A clever idea stretched thin, “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” stems from the witty imagination of playwright Jeff Whitty, best known for writing the book of “Avenue Q.” In this conceptual comedy, receiving its world premiere at South Coast Rep, Hedda Gabler and other famed fictional figures live on in a type of purgatory, trapped in the confines of character imposed on them by their creators. It’s something like the film “Groundhog Day” blended with Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” but campier. While funny and thoughtful, it’s not quite enough of either.
After shooting herself in the head at the end of Ibsen’s masterpiece and thereby achieving immortality, Hedda (Susannah Schulman) awakes to find herself … awake. For the last 100-plus years, she’s been living out her restless depression on the Cul de Sac for Tragic Women, killing herself every couple of days, only to start again. Her best friend and neighbor? Tragic heroine par excellence Medea (Kate A. Mulligan), who at one point shows up blood-soaked from murdering her children for the umpteenth time. “I did it again,” she says, “and I feel rotten about it.”
Whitty sets this fanciful notion in motion and gives it some cerebral depth by having Hedda resolve to change, once and for all. She sets out to find “the Furnace,” the place from which all fictional characters emerge, planning to confront Ibsen and insist he alter the ending of her story, freeing her from an eternity of static tragicness.
Eventually the inevitable discovery will be made: With change comes another type of sacrifice. In the meantime, Whitty populates the play with some characters whose interest in personal evolution is actually more intriguing than Hedda’s.
First, there’s Mammy from “Gone With the Wind,” the slave who wants to be a slave. Tired of being rejected by other black characters as an offensive cliche, Mammy (Kimberly Scott ably channeling Hattie McDaniel) tags along with Hedda, carrying the aristocratic white woman’s luggage, of course.
And Hedda’s husband, Tesman (Christopher Liam Moore), who follows his wife hoping to convince her to commit suicide again, meets up with dated stereotypes Patrick (Dan Butler) and Steven (Patrick Kerr), a pair of self-hating gay men resembling the characters from Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band.”
A couple of sitcom pros, Butler and Kerr — both with wigs that make them unrecognizable — provide more than a fair share of the show’s laughs, having a lot of fun portraying queeny fabulousness circa 1970. These characters also voice the most intriguing themes Whitty explores, the degree to which such stereotypes should be remembered and embraced as “pioneers,” or rejected and forgotten.
Other famous characters from a host of sources make cameo appearances as jokes. Some of these fictional figures, such as a depiction of an Ntozake Shange character (Bahni Turpin), are a bit obscure for a general audience. There were occasional, noticeable murmurs of perplexity in the house, and there’s a definite danger that this play will tickle theatermakers significantly more than theatergoers.
That said, under Bill Rauch’s direction, this is a smoothly delivered production with a particularly fine cast. Schulman most certainly convinces as a performer who could pull off a genuine Hedda — her hissy fits simply reflect the comic image of Hedda’s tragic frustrations.
Ultimately, though, “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” needs something more, because it doesn’t deliver enough amusement, or sufficient intellectual intrigue, to sustain its concept. When Mammy breaks out in the one full song, the very funny “Here I Is,” it does make one wonder whether this would be far more fulfilling as a musical. As is, it’s an extended, if rich, comedy sketch — imagine “Avenue Q” without the musical numbers. Since “Here I Is” was added late in the development of this show, perhaps Whitty would be willing to send Hedda back again into the Furnace for further adventures.