Amy Herzog’s writing has a surgical precision that pares away at the human experience to reveal the core truth of relationships. It was evident in her last theatrical outing, Mary Jane at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017, in which a beleaguered mother tried to maintain optimism while facing her son’s debilitating illness, and in her writing and producing on the 2021 HBO adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, co-written with Hagai Levi. In Scenes from a Marriage, Herzog and Levi gave us a glimpse behind the scenes as the episodes began: the couple walking into the set (their “house”) and waiting for action to be called before playing the roles of “husband” and “wife”. That framing device added a metatextual layer to the already blistering performances of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, examining the inherent performativity of marriage while still allowing space for empathy with the characters.
In her new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, currently on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre, Herzog reunites with Chastain and with familiar subject matter. Ibsen’s play, first performed in 1879, concerns a wife’s mistake while trying to help her husband and her eventual awakening to a dissatisfaction with his patriarchal control over not only their marriage, but their entire world. Herzog’s ear for dialogue is a perfect match for director Jamie Lloyd’s minimalistic mise-en-scène, which relies on the presence of Chastain and the sharpness of Herzog’s writing to create the world of the play. With nothing more than designer Soutra Gilmour’s elegant, concentric turntables and some simple clothing in the black-and-blue of a fresh bruise, Chastain, Herzog, and Lloyd deliver an affecting, contemporary rendition of Ibsen’s play (even if a projection maintains its 1879 setting).
But does Nora’s walk out of Torvald’s house have the impact it needs to? A coup-de-théâtre in the production’s final moments certainly helps, though after Torvald has screamed in her face and called her a “stupid bitch”, what choice does she have? It’s inevitable that she’ll leave; in fact, if she doesn’t, the audience seems prepared to storm the stage. It’s been almost 150 years since Nora found herself in this situation and, today, it’s not so much her leaving him that feels radical as much as it’s the amount of rope Herzog gives Torvald to hang himself. Nora sits in silence while he unloads on her, suddenly dropping his “nice guy” demeanor and becoming openly vicious, self-centered, and overbearing: all things he may have been in varying degrees of microaggressions throughout their marriage. But when he feels like he can truly stomp down on Nora, he says the quiet part out loud and she learns, without question, how he actually feels about her.
Arian Moayed navigates Torvald’s switch-flip with chilling finesse. We know Moayed can bring out the douchebaggery when needed from his role on Succession, but what’s so effective about his Torvald is that the guy who’s keening and spouting invective at his wife is the same one who seemed so gentle moments before. We haven’t seen him be like that, but who’s to say Nora hasn’t? What’s she seen behind the closed doors of the Helmer house before the play began? It happens so abruptly, but the look that Chastain adopts and the immediate retreat her Nora does into herself indicates that this is not the first time she has experienced her husband’s vitriol. But it will be the last.
Chastain and Herzog also aren’t afraid to let Nora be funny, which brings a welcome dimension to a pretty austere physical production. Lloyd’s not exactly known for his laughs: his Betrayal, in similar trappings in 2019, was agonizingly self-serious. Chastain’s megawatt starpower is put to good use, filling in the empty space around her with all the things we’re not seeing. Nora’s good nature, her silliness, and her warmth are at odds with the cold blankness she lives in. She doesn’t belong in this space from the beginning and that only works to serve the story. Chastain sits in a chair for most of the play, but she doesn’t need to be on her feet: there is so much movement in her voice, in her expressions, in the way she touches her hair or crosses her legs. It’s a masterful performance focused in stillness, in embodying this woman and bringing her to life. Her Nora is instantly accessible. There’s no blockage from audience to actor; we’re right with her. It’s been over a decade since Chastain was on Broadway and it’s a thrill to have her back. As captivating as she is on film, she’s equally, or more so, in person.
A t-shirt at the merch stand spoils Nora’s biggest line in the play and isn’t that just indicative of the state of Broadway? As great as this production is and as strong a performance as Chastain is giving, if you happen to read the shirt, the impact of Nora finally claiming her existence is virtually depleted. The entire point of the play is encapsulated next to the frozé as you walk in. But what are you gonna do? There’s so much to appreciate in this revival, particularly Herzog’s writing and the scenework between Chastain and Moayed, are you gonna let a t-shirt ruin your night?