“My frivolity had consequences,” says Kate Burton’s Hedda Gabler about halfway through Broadway’s new production of the Ibsen classic. The character is explaining a part of her predicament to the sinisterly sympathetic Judge Brack, but the line has unintended resonance here: She might just as well be speaking of a problem facing the production itself, which charms and disarms its audience but in the end leaves us curiously unmoved.
Director Nicholas Martin tends to specialize in comedy — his notable New York successes include “Fully Committed” and “Betty’s Summer Vacation” — and he hasn’t allowed Nordic gloom to spread a dank spirit across the set of this production, a pretty, airy space with celadon walls by Alexander Dodge, stylishly lit by Kevin Adams. Throughout the first act, Martin’s “Hedda Gabler” plays like a rollicking domestic comedy, with Burton turning Hedda’s manipulative sorties into snappy wisecracks that produce gales of laughter from audiences who seem to be relieved that no heavy lifting will be required.
The aim of both production and performer seems to be to demystify Ibsen’s daunting antiheroine, to cut away the grande-dame mannerisms and aura of theatricality that the character tends to trail along with those sweeping 19th-century skirts (beautifully realized here by costume designer Michael Krass). Burton offers us a Hedda who is not so much profoundly unfulfilled as chronically irritated. The character’s existential dissatisfaction, which expresses itself at first in subtly mordant humor and later in more terrible ways, here becomes plain crankiness and exasperation. (The occasional effusions of Tesman and Jennifer Van Dyck’s Mrs. Elvsted over Hedda’s “kindness” are rendered ludicrous here, so forthright is her unpleasantness.)
Hedda’s fly-swatting attitude to everyone around her is certainly lively to watch for a while, and who could argue with her contempt for her dizzy wimp of a husband, played with a similar emphasis on comedy by Michael Emerson as a frightened, jumpy rabbit? As a smart bitch among dullards (Harris Yulin’s practically somnolent Judge Brack included), Burton’s Hedda easily gains our sympathy, but hardly inspires fascination — she appears to be a clever but shallow woman whose boredom and frustration are vented in familiar ways.
Her relationship with Eilert Lovborg, for example, is depicted here as a faded passion of a fairly prosaic kind: They clasp hands clandestinely and clutch each other frantically and almost farcically while Tesman and the judge are occupied elsewhere. As played by David Lansbury, Lovborg is not the doomed, romantic figure you might expect but a hyperactive guy with an unfortunate haircut.
Rather more unfortunately, as the play darkens in the last two acts, the distance between Burton’s ordinary Hedda and her extraordinary behavior becomes a dramatic liability. As performed by a woman who is rather less imposing than her wardrobe, Hedda’s acts of destruction simply don’t have the monstrous power they should. Burton seems to sense the dramatic ground she needs to make up, and begins striking some theatrical poses and intoning significant lines with heavy emphasis, but the brooding intensity comes less easily to her than the shrill bursts of nasal laughter that pepper the dialogue.
The question, ultimately, is whether Ibsen intended Hedda Gabler to be an ordinary woman caught in extraordinary circumstances or an extraordinary woman caught in ordinary ones. The answer, I think, is provided in the play’s last line, as Judge Brack recoils from her dead figure and says, “People don’t do such things.” (Jon Robin Baitz’s nimble adaptation, commissioned for another production, shouldn’t be blamed for this one’s dramatic deficit.) After all, Ibsen had already written a play about an everywoman awakened to the emptiness of her prescribed role in life — that would be “A Doll House.”
“Hedda Gabler” is about something more: how creative impulses can be warped into destructive ones, and the cruelty that unfulfilled dreams engender. Its central figure is commensurately richer — Hedda isn’t a bored housewife; she’s an artist without a medium, a larger-than-life representation of human potential trapped by the confining nature of experience. In demystifying Hedda, reducing a figure of powerful potentiality to a shallow-souled smart aleck, the production dilutes the play’s ability to move and enthrall us as a universal portrait of life’s waste.