Friday, March 24, 2023

Jessica Chastain’s Close Listening in “A Doll’s House”

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For the long quarter hour before “A Doll’s House” begins, Jessica Chastain sits looking at the audience in the Hudson Theatre as people fill up the seats. She’s in a plain dark dress on a plain wooden chair on a plain bleak stage. A turntable moves her in slow circles—she looks like the last lonely dish left on a lazy Susan. The air throbs with dread-inducing electronic tones; the five other cast members enter and sit with their backs to her, not yet caught up in her sad merry-go-round. Whatever else Chastain’s Nora will be, at least we know she has sufficient inner resources to keep herself company while staring through the fourth wall.

In the current Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama, adapted by Amy Herzog and directed by Jamie Lloyd, Nora has three children (present only as giggling voice-overs); a husband, Torvald (Arian Moayed); a nanny (Tasha Lawrence); a family friend, Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton), who adores her; and an old friend, Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze), who wants to fix her. Nora also has a creditor turned blackmailer, Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan), who comes the closest to understanding her. On the surface, Nora is a dizzy, much indulged wife, skilled at twining Torvald around her finger. That laughing manipulation, though, hides her big secret, a loan, from Krogstad, that she’s been paying off. As the play begins, Nora seems almost in the clear—blue skies ahead! But the real thundercloud is her marriage: a perpetual (and still familiar) weather system of condescension, mutual untruth, and socially endorsed sexism.

Throughout, Chastain maintains her pre-show sense of availability to the audience. Even in the gathering gloom—the lighting designer Jon Clark has chosen white L.E.D.s so cold they seem like moonlight—she still seems to be looking at us. What else would she look at? Lloyd’s ascetic production is like the most polished staged reading on earth: it eliminates nearly every conventional marker of character, location, gesture. Actors wear sleek, dark, modern clothes, melting vampirically into the shadows. The stage is bare to the bricks; the only “set” is a white stripe painted on the tall black walls of the theatre. Ibsen productions are usually crowded with furniture and brocade curtains and telltale letters, but Lloyd doesn’t permit props. When a guy says he’s smoking a cigar, he doesn’t even lift his hand. There’s no cigar.

I’ve seen four Jamie Lloyd productions: a stripped-down “Betrayal,” with Tom Hiddleston; a stripped-down “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with James McAvoy; a stripped-down “The Seagull,” with Emilia Clarke; and now this “A Doll’s House.” Lloyd clearly has a tool kit: a Soutra Gilmour-designed non-set, full of the spare glamour of a photo shoot, and a sound design (here by Ben and Max Ringham) that relies on heavy vocal amplification. As was the case with Lloyd’s “Seagull,” his “Doll’s House” features microphones taped so close to the actors’ mouths that they can murmur, even breathe, their text. This method kills two birds with one soundboard. First, it bridges that tricky gap between a performer’s cinematic style and her theatre technique, since an actor can behave as if she were being shot in closeup. Second, it brings the movie stars—there’s always a movie star—sonically very near; the audience hears them almost as if through headphones. That privacy-in-public sensation is erotic, and, not coincidentally, flirtation scenes are Lloyd’s best. Thornton’s delightful Dr. Rank drowns in Nora’s eyes at one point, and you can hear his breath hitch—before he realizes she’s only teasing. (The effect isn’t uniform. I polled people in various parts of the auditorium, and those with less than excellent hearing couldn’t always understand the show.)

In the case of “The Seagull,” which I saw last year in London, this classics-via-A.S.M.R. style was thrilling, even revelatory. Extreme quietness forces an audience into its own stillness, which becomes absorption, which can become a nearly unbearable state of tension. Much of Chekhov’s humor and pathos lies in throwaway comments, and microphones encourage underplaying: the production felt like seeing an Old Master painting with its murky varnish cleaned away.

“A Doll’s House,” though, partly resists Lloyd’s treatment. For one thing, his directorial touch can get heavy: the lighting grid drops portentously any time Nora feels the metaphorical walls closing in; Lloyd keeps Nora in her chair even when it doesn’t make sense (she does a goofy-looking dance there); the unrelenting darkness tends toward self-seriousness. Ibsen’s own style also has varnish built in, and his more bombastic lines can sound odd in closeup, as when anyone talks (extremely incorrectly) about medical science or when Nora waxes romantic. When she says, “The most beautiful thing is about to happen,” referring to the sacrifices she assumes Torvald will make, she seems not just deluded but deranged.

But the production is gorgeous in its details. Herzog’s adaptation keeps snug to the original; though she cuts away repetition, conflates servants, and modernizes speech, she allows herself little leeway in terms of character or structure. Nora’s bird-witted self-preoccupation was always there, and Herzog, one of our greatest dialogue crafters, smooths the play’s lines so we see its face. Herzog is friskiest and most inventive with Torvald, who seems slimier than usual—he keeps calling Nora “baby,” and Moayed, gliding creepily around, lets the endearment plop out of his mouth like a wet octopus. Herzog and the show also emphasize the play’s delicate crosshatching: in Krogstad, Ibsen shaded a melodrama villain so finely that he turned him into his heroine’s psychological double. Thornton elevates Dr. Rank into the production’s most seductive performance; Onaodowan makes Krogstad its most poignant.

When “A Doll’s House” was first produced, in Norway, in 1879, it rocked the establishment. Its portrait of the insufficiency of marriage smashed through European buttonhook respectability, prompting outraged sermons and counter-plays—there was enough backlash that Ibsen changed the ending, at least for its première in Germany. That obsession has barely abated; just a few years ago, Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” zoomed around the country—amazingly, theatregoers were still hungry for a sequel. But fame obscures, and, while I think most audiences know that there’s a crucial door slam somewhere in the story, they might not know that Ibsen wasn’t just denouncing nineteenth-century hypocrisies. “A Doll’s House” contains still relevant critique about the way intimate behaviors can intertwine and choke one another, and there’s a bleaker idea yet about the incompatibility of motherhood and serving the true self. Listen closely, and you can hear old mutton-chopped, individualist Ibsen building up his world view and exploding it, over and over.

The question of what this particular production is about, though, has as much to do with Chastain, or perhaps with the icon “Jessica Chastain.” The show displays her like a coin on velvet: there’s a constellation of meanings in her jawline, her pale profile standing out against the black of the back wall, the design’s inky shades setting off her vivid red hair. Maybe it’s because of the turntable, but I kept imagining her performance rotating in and out of synch with the play—sometimes her husky voice and palpable strength show us Nora, sometimes it’s Chastain sitting alongside the role, sometimes the actor and the part drift a hundred and eighty degrees away from each other, only to return to correspondence.

The production begins with our contemplating (and many of us photographing) Chastain onstage; it finishes with a coup de théâtre that implies that the movie star can, if she chooses, get away from the whole invasive mechanism. But I thought Nora’s most triumphant moment came in the middle of the show. The voice-over children tumble in, wanting to play hide-and-seek. As in so many of the drama’s countertextual moments, it’s implied that Nora moves in some way, but Chastain doesn’t shift from her chair—to hide, she just closes her eyes. The lights fade on her bright face, and she sits for an instant in the vulnerable dark. At last, she’s done it: she’s here, but she’s gone. The woman-mother-character-star manages to be both fully present and fully private. And then the lights come back on and the world turns again. ♦

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