Jessica Chastain Captivates in Strikingly Minimalist ‘Dollhouse’


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

This permeable quality is a hallmark of director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable revival of “A Doll’s House.” Chairs and a record player are actually all the mise-en-scene Lloyd provides. The lack of theatrical flourishes speaks volumes: Or rather, these are the words of Henrik Ibsen, in a faithful “new version” by Amy Herzog, who adds a few selected epithets that take priority overall. To achieve this, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham equip the actors with head microphones so sensitive that we hear every syllable, every gasp.

Which is important because we want to enjoy every line. As Nora Helmer, Chastain often rotates onstage in that chair during the performance — she’s there herself when the audience enters the Hudson Theater, where the show had its official opening Thursday night. Dressed as all the characters are in smart, 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 perpetual display. She is a wife and mother whom her domineering husband Torvald, played by Arian Moayed, calls his “songbird”. A bird in a suffocating cage, that is.

If you’re expecting Ibsen with petticoats and silver service, you’ve come to the wrong place. What you get instead is an ensemble grappling rousingly with a text that revolutionized the way people thought more than a century ago about marriage and the limitations it placed on women. Even now, the piece snaps fresh like a clothesline in a cool wind. You also clearly feel the connection between Ibsen’s time and ours. Chastain may not be wearing the corset, but her Nora is still wearing a straitjacket.

“As simple, and sparse as a statue,” wrote the Norwegian writer Alexander Kielland of the script after it was published in December 1879. Lloyd, who last season brought a fiery “Cyrano” with James McAvoy to New York, seems to have taken that comment to heart. The sparing of the physicality and the statue-like placement of the actors sometimes puts you in mind of a production consumed by stylish minimalism. Far more often, though, you’re blown away by the attention given to illuminating conflict and exploring character.

“A Doll’s House” is almost as much about money as it is about 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 transgressed laws that limit what transactions women are allowed to have, and the consequences are too great 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 that slowly bubbles up like molten lava; he is a civilized volcano, but as we discover, not a sleeper.

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

Lloyd makes Chastain the leading star of this constellation. We come to realize in our extended observation of Nora that Torvald’s infantilizing characteristics had not flattered her at all. One suspects that her famous escape in the last seconds of the drama – here cleverly executed – is not an impulsive act at all. In Chastain’s smashingly fine-tuned performance, the march to self-discovery has picked up, scene by scene, throughout the night.

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

The notion that women understand their own power and refuse to be controlled (and worse) by men remains remarkably current. Experience the critical success of “Women Talking,” a film about a community of religious women, long physically brutalized by their husbands, who vote on whether to pack up their children and simply leave. One imagines them witnessing this spectacle and being fortified by the bravery of their sister Nora.

A dollhouse, 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. Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes. Through June 10 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York.

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