Friday, March 7, 2014

Theater Reviews: 'A Doll’s House' at BAM; 'Ode to Joy' Off-Broadway

A Doll’s House
Written by Henrik Ibsen, English version by Simon Stephens; directed by Carrie Cracknell
Performances through March 23, 2014
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

Ode to Joy
Written and directed by Craig Lucas
Performances through March 30, 2014
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York, NY

Morahan and Rowan in Ibsen's A Doll's House (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Now considered conventional, Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece A Doll’s House was controversial, even shocking in its day: one can imagine its reception in 1879 by its initial audiences—and critics—who were taken aback by heroine Nora Helmer leaving her home, her husband Torvald and her three young children to begin anew in a world to which she has never conformed.

Carrie Cracknell’s production, for the most part intelligent and lucid, takes the play at face value and assumes that the audience does too: there’s little tampering done with the familiar story and characters, with the exception of Nora herself—that famous bundle of contradictions—whom Cracknell and leading lady Hallie Morahan turn into an unfortunate barrelful of tics and mannerisms, the likes of which haven’t been seen on BAM’s stage since Cate Blanchett’s irritating Hedda Gabler some years back.

In an effort to encompass Nora as both shrewd, proto-feminist manipulator and flitting, subordinate “hamster” (in Simon Stephens’ English version), Morahan acts up a storm, never standing or sitting still, hands and arms constantly aflutter, signaling her distress by theatrically lowering her voice. Regrettably, her jumbled assemblage of individually brilliant moments never coheres.

What truly distinguishes this Doll’s House is designer Ian McNeil’s magnificent rotating set, which not only spatially lays out the Helmer house but also places Nora’s to-ing and fro-ing in what looks uncannily like a life-size doll house, providing reverberations that, if they don’t always illuminate the play, at least they never obscure it.

Dominic Rowan’s excellent Torvald never becomes the cardboard character he’s often presented as, making a formidable and believable man of his times. Since she has physicalized Nora so much, Morahan appears most at ease as a whirling dervish doing the heavily symbolic tarantella at Act I’s end; if the play itself doesn’t end on a subtler grace note than Nora’s final door slamming, it still retains its power 135 years after it was written.

Hope and Erbe in Ode to Joy (Photo: Sandra Coudert)
In Ode to Joy, playwright Craig Lucas works through intense personal demons through his heroine, Adele, an artist whose addictions—physical, emotional and artistic—are overwhelming her. Lucas, whose recent works have been diffuse and overstuffed, here takes the opposite tack: there’s a nagging sense that he’s hacked at his play until it is merely dramatic and psychological shards, typified by Adele telling her story in fragmented flashbacks.

We meet her today, then return to 2007 when she cutely meets Bill, a cardiac surgeon who recently lost his own wife, in a deserted Village bar. They quickly fall in lust, then apparently love, spending several years together on and off (mainly off, it seems). We then backtrack another nine years to Adele meeting Mala, who comes to her apartment to buy a painting. That intense relationship lasts more than a year, until a blowup over Adele’s worsening drug addiction during the Y2K scare at New Year’s 2000.

Adele’s relationships with Bill and Mala are less organic than designed to map her travels of self-discovery—a final scene which brings all three characters together for a semi-happy ending is the play’s weakest—but, despite not being as contrived as Lucas’s lackluster, cluttered Prayer for My Enemy and The Singing Forest, there’s an opportunity missed because Lucas obviously has affection for her.

But much of what would make Adele fascinating is elided or omitted outright: at the end, Adele mentions almost in passing that she and Bill married, divorced, remarried, redivorced, and have a young son Justin. Why do such obviously important events go undramatized? That Adele’s relationships and art are never probed too deeply keeps things frustratingly on the surface, particularly when the characters speak in risible greeting-card platitudes (Adele actually says to Bill right after they meet, “I like that you cried. That’s attractive to me.”)  

Lucas—who directs with a sure hand—is helped immeasurably by Arliss Howard, who makes Bill more real onstage than on the page; Roxanna Hope, who unerringly navigates churning waters of the underwritten Mala; and, most especially, the quietly forceful yet winning Kathryn Erbe, who humanizes Adele—that trove of addictive self-loathing—while enacting her painful and bemusing journey.

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