Jessica Chastain Captivates in a Surprisingly Minimalist ‘Dollhouse’


NEW YORK — As Jessica Chastain orbits the stage, seated in a wooden chair, an audience sees her from all angles, much like you might walk around a dollhouse, to catch a glimpse of all the rooms.

This permeable quality is the hallmark of director Jamie Lloyd’s flawless revival of “A Doll’s House.” Chairs and a turntable are in fact all of Lloyd’s stagings. The scarcity of theatrical flourishes speaks volumes: or rather, it is the words of Henrik Ibsen, in a faithful “new version” of Amy Herzog who adds a few epithets of choice, which take precedence. To achieve this, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham equip the actors with head mics so sensitive we hear every syllable, every gasp.

Which is important because we want to savor every line. As Nora Helmer, Chastain often spins around the stage in that chair during the performance — she’s even there when the audience enters the Hudson Theater, where the show had its grand opening on Thursday night. Dressed like all the characters, in dark, chic colors by Soutra Gilmour and Enver Chakartash – as if they were invited to a dinner party in a SoHo loft – Nora is, it seems, eternally on display. She is a wife and a mother whom her bossy husband Torvald, played by Arian Moayed, calls her “songbird”. A bird in a stifling cage, too.

If you’re waiting for Ibsen in petticoats and silver service, you’ve come to the wrong place. What you get instead is a set that wrestles exhilaratingly with text that revolutionized the way people thought more than a century ago about marriage and the constraints it placed on women. Even now, the room flaps as coolly as a clothesline in a cool wind. We also feel the link between the time of Ibsen and ours. Chastain may not be wearing a corset, but his Nora is still in a straitjacket.

“So plain and simple as a statue,” Norwegian author Alexander Kielland wrote of the script after it was published in December 1879. Lloyd, who last season brought a flamboyant “Cyrano” with James McAvoy to New York , seems to have taken that comment to heart. The sobriety of the physicality and the statuary disposition of the actors sometimes make you think of a production consumed with a stylish minimalism. Far more often, though, you’re blown away by the attention to conflict resolution and character exploration.

“A Doll’s House” is almost as much about money as it is about freedom. Nora’s selfless appeal for a loan from Nils Krogstad (played by Okieriete Onaodowan, of “Hamilton” fame, a revelation here) is done to save her husband’s life. But she has circumvented laws limiting transactions allowed for women, and the consequences are too heavy for her image-obsessed banker husband. The magnetic Moayed, a scene veteran probably best known as Stewy Hosseini on HBO’s “Succession,” brings Torvald a terrifying fury, slowly bubbling like molten lava; it’s a civilized volcano, but as we find out, not dormant.

Around the artificial wall of decorum that Torvald insists on, the other characters of “A Doll’s House” tiptoe, especially Nora’s old friend Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze) and Torvald’s sick pal Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton). Darbouze and Thornton deliver exceptional portrayals, as incisive observers of the tensions in the Helmer household and the domestic pressures that erode Nora’s sense of herself. As Anne-Marie, the nanny who raised Nora and now cares for Nora’s three children, Tasha Lawrence also creates a vivid character who struggles to hide her grief at leaving her own child to work for Nora. .

Lloyd makes Chastain the pole star of this constellation. We come to realize in our extended observation of Nora that Torvald’s infantilizing characterizations hadn’t flattered her at all. One suspects that his famous escape in the final seconds of the drama – here accomplished cleverly – was not an impulsive act at all. In Chastain’s perfectly tuned performance, the march toward self-discovery gathered momentum, scene by scene, all night long.

The role completes an intriguing pairing for Chastain with the only other Broadway role she’s played: that of Catherine Sloper, in a 2012 revival of “The Heiress.” At the end of this play, Catherine closes the front door on the man who is after his money. In “A Doll’s House”, Nora walks out the front door, leaving the man who provided her material comfort.

The idea that women understand their own power and refuse to be controlled (and worse) by men remains remarkably relevant. Evidenced by the critical success of “Women Talking”, a film about a community of religious women, long physically brutalized by their men, who vote to gather their children and simply leave. We imagine them attending this play and being strengthened by the bravery of their sister Nora.

A doll’s house, by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Amy Herzog. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Together, Sutra Gilmour; costumes, Gilmour and Enver Chakartash; lighting, Jon Clark; sound, Ben and Max Ringham; music, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. About 1h50. Through June 10 at the Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44th St., New York.

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