Playwright Theresa Rebeck adds one hundred and thirty years to Ibsen’s feminist masterpiece, yanking it into the 21st century. DollHouse is Rebeck’s re-imagining of the Ibsen classic (running at New Repertory Theatre through March 20th).
The catch-22 in updating A DOLL’S HOUSE is that we have to root for a shrill, self-centered, preening woman who would rather shop at Barney’s than care for her children. (The nanny does that.) She’s a woman so out of touch with the world around her that, when she desperately needs money, she doesn’t think of getting a job/hocking her diamonds/selling her designer togs on E-Bay/borrowing against her inheritance. Even a loan shark is a better choice than embezzlement. (Rebeck follows Ibsen so closely that she’s obliged to keep the forgery (now embezzlement) plot. I’m satisfied that in 1879 Nora had no other outlet but I just can’t buy that in 2011).
Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s production starts out whimsically, getting plenty of laughs from Nora’s (Sarah Newhouse) surprise reunion with a high school friend. Jennie Israel makes their class differences delightfully awkward. And Israel makes the friend’s betrayal completely believable, even laudatory. To her credit, O’Leary gives the secondary characters a wide berth. Diego Arciniegas is mysteriously compelling as their doctor/friend and Cheryl D. Singleton makes the most of a thankless nanny role. But why does Nora need to leave her children to find herself when she could get a divorce/see a shrink/take an adult ed course/volunteer at a soup kitchen?
Adding to my difficulties with Nora’s lying and buying is the way her husband is played in the New Rep production. Will Lyman gently chides her (for shopping too much or being a soft touch) but he doesn’t go ballistic until the very, very end when he transforms into Bogie from THE MALTESE FALCON (“I’m not takin’ the fall.”) Until then, the worst thing you can say about him is that he’s overprotective. Lyman makes lines like “I don’t want that man in my house” seem eminently reasonable (given that he doesn’t know the facts). So there’s my problem. I liked him so much more than her. I even liked the reluctant blackmailer (Gabriel Kuttner) more than I liked Nora. My favorite interaction in the play is the kindness scene between Nora’s friend and the blackmailer.
Watching the audience, I observed an abrupt magnetic connect when Nora fights to be heard. When she accuses her husband of “not listening,” you could hear the female audience audibly assent. When he asserts the notion that women don’t say anything worth listening to, the males laughed in unison. Every mind in the audience was engaged. Her husband’s assertion that he would never take the blame for her foolish crime resonated for me because of a recent Massachusetts court case (involving a politician whose wife kept the books for her brother’s money laundering scheme) .She went to jail, maintaining her husband didn’t have any knowledge of the crime. He remains in office, evidently untarnished by the affair. Welcome to the real DollHouse.