THE GREAT ALLA NAZIMOVA, AS HEDDA GABLER (1907)
AND HOW FAR WE’VE FALLEN:
MARY LOUISE PARKER AS “HEIDI” GABLER (2009)
(Photo by Sarah Krulwich)
Chekhov once famously exhorted his actors to perform his work as if it were comedy – something the recent revivals of THE SEA GULL and THE CHERRY ORCHARD – take to somewhat extreme results, which only end up being woefully unfunny (and unmoving). I don’t know what Ibsen had to say to his performers, but there is little doubt that the Roundabout’s current production of his searingly tragic HEDDA GABLER is a downright laugh riot, if unintentionally so.
The chief perpetrator is Mary Louise Parker who, although her Hedda is entirely misconceived as a girlish little brat, is at least more watchable than she usually is. In PROOF, ANGELS IN AMERICA and so much else, she seemed to be aping an observation Pauline Kael once made about Sandy Dennis making an acting style out of a post-nasal drip. From her affectedly adenoidal line delivery to the wide-eyed waif-ishness, stabbingly forthright gesticulation and over-calculated timing, Parker was one busy bundle of mannerisms. Here, she is no less mannered, but absolutely riveting. That she is also giving one helluva bad performance only rather adds to the perverse enjoyment afforded.
Elegantly sporting Ann Roth’s magnificently statuesque gowns (the only sign of real artistry in this production), she carries on like a spoiled birthday girl at Chuck E Cheese suffering a simultaneous sugar attack and desperate need to be put down, nap-wise. It must be said that Christopher Shinn’s smart-ass, anachronistically modern adaptation of Ibsen’s text contributes to the generally infantile atmosphere, yet another example of a great playwright’s work being given a presumptuous and unnecessary makeover by a lesser, contemporary one. I, for, one am heartily sick of these directors and adaptors who condescendingly make all this noise about shaking the dust off the classics and replace it with jarring anachronisms and a battery of other inappropriate, self-indulgent “modern” effects. Here, Shinn not only cuts out Hedda’s desire for her Lovborg to come back triumphantly to her wreathed in vine leaves but changes the devastating final line, “But people don’t do such things!” to the pallid “Who would do such a thing?” The New York Times’ Ben Brantley expressed total bewilderment that Director Ian Rickson could have directed such a bad revival of HEDDA when he recently did such a good one of THE SEA GULL There’s really no mystery and Brantley was only half right – they both frankly stank.
“Excellent!” Parker cries sarcastically, sounding like Keanu Reeves or Mike Meyers, when yet another one of Hedda’s maleficent machinations gets befouled. As the curtain rises, our first view of her is prone, with her derriere gratuitously exposed, as if to noxiously prove right off that this “ain’t your grandma’s HEDDA!” Later she changes dresses onstage, revealing a trendy, black half-cup brassiere, which surely would have startled any maid in 1890, the year the play takes lace. And her reaction to the devastating news that her would-be lover, the dissolute, doomed poet Ejlert Lovborg has shot himself – not nobly in the head, but vulgarly in the groin – elicits a voluminous, frustrated hiss that had people rolling in the aisles.
Parker’s co-actors only add to the hapless hilarity. Peter Stormare effortfully tries and risibly fails to be sepulchrally menacing as Judge Brack, who lusts after unhappy Hedda and will do anything to have her in his thrall. Paul Sparks, looking and acting like an Abercrombie & Finch model as Lovborg makes the perfect SoCal Valley Boy counterpart to this nutty Goth girl who’s really more of a “Heidi Gabler,” although the way he pronounces her surname – “Gobbler” – might have you thinking he’s referring to some Norwegian Thanksgiving dinner. He’s wholly unbelievable as any kind of thwarted genius artist, although you certainly can see him going on a whorehouse bender. Ana Reeder also comes dangerously close to eliciting guffaws as a particularly bovine, cluelessly immature Thea Elvsted, unimaginable as any kind of a romantic rival to even this diminished Hedda. Michael Cerveris manages to emerge with some dignity intact as Hedda’s husband, Jorgen, the most thankless unloved spouse role ever conceived, but brings little detailed interest or redeeming humor to a dull part. Lois Markle is a maid – sporting a ridiculously huge ethnic headdress and what I surmise