‘A Doll’s House’ Review: Jessica Chastain Plots an Escape

Many plays end with a breathtaking coup, but Jamie Lloyd’s incisive Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House,” which opened on Thursday at the Hudson Theater, also begins with one. After all, it’s not every day you find Jessica Chastain rotating on a turntable like an angry bird in a giant cuckoo clock.

Yet there she is for 20 minutes as you take your seat and peel off your coat. Nor is she alone: The five other cast members gradually join her, seated on plain wooden chairs nearby. You can’t help seeing them through her steely gaze as she circulates from one to another, her blazing red hair pulled back and her arms and legs crossed as if sizing up suspects.

Clearly, this “Doll’s House” is going to be a procedural. The forbidding, throbbing music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto suggests an episode of “CSI: Norway.”

But pay attention to something else as you enter: the year 1879 projected on the back wall of the stage. Without it you might forget that’s when Ibsen wrote the play, and never imagine that’s when this production, using a script adapted by Amy Herzog, is set. With one big exception, “A Doll’s House” is that modern.

Certainly it’s chic and visually minimal in the manner of Lloyd’s bucket-of-tears “Betrayal” starring Tom Hiddleston and his rapturous “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring James McAvoy. The black and midnight blue costumes by Soutra Gilmour and Enver Chakartash might be worn on 44th Street today, with Chastain in knitwear and kicky zip boots.

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And don’t look for props. Even when specific objects are mentioned — a cookie, a wedding band — no effort is made to mime them or acknowledge their absence. Indeed, except for the chairs, the stage is utterly empty; the set (also by Gilmour) depends on light rails descending ominously from the flies to suggest the contours, and pressures, of a home.

The home in question is of course the dollhouse of the title: the place where Nora Helmer (Chastain) is kept as a plaything for her husband, Torvald (Arian Moayed). Even as she tries to understand how she got trapped there, and how she’ll get out, Ibsen’s ingenious plot demonstrates that marriage is not the only cage. Any woman who dares to venture beyond the security of the place society has made for her — who tries to discover herself as a full human — will meet with disaster.

Except for wooden chairs, the stage is empty. Instead, Soutra Gilmour’s set depends on light rails descending from the flies to suggest the contours of a home.Credit…Sara Krulwich

That’s what happened to Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence), who left her own child years ago to become Nora’s nanny, and is now the nanny of Nora’s three children. And that’s what happened to Nora’s schoolmate Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze), who shows up at the Helmer home at Christmastime, widowed and in need of a job.

Nora’s disaster has been less visible. To the outside eye she has lacked for little, and with Torvald about to become the manager of a bank, she will soon lack for nothing. But unknown to him, that security has come at a terrible price, with more yet to be paid. Having borrowed money secretly to save his life during a health crisis, she finds herself under a new threat from the lender, the disreputable Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan).

Deprived of any independent vision of the world, she can imagine only three solutions. One is to tell Torvald the truth, hoping he will offer to do “the most beautiful thing” — take the blame. Another is to ask their best friend, Dr. Rank (Michael Patrick Thornton), who has long been in love with her, to pay Krogstad off. But the first would be to defer again to the supposedly greater moral fortitude of men, and the second to make herself not just Torvald’s doll but Rank’s. The third is suicide.

That we see these options so starkly is because everything else is pared away. Herzog’s dialogue, pruning the social floweriness and conversational whorls of Ibsen’s naturalism, gets right to the point of every line, leaving the text raw and red, as if exfoliated. What the first English translation of the play, by William Archer in 1889, rendered as “You see, it is very difficult to keep an account of a business matter of that kind” becomes, for Herzog, “It’s impossible to keep track” — five words instead of 17. The play, usually nosing past three hours, comes in shy of two.

But in cutting and modernizing the language, Herzog does not make the mistake of trashing the social conventions that create the drama in the first place. She doesn’t need to; most of them are still too familiar. In Torvald’s presence, Nora remains a recognizable type, the strategically chirpy songbird pursing her lips and cooing in baby talk. Yet in her superb scenes with Kristine and Rank, the only two people she is not afraid of, we see her other side: calculating, callous and kind when she can afford it.

Chastain puts this all across beautifully. As Nora begins to understand the cracks in the stories she’s been told about the world, we feel the cold air of knowledge shivering her. Sharply, she asks Torvald why only mothers are blamed when children turn out badly. Outraged, she wonders how a law that punishes a wife for saving her husband can be moral. And when her options shrink almost to none, she short-circuits; the seductive tarantella she dances to keep Torvald from reading a fateful letter becomes a kind of seizure.

Jesmille Darbouze, left, as Nora’s schoolmate Kristine Linde, a widow seeking employment. Darbouze and Chastain’s scenes together are superb, our critic writes.Credit…Sara Krulwich

The staging enhances that interiority at every turn. The children are mere voices. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design makes the dialogue sound as if it’s piped direct from the hypothalamus. In rotating each new scene toward Nora on the turntable, Lloyd highlights the transfer of information from character to character as if it were a shuttlecock — or contraband.

Exhilarating as the approach is in vindicating Nora, this modern take on “A Doll’s House” does hit a wall with Krogstad and, crucially, Torvald. Casting Onaodowan, a Black actor, as the play’s most obvious villain, and then underlighting him for scary, shadowy effects (the lighting is by Jon Clark), may be a way of provoking and then subverting a racist response. And it’s true that the character is greatly softened here in Onaodowan’s ultimately sympathetic performance.

But Moayed, a daring actor, has less leeway with Torvald. If the other characters feel comfortably at home in 2023, his insufferable, inexcusable paternalism leaves him utterly behind, a relic of 1879.

It’s worth noting that linguists generally translate Ibsen’s title — “Et dukkehjem” — as “A Dollhouse” instead of “A Doll’s House.” The prison isn’t just Nora’s; she and Torvald are equally trapped in it. My only real quibble with this compelling, surgically precise revival is that it doesn’t seem to be interested in preserving that unity: in keeping our sympathy for both characters as balanced as Ibsen evidently intended. When the astonishing curtain coup finally comes, you should feel his loss no less than her liberation.

A Doll’s House
Through June 10 at the Hudson Theater, Manhattan; adollshousebroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes.