such melodramatic lines pervade the text, and this fabulous cast knocks them all out of the park. Strindberg's darkness, his pseudo-adolescent gloom, registers here as high camp and we love every second of it.
Sound designer Daniel Kluger makes the event Hitchcockian by conjuring a howling snowstorm just beyond the Captain's wood-paneled room, which is decorated with hunting rifles and dead animal skulls (man cave by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez). Marcus Doshi's moody lighting, some of which is by candle, adds to the Gothic aesthetic. Susan Hilferty completes the effect with her conservative and itchy-looking period costumes: Both Laura and Nora sport floor-length skirts and matronly updos (severe hair by Dave Bova).
Hernandez has not only ripped the fourth wall off this doll's house of a set; he's also removed the second one. Arbus confrontationally stages both plays in traverse, with the two halves of the audience staring at each other throughout this two-part battle of the sexes (don't worry, men and women aren't segregated on opposite sides).
All eight adult actors appear in both plays, with the addition of two children (Ruben Almash and Jayla Lavender Nicholas) for A Doll's House. The clever double-casting goes beyond the two main characters: The prim and elegant Nigel Gore plays doctors in both plays. Laurie Kennedy is hilarious as dueling elderly domestics (her tragic babushka take on Margaret in The Father is a riot). As different as Ibsen and Strindberg were in their outlooks, aspects of their plays strike eerily similar chords.
Still, we can understand why A Doll's House is regularly produced and The Father is not: Ibsen's recognizably human (and undeniably flawed) woman in an unjust situation is more credible than Strindberg's overwrought harpy conniving to seize power. Even in a year when plenty of people suspect the latter, the former just feels more truthful.