Jessica Chastain captivates in a strikingly minimalist ‘Doll’s House’



NEW YORK — As Jessica Chastain orbits the stage, seated on a wooden chair, an audience sees her from all perspectives, much the way you might circle a dollhouse, to glimpse all of the rooms.

This permeable quality is a hallmark of director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable revival of “A Doll’s House.” Chairs and a turntable are in fact all the mise-en-scene Lloyd provides. The paucity of theatrical flourishes speaks volumes: Or rather, it is Henrik Ibsen’s words, in a faithful “new version” by Amy Herzog that adds a few choice epithets, that are given overarching priority. To achieve this, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham outfit the actors with head mics so sensitive that we hear every syllable, every gasp.

Which is important because we want to savor every line. As Nora Helmer, Chastain rotates on the stage in that chair often during the performance — she’s even there as the audience enters the Hudson Theatre, where the show had its official opening Thursday night. Dressed as all the characters are, in chic, dark colors by Soutra Gilmour and Enver Chakartash — as if they were guests at a dinner party in a SoHo loft — Nora is, it seems, on eternal display. She is a wife and mother whom her domineering husband Torvald, played by Arian Moayed, calls his “songbird.” A stiflingly caged bird, at that.

If you’re expecting Ibsen with petticoats and silver service, you’ve come to the wrong place. What you get instead is an ensemble wrestling exhilaratingly with a text that revolutionized the way people thought more than a century ago about marriage and the constraints it imposed on women. Even now, the play snaps as freshly as a clothesline in a cool wind. One keenly feels the connection, too, between Ibsen’s time and ours. Chastain may not wear a corset, but her Nora is straitjacketed all the same.

“So simple, and spare as a statue,” Norwegian author Alexander Kielland wrote about the script after it was published in December 1879. Lloyd, who last season brought a blazing “Cyrano” with James McAvoy to New York, seems to have taken that commentary to heart. The spareness of the physicality and the statue-like placement of the actors put you in mind, at times, of a production consumed with stylish minimalism. Far more often, though, you’re blown away by the attention that’s been given to elucidating conflict and exploring character.

“A Doll’s House” is concerned almost as much with money as it is with freedom. Nora’s altruistic appeal for a loan from Nils Krogstad (played by Okieriete Onaodowan, of “Hamilton” fame, a revelation here) is made to save her husband’s life. But she has skirted laws restricting what transactions women are permitted, and the consequences are too much for her image-obsessed banker husband. The magnetic Moayed, a stage veteran probably best known as Stewy Hosseini on HBO’s “Succession,” brings to Torvald a terrifying fury, slowly bubbling up like molten lava; he is a civilized volcano, but as we discover, not a dormant one.

Around the artificial wall of decorum that Torvald insists upon, the other characters of “A Doll’s House” tiptoe, especially Nora’s old friend Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze) and Torvald’s ailing pal, Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton). Darbouze and Thornton turn in outstanding portrayals, as trenchant observers of the tensions in the Helmer household and the domestic pressures eroding Nora’s sense of herself. As Anne-Marie, the nanny who raised Nora and now tends to Nora’s three children, Tasha Lawrence, too, creates a vivid character who has difficulty hiding her grief at having left her own child to work for Nora.

Lloyd makes Chastain the lodestar in this constellation. We come to realize in our extended observation of Nora that Torvald’s infantilizing characterizations had not flattered her at all. The suspicion arises that her famous escape in the drama’s final seconds — here accomplished cleverly — is not an impulsive act at all. In Chastain’s smashingly fine-tuned performance, the march to self-discovery has been gaining momentum, scene by scene, all night.

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

The notion of women understanding their own power and rejecting being controlled (and worse) by men remains remarkably topical. Witness the critical success of “Women Talking,” a film about a community of religious women, long physically brutalized by their men, who vote on whether to gather their children and simply leave. One imagines them attending this play and being fortified 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. Set, Soutra Gilmour; costumes, Gilmour and Enver Chakartash; lighting, Jon Clark; sound, Ben and Max Ringham; music, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through June 10 at Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York.


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