Commissioned by the Hartford Stage Co. to adapt Ibsen’s “A Doll House” and “reset the action from Norway in 1879 to a modern, affluent suburb of Manhattan,” playwright Theresa Rebeck has dutifully given her Nora all mod cons, including a fabulous, gleamingly contemporary post-Philip Johnson dream home, an African-American nanny, email, cell phones and cigarettes. Rebeck’s Nora is now a sturdy, young Westchester-style matron — not quite Ibsen’s “little squirrel,” the doll-like toy of a doting husband. Indeed the update as a whole is a misfire, as it reduces Ibsen’s forceful play about the status of wives in the Victorian era to a soap opera in which money, embezzlement and blackmail are more the focus than modern marriage.
Tracy Brigden’s direction lacks the skill and sophistication to cope successfully with the built-in difficulties of Rebeck’s play, a fact evidenced by the often odd and discordant performances she’s drawn from her cast. Each of the two acts begins with Nora (Shelley Williams) at center stage speaking directly to the audience. Her first words are “I am happy.”
And why not? She’s not lacking for creature comforts; her husband, Evan (Frank Converse), believes that he loves her; their best friend, dying Dr. Rank (Christopher McCann), does, too; and she has two sweet little children. The rot sets in with the arrival of a former friend, Neil (Glenn Fleshler), just out of prison for embezzlement. He threatens to blackmail Nora for the role she played in the scheme. With the money she gained, Nora made it possible for her husband, who had a serious heart attack three years earlier, to take a yearlong rest-cure in Italy. As in Ibsen, Nora’s eyes are eventually opened to her husband’s self-centeredness when he learns of her behavior and is appalled.
Unfortunately, Ibsen’s plot doesn’t ring true in this contemporary setting, not least because the role of Evan is still mired in its Victorian heavy-husband sensibility. Some of the dialogue’s contemporary Americanisms don’t help either — largely the cause of the occasional bursts of laughter from the audience.
There are also too many loose ends. Nora’s husband is played older than usual, perhaps to help explain his heart attack. But if Evan was laid off prior to his heart attack three years earlier, and is clearly a man with health problems, why is he now heading up a bank with more than 300 branches? And if he was in such financial disarray three years ago, how did they come by their current splendor, manifested in Walt Spangler’s vast, sleek living-room set, with its wall-sized picture window and lovely view?
Most problematic of all: As written by Rebeck and played by Williams, this Nora is so assured and well put together that surely she would have straightened out the relationship between herself and her husband early on in their eight years of marriage.
This is not, of course, the first time Ibsen’s plays have been tampered with. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman rewrote “A Doll House” as “Breaking a Butterfly” for a London production as long ago as 1884. But as George Bernard Shaw averred, “the mutilation” of a play “has always been an offense.” This one is no exception.