Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in the late 1800s – to many conversations and lots of controversy. Director Jamie Lloyd takes that same energy from this classic play and strips it of everything but the words thanks to playwright Amy Herzog’s adaptation. What we are left with is a masterful presentation about the lack of autonomy women have within a marriage, and how one chooses to reclaim it.
As someone who popped her Broadway cherry with this play, I may not be the most sought-after reviewer, but honesty is one of my most formidable qualities and I’m going to give it to you straight. This play will have you feeling some things. Well, at least it had ME feeling some things. Mostly completely and totally incredulous at the fact that we’re STILL DEALING WITH ISSUES LIKE THIS IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2023.
A Doll’s House
Oscar-winning actress Jessica Chastain, who stars as the play’s antagonistic protagonist, Nora Helmer, leads a cast of heavy hitters in this 110-minute production. Her husband Torvald (Ariad Moayed of Succession), best friend and secret admirer Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton) childhood pal Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze) nanny Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence) and blackmailer Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaoodowan) round out this stellar cast in one of the most simplistic ways I’ve seen.
Director Jamie Lloyd chooses to strip the play down to the barest set I’ve ever seen in my life. Just the characters, the chairs they sit in, and a rotating stage reminiscent of the extra Hamilton ‘character’ I grew to love during my first viewing in 2020. It took me a while to catch that the rotating stage did most of the work of letting Nora sit unmoving as the stage brought each character into place to have conversations with her. Thus changing rooms, locations, and the feel of each scene. Still simple, still stripped down, but huge!
We see from the very beginning that the voices, inflection, reflection, and tone of each of the actors will do all of the work in this play. No toe-tapping tunes to help move the play along. Just the voices, and the added ambiance of the lights and shadows.
When I stop to think about it, it reminds me of sitting and listening to the play the way we do with audiobooks or podcasts. Once you sit down for the production, it becomes apparent that this will be more of an audio experience rather than a mostly visual one. The only visual addition comes with the flirtation of light and shadows on the cast as they share the story over three days
We’re introduced to the characters before the play officially starts as they all come to the rotating stage, one by one, and just sit. Not looking at anything or anyone in particular. Their backs faced inward, and their faces stared out into the abyss of the Hudson Theatre. A massive 1879 is projected on the wall. Reminding us, boldly that this subject matter is still ridiculously relevant. The silence is only broken when Nora twitters like a ‘little bird’ a pet name that Torvald uses, almost condescendingly throughout the play.
I’m not familiar with the original script, but I assume that Herzog has adapted this play for brevity, given that Ibsen’s rendition of it went for three hours. There aren’t any witty quips that can be applied to current generations, and that in itself makes me very sad. Everything within the lines delivered still applies to what so many women go through in marriages all over the world. Far too often, it’s at the hands of very immature and mediocre men who have the position and the privilege to be seen as leaders in areas they absolutely should not lead in.
The general premise is Nora and Torvald are in a marriage of convenience, but neither of them really see this, one because they don’t want to, and the other because of the complexity of the marriage and what they do to keep the perfect image intact. Nora has unknowingly put her family into a precarious position by borrowing money to help her husband receive life-saving medical care. He assumes it’s from his father-in-law when it is in fact from someone that can upend his brand-new promotion.
None of these characters are particularly likable in the first act. At least in my opinion, and that’s why you’re reading this review, correct? Or you’re my husband or parents. Hey y’all! Anyway, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly cozy, except for Dr. Rank. His sardonic nature was just that – he wasn’t out to get anything, or fleece anyone, and that put him at risk as one of the characters who could be taken advantage of.
One thing I noticed was, what I think, a very deliberate choice to dress everyone in shades of black and blue. They’ve all been beaten up in a way, but even that wasn’t enough to make me feel sympathy for them all, and I think that was the point.
We live in a society where everyone is battered and bruised by quite a few things. Work, the economy, family obligations, and everything in between, but the way that they choose to deal with that in regard to interacting with others proves their true character.
Chastain thrives in her portrayal of Nora. A woman stuck in marriage as just a doll of her husband. Someone who he can show off at his whim and who is expected to keep house, raise her children with the help of the live-in nanny, and perform as a little bird whenever Torvald asks. She’s stuck in a cage, yearning to break free, but she can’t. She’s annoying because she’s so accommodating and because we are in the year we are, we want her to take ownership of the fact that she’s saved her husband’s life with quick thinking even though it’s thankless and she’s told a few lies. Is her driving force love or her desire for a higher station in life?
It’s also not lost on me that the main antagonist – or the one that the playwright wanted us to think was the main antagonist – was filled with the casting of Onaodowan. It’s an open secret that these days Black men are oft seen as these big brooding scary individuals. Often depicted with angry faces and menacing gestures. The juxtaposition of having the very soft-spoken Onadowan in this role is pretty crafty.
Moayed really sells the very smarmy, condescending perfect mate. The husband who everyone sees as an amazing partner, but holds a very dark alter-ego under the surface. So well that I *may* have exclaimed under my breath during the preview “Torvald is a jerk!” – which only speaks to Moayed’s excellent portrayal of the character.
Do I find it frustrating that we’re still discussing this very same subject more than one hundred years after the original play premiered? I sure do. I’m just happy that Lloyd and Herzog chose to place the delivery very much in your face.
A Doll’s House plays at The Hudson Theatre – 141 W. 44th St., New York- until June 10, 2023. Purchase tickets here.