Leave it to that perversely insightful Hedda Gabler to put her finger on what ails the new production of the play that bears her name. In the second act of this unhappy revival of Ibsen’s 1890 drama, which opened Sunday night at the American Airlines Theater, Hedda (Mary-Louise Parker) admits she possesses a talent for only one thing: “Feeling dead.” By that time no one is going to argue with her.
“Eureka!” I thought when Ms. Parker delivered those words, as she had so many others, in a voice you could iron shirts on. “That explains everything.”
How wise of Christopher Shinn, who did this new adaptation of Ibsen’s oft-produced ode to the frustrations of modern womanhood, to substitute “feeling dead” for the more traditional “boring myself to death.” That affectless, amateurish acting I’d been seeing onstage, with its flat-line readings and saggy pauses, was all in the name of creating the illusion of people already dead. Could it be that this “Hedda Gabler” had fallen under the spell of “Twilight,” the hit movie from fall about the price of loving for teenage vampires?
I mean, think about it. The forever fresh-faced Ms. Parker, one of our most delightful actresses, has traded in her usual air of easy, quirky spontaneity for the robotic petulance of an I-hate-everybody adolescent in a yearlong sulk. With her hair darkened, her face ghostly pale and her frame skeletal thin, her Hedda brings to mind a valley girl who’s given up cheerleading to be a goth because it’s way cooler and it matches the place her mind’s at now.
Seen in this context, even the bizarre visual that opens the play — Hedda lying on a couch, her skirt hiked up and her seemingly bare derrière on view — fits into place. Hedda is mooning us. Now that’s really showing your contempt for the bourgeoisie. And of course this vampire housewife, unlike the frigid Heddas of the past, is quite amenable to sexual activity on the sly. Hey, she lets her old flame, Ejlert Lovborg (Paul Sparks), get all the way to third base while her husband’s in the other room. That Mr. Sparks plays the brilliant, decadent Ejlert with the inflections of a ticked-off surfer dude only feeds into the whole “Twilight” effect.
All right. I give up. That’s as far as I can go with the “Twilight” theory. I would so love to be able to make a case — any case — for this “Hedda Gabler,” a Roundabout Theater Company production. I have only deep admiration for many of those involved in this whacked-out rendering of Ibsen’s landmark portrait of a woman suffocated by societal constraints and her own neuroses. (Yes, that is what the play’s about, but it’s not relevant to what we’re discussing here.)
Ms. Parker (currently of the television series “Weeds”) has provided some of my most pleasurable theatergoing moments, in plays by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss,” “Reckless”) and Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”). Mr. Shinn (“Dying City”) is one of the absolute best of a new generation of American playwrights. Michael Cerveris, who plays Hedda’s husband, is an actor who up to now I thought could do absolutely anything. And — oh, break, break my heart — the director of this “Hedda” is Ian Rickson, who this season delivered a nigh-perfect “Seagull” on Broadway, one of the best revivals I have ever, ever seen.
That he is now responsible for one of the worst revivals I have ever, ever seen has me flummoxed. Mr. Rickson’s “Seagull” was a fluidly integrated production in which everyone seemed to exist in the same moment and in the same universe. With this “Hedda” it’s not just that everyone is bad. It’s that they’re all bad in their own, different ways. At times you feel that because of some confusing detours in the back alleys of Broadway, actors who were meant to be in — I dunno, anything from “Grease” to “Equus” — showed up at the wrong place.
Let’s take Mr. Cerveris, a man of strong, resonant theatricality who has been cast as Jorgen Tesman, the ineffectual scholar who, to everyone’s surprise, marries Hedda. Well, there’s nothing dry about this guy, with his orotund voice, expansive gestures and arch smile. Peter Stormare, who plays the seemingly respectable, hypocritical Judge Brack, has the hardy, thuggish air of a Russian mob czar.
I’ve mentioned the wild and crazy Ejlert, done here as a monotonal slacker trapped in a suit. So among the main performers, that leaves Ana Reeder, who as the idealistic, aspiringly righteous Thea Elvsted suggests a whiny, mixed-up toddler lost in a big department store.
The set, by Hildegard Bechtler, is surprisingly conventional. It looks like a dozen other “Hedda Gabler” sets I’ve seen, except that it has taller doors and windows. Ann Roth’s costumes are handsome, and Ms. Parker in particular wears them well (at least when she’s not flashing us). Mr. Shinn’s translation provides new options for familiar lines, which can sometimes seem as if he’s bending words into pretzels just to avoid the expected.
That includes the famous curtain line of “Hedda Gabler.” (If you don’t know the play, do not read on.) In most translations it’s “People don’t do such things.” In this version it has been changed to “Who would do such a thing!” If I weren’t aware of the previous work of this creative team, I would be scratching my head furiously and asking the very same question about this “Hedda Gabler.”
Is the world ready for a post-punk Hedda Gabler?
One would assume that, given her paralyzing fear of scandal, the last thing Henrik Ibsen's tortured 19th-century housewife would want is to make a spectacle of herself. But in the Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Hedda Gabler (** out of four), which opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre, that's precisely what she does.
There was reason to expect more from Mary-Louise Parker, the latest A-list actress to tackle a character who, like Macbeth or Mama Rose, seems destined to pop up on Broadway every few years. But Parker's intelligence and range are wasted on this performance, which reduces Hedda to a petulant, if glamorous, brat.
Gaunt and lovely, her pale skin set off by morosely stylish gowns, Parker looks like a goth goddess in a music video. (There is, in fact, original incidental music by alt-rock darling PJ Harvey.) She speaks in a clipped monotone that suggests a sulking teenager more than a spoiled, emotionally stunted woman who has just resigned herself to a marriage she views as spiritual death. Whether this Hedda is more a victim of patriarchal oppression or her own darkly romantic ideals is irrelevant; she's too irritating to make us wonder, or care.
The chief culprits are director Ian Rickson and playwright Christopher Shinn, whose adaptation tries way too hard to underline Ibsen's psychological insights and make this timeless classic more accessible to modern audiences. The contrast between Hedda's dull, dutiful husband, Jorgen Tesman, and her dashing, dissolute former flame and enduring heartthrob, Ejlert Lovborg, is particularly overstated. Michael Cerveris brings a disarming tenderness to Tesman. And as Judge Brack, the wiliest of Hedda's admirers, Peter Stormare enjoys a subtle, infectious chemistry with Parker.
In contrast, Parker's scenes with Paul Sparks' Lovborg and Ana Reeder's Mrs. Elvsted, Hedda's rival for his devotion, can border perilously on camp. At a recent preview, some in the audience laughed at points that had never, in previous revivals, seemed intentionally funny or ironic.
Or perhaps they were snickering. Either way, it's doubtful that Hedda would have approved.
Mary-Louise Parker's interpretation of "Hedda Gabler" was probably always going to be a little wacky, but in the Roundabout revival she's the loopiest of a fairly off-kilter bunch. Using a disappointingly blunt new adaptation by Christopher Shinn, this is a production so doused in glum eccentricities that Ibsen's terminally bored neurotic has already reached the apex of her caged desperation before a line of dialogue has even been spoken. And while there's entertainment to be had from Parker's curt sarcasm and nutty double-takes, too many perplexing choices make the great play unaffecting and the irrational actions of its self-destructive antiheroine unsurprising.
Theater insiders often claim that admiration for and understanding of the works of Ibsen and Chekhov are mutually exclusive. If there's any truth in that, it's perhaps not such a shock that former Royal Court a.d. Ian Rickson -- a director primarily associated with new plays -- should succeed so resoundingly this season with "The Seagull" but stumble with "Hedda Gabler."
The problems begin in Shinn's adaptation. In works like "Dying City," the playwright has shown an impressive aptitude for probing psychological reflection and keenly observed social context, which are precisely what's missing here. Cripplingly, for a tragedy about an intelligent, spirited woman's powerlessness in a stifling boy's-club society, there's little sense of history. Nor is there anything much beyond Ann Roth's elegant costumes to suggest Parker is playing a woman of the late 19th century -- or any period other than the present.
