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.