Friday, March 4, 2011

Valley of the Dolls

A romantic triangle plays out under an architectural one in DollHouse.
The "doll house" in the New Rep's DollHouse may be the biggest one on record: Kathryn Kawecki's set (at left) soars to the top of the Mosesian Theater, and is all opposed angles and jousting joists; this is a house that clearly could not stand if it weren't for the empty atrium at its core. A nice metaphor for the "classic" marriage analyzed by Henrik Ibsen's classic play, surely - and accurately scaled to the size of the playwright's impact on the culture, too.

The performances in DollHouse, however, are drawn to the dimensions of Ibsen's adapter (and updater), Theresa Rebeck, who has downsized her source into a commentary on the financial foibles of the millennium.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing - under the direction of the thoughtful Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, the New Rep cast offers a series of persuasive portraits of people many of us probably know all too well.  The trouble is that in this gallery of types, Ibsen's sense of archetype has gone missing - and in the central role of Nora (certainly one of the greatest female characters of the past two centuries), has all but been erased.  What's left is Rebeck's usual set of tropes - "good" girls and "bad" girls, and the cheating ways of the moneyed set, and a few funny, feminist "Truth-About-Cats-and-Dogs"-style jabs.  It's not that bad an evening of theatre, actually.  Just don't kid yourself that it's Ibsen.

But first, full disclosure - I had the original fresh in mind when I caught DollHouse, because I'd just come from the closing performance of the Gamm Theatre's A Doll's House the night before.  Not that I cared too much for the Gamm version - much of it was far too broad, but still it hewed to the original script more closely than Rebeck did, and so the depth of the play was often perceptible beneath the surface of the acting.  Oddly, at the New Rep, the opposite was true - the performances were far more subtle, but the script seemed far more superficial.

That superficiality, of course, earned Rebeck one of her most notoriously negative reviews in the Times - which I think played out in her mind as a sexist slap.  Which maybe it was; at least I would never argue that said critic, Alvin Klein, was not a jerk.  Still - he had a point, both about Rebeck's play and her central character.  Ibsen's Nora is a manipulative naïf, a child who grows up before our eyes and realizes that her happy home is merely "a doll house." But Rebeck's Nora is just manipulative - a point unconsciously underlined at the New Rep by the no-nonsense presence of actress Sarah Newhouse, who has been wonderful in other roles, but who couldn't play weakness even on a pair of crutches.  From the opening moments she's obviously a match for Will Lyman as her lightly domineering husband (in the original "Torvald," here "Evan"); this Nora isn't dodging and parrying for her emotional survival, she's doing it to keep the upper hand (and keep herself in Prada).  What's more, where Ibsen's Nora merely forged a signature to save house and home, Rebeck's has pulled off a complicated embezzlement.  True, as she insists, she paid the money back, but the complexity of the caper labels her in the audience's mind as a smooth operator - and it doesn't help things that she stood by while someone else took the fall for her chicanery.  And as for her kids - yeah, rather obviously to this Nora they belong with Barbie in her Malibu camper.  Rebeck's Nora is so unsympathetic, in fact, that sometimes you feel the playwright is almost baiting the audience, along the lines of "So - how do ya like your feminist icon now?"

But if you think the playwright has it mind to deconstruct Ibsen, or feminism - well, think again.  Rebeck seems to imagine that instead of the original's craggy (and at times, admittedly, melodramatic) existentialism, we'll be happy with her smooth ability with satire.  Still, to be fair, she has a few pretty good ideas - Rebeck has made a more convincing romantic figure out of Ibsen's dying Dr. Rank (smoothly underplayed by the talented Diego Arciniegas), which is interesting, even though she doesn't really know where to go with the emotional triangle that results.  And the playwright has done a good job - probably her best work in the play, in fact - of "updating" the original Christine into a world-weary, but also worldly-wise, career woman (here given a wounded, wary depth by Jennie Israel).  As a result, at times DollHouse flickers to life with a low but complex fire.

But in the climactic showdown, I'm afraid the play falters thematically more than it flickers, even if it's still plausibly entertaining.  Evan's abrupt betrayal of Nora, once he learns of her double-dealing, retains its power to shock, but we don't sense from Rebeck the deeper point of this turning point - that Evan and Nora have no real life together, that they've merely been playing at a set of empty bourgeois conventions.  This is because, I'm afraid, Rebeck's own vision is nestled comfortably within that set of conventions - she knows these people are cheats, but she can't seem to express why, and so she can't dramatize Nora's new horizons.  Instead we get an amusing-enough back-and-forth between these soon-to-be exes, the kind of exchange in which the women in the audience occasionally murmur "Right on, sister!" while the men every now and then mutter "You go, bro!"  Rebeck plays both sides of this ancient argument quite well - and of course there's some truth on both sides - but in the process sidesteps the crux of the play.  Which makes DollHouse, I'm afraid, ultimately a house of cards.

1 comment:

  1. I actually saw that infamous production at Hartford Stage when it was originally done; I don't remember it as that awful, but it wasn't particularly memorable either; just a by-the-numbers modern adaptation of the original. I was surprised when I saw New Rep announcing they were doing the Rebeck version; it's a fabulous cast and I love the original Ibsen but that's not enough to make me want to go. I don't evince quite the same dislike as you for her writing, but her shrill pronouncements about gender discrimination in the theatre wear awfully thin, and my general distaste for her plays has grown. I actually rather enjoy some of her earlier writing but her latest stuff leaves me pretty cold.