This is an aggressively contemporary take on the play, but one whose insights seem more perverse than illuminating. It turns one of the most compellingly complicated women in modern drama into just another petulant, tantrum-throwing narcissist who could be stomping around the swanky apartments, velvet-rope nightclubs and high-end boutiques of any banal rich-bitch TV show.
As always, severity is the keynote of Hildegard Bechtler's set, with towering folding doors dominating an intimidatingly high-ceilinged drawing room that's all drab grandeur and colorlessness. We get it -- the big villa up on the hill in which Hedda has been freshly installed is not exactly cozy, nor does it lend itself to any kind of self-expression.
Rickson opens with the odd choice of placing Parker's Hedda asleep on an upstage day bed, lying bare-assed with her back to the audience and her dress hiked up around her waist.
This provides something to think about through the long, slow and often tedious first act: Is it a symbol of Hedda's flagrant disregard for society? The constriction of her gender? Has she been visited during the night by Jorgen Tesman (Michael Cerveris), the bookish bore of a husband for whom she feels not a trace of affection? Has she been masturbating? Or is MLP just so used to flitting around in those spike heels and hoochie dresses on "Weeds" she felt like showing some toned skin? Any of those explanations makes as much sense as the other.
Part of the fascination of Ibsen's mean-spirited trophy wife is that her swirl of contradictory actions defies explanation, and despite her infinite self-absorption, she's not the least prone to examining her behavior. But as her world closes in on her -- with Tesman; his academic rival and her former flame Ejlert Lovborg (Paul Sparks); and predatory family friend Judge Brack (Peter Stormare) all eluding her control -- we have to care what happens to this beautiful, spoilt creature.
Like Cate Blanchett's showboating, vainglorious Hedda at BAM in 2006, but for different reasons, Parker's seething kook remains remote. Especially in the swifter second act, her mounting unease is gripping but it never acquires much dramatic urgency.
Too often she seems driven by petty jealousy rather than panic, particularly in her destruction of Lovborg's symbolic baby, the brilliant unpublished manuscript he produced with help from fretful dullard Thea Elvsted, whose intensity borders on dementia in Ana Reeder's odd performance.
More than usual, Hedda appears here to be still in love with Ejlert, as evidenced by her responses to his frantic under-the-skirt investigations and by her high-melodrama pronouncement at the close of act one: "At ten o'clock, Ejlert Lovborg comes back to me!" (This is made even sillier by the sudden swell of PJ Harvey's brooding music.)
In fact, the whole unraveling of Hedda's composure seems dictated less by her mounting sense of entrapment than by pique -- her husband looks suddenly like a career under-achiever unable to finance her social life; Ejlert fails to live up to her romantic expectations, even in his quasi-suicide; and lugubrious sleazebag Judge Brack has staked his claim as the third point in her domestic triangle. All this just seems annoying rather than a cause for despair.
With his lascivious, stilted drawl, Stormare plays the judge as a less personable Lurch from the Addams Family, making it tough to comprehend why no one even looks askance at this creep, much less trusts him with the family's business dealings. Cerveris plays more effectively against type, damping down his charisma and menace to play a ponderous, fawning dolt, while Sparks fares best of the three, conveying some of the anguish that's missing elsewhere as Ejlert loses his grip.
But Shinn and Rickson have failed to make any of the men in Hedda's waking fever dream formidable enough figures to spell her undoing. Nor is there a real sense of the rigid society that's supposedly stifling her. Parker is a magnetic stage presence -- and it's part of the pleasure of watching her, even in this misguided showcase. But even at her craziest, her prowling, plotting Hedda seems too shrewd to let herself feel boxed in by a roomful of mere irritants.
When Thea suggests she might be able to piece together Ejlert's lost manuscript from the notes she has lovingly saved, Parker hisses like a cat. For a woman suffocated and running out of options, peevish exasperation doesn't do much to amp up the drama.