Review: ‘Dollhouse’

It's far from a flawless bit of time travel, and the text has some fat to cut. But Rebecca Gilman's savvy, commercial, droll and deliciously caustic updating of Ibsen's marital classic "A Doll's House" barbecues modern-day, debt-ridden Chi yuppies -- complete with their nannies, flatscreen TVs, overpriced condos, lousy ethics and marriages built on sexual frippery.

Torvald is in midmarket lending at Bank One. Krogstad is running from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mrs. Lind is a needy refugee from Arthur Andersen. Dr. Rank is an iconoclastic college pall with liver cancer. And Nora? She’s a Whole Foods-loving art history ditz with a penchant for gourmet chocolates and maxed-out plastic. It’s far from a flawless bit of time travel, and the text has some fat to cut. But just as her “Spinning Into Butter” skewered liberal racism, so Rebecca Gilman’s savvy, commercial, droll and deliciously caustic updating of Ibsen’s marital classic “A Doll’s House” barbecues modern-day, debt-ridden Chi yuppies — complete with their nannies, flatscreen TVs, overpriced condos, lousy ethics and marriages built on sexual frippery.

Robert Falls’ splashy, fast-paced piece of Goodman hyper-realism works very well until it overreaches and goes completely off the rails of credulity in the final 20 hyperventilating minutes, when the central marriage dissolves in unnecessary, actorly screaming fits that aren’t believable for a moment.

The teasing, endless conclusion — will she leave the sexist dick? will she stay? — also is the weakest part of a script that works much better when it keeps its touch light and tongue in cheek. That’s a watchable, crowdpleasing style maintained to great comic and political effect for most of the night by a playwright and a director who work effectively together on this kind of big canvas.

As Dario Fo has said, the urban rich love to see themselves flogged on the stage with such dead-on specificity — even if they have to be persuaded they’re watching their neighbors not themselves.

Sure, the target of shallow, acquisitive urbanites isn’t the toughest one in the world. And Gilman is more at ease lampooning shallow Nora and her self-serving life than in translating the baby steps toward protofeminism that Ibsen promoted. But this show is too hip, too gossipy, too watchable and too carefully observed to disappear. And too many people will want to live in Robert Brill’s fabulous granite-and-cherry set.

The Ibsen roots provide inside gags and a safe anchor for crix and the high-art set that knows the original and needs some gravitas before it can relax and enjoy a nouveau Nora doing an erotic dance. Meanwhile, the casual theatergoer can enjoy the play as a tony, schadenfreude-inducing urban soap on its own terms (it recalls “Dinner With Friends”). That’s a boffo combo of B.O. appeal.

Despite a few too many (presumably excisable) references to specific Chi locales, this “Dollhouse” will be popping up fast in Gotham, no question.

Gilman is hardly the first to update Nora, but the most impressive aspect of “Dollhouse” is how closely Gilman captures the main themes of the 19th-century original without too many contrivances. Letters become emails; blackmail turns on the appearance of a loan kickback.

Gilman also takes the Ibsen plot functionaries and turns them into modern characters one thinks one has met.

There are any number of other clever ideas that maintain Ibsen’s themes and yet make the action feel fresh. One especially savvy moment is Gilman’s translation of Ibsen’s famous tarantella into a sexed-up Nora preparing for a New Year’s Eve party by doing a bra-less number from “Flashdance” in 1980s costume as her husband and potential lover drool at her side. The effect is the same as the one Ibsen intended.

Dr. Rank metamorphoses into Dr. Pete (superbly played by Lance Stuart Baker), a loner physician who can’t heal himself. The new version of Kristine Lind (also well performed by Elizabeth Rich) is now Nora’s old resident adviser from college, which gives the pair a new personal connection that makes sense of Kristine’s intervention in the marriage of her old freshman charge.

And Raj, the new Krogstad, is a striving son of immigrants from a small Illinois town, who has made and then screwed up a biotech fortune. It’s a clever translation that succeeds in turning a villain into a sympathetic figure.

Similarly, the domestic servants in the play let Gilman make some fine points about the widespread use of underpaid immigrant help, who then must sacrifice their own parental obligations to make a buck.

Ironically, the show is a little less certain when it comes to the central couple, especially Torvald, now Terry. Anthony Starke looks the part of a banker, but he has a tendency to overplay and his work lacks emotional complexity. It’s this character — and this performance — that needs the most work.

Maggie Siff — a glamorous, vulnerable actress — works much better as Nora, deftly capturing how child-women can function perfectly well with patronizing husbands who haven’t changed all that much between the 19th and 21st centuries — just as long as the trophy wife never wakes up.


Goodman Theater, Chicago; 800 seats; $60 top


A Goodman Theater production of a play in two acts by Rebecca Gilman, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Robert Falls.


Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, James Ingalls; original music and sound, Richard Woodbury. Opened, reviewed June 28, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.


Nora - Maggie Siff Terry - Anthony Starke Pete - Lance Stuart Baker Kristine - Elizabeth Rich Raj Patel - Firdous Bamji Marta - Charin Alvarez Iris - Maritza Cervantes Skyler - Melody Hollis/ Allison Sparrow Max - Ryan Cowhey/ Matthew Gerdisch Macey - Jordyn Knysz/Emily Leahy
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