After several major successes — chief among them revivals of “Anna Christie” and “She Loves Me”– the Roundabout offers a case study in the dangers of a non-profit theater going Broadway with an announced agenda of casting movie stars and winning Tony awards. “Hedda Gabler” is one of those mountains actresses want to scale because it’s there, or has been for a century. But few can lift Ibsen’s unvarnished study of a ruthless, vain, egomaniacal woman above the level of soap opera — and dated soap opera at that.
Kelly McGillis has spent considerable time onstage in recent years, but Hedda is quite beyond her reach. In Sarah Pia Anderson’s nervous production of a new and not especially illuminating translation by Frank McGuinness (“Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”), the star uses her face the way novice actresses use speech, stretching everything out as if taking up more time will substitute for an understanding, and revelation, of character.
Every time a character exits Hedda’s presence, regardless of the circumstance , McGillis responds with a catalog of facial tics and grimaces: clenched teeth, flexed cheeks, rolled eyes, etc.
From the first moment, this Hedda is the picture of disdain and disappointment, empty of creative impulse beyond bitchery. And if no audience may ever be able to sympathize with Hedda — indeed, we are never asked to — we need some appreciation of the keenness of her disappointment and jealousy, none of which is in evidence here: McGillis fails to make Hedda anything more than a shrew lacking any moral compass.
Most of the production has a similarly impenetrable veneer — along with the strident insistence of a show that means to demonstrate how relevant it is while succeeding only in underscoring its datedness.
The best performance comes from Laura Linney, as Thea, the muse who has brought a dissolute writer back from the brink, only to have Hedda send him back out there and beyond. Every bit as desperate as Hedda, Thea quickly realizes her new friend is in fact her deadly rival.
But Linney never relinquishes an essential fragility that at some points during this long evening makes Thea’s plight almost heartbreaking. And with minimal histrionics, Linney’s Thea conveys the fierce bravery Hedda lacks and sets out to destroy.
Jeffrey DeMunn is annoying as Hedda’s insufferably mediocre husband, Jorgen; Keith David is a bombastic Judge Brack, and Jim Abele is starchy as Jorgen’s intellectual rival.
McGuinness has moved the play to post-World War II England, for no apparent reason borne out by director Anderson. David Jenkins’ drawing room set lacks distinction, as do the rest of the production values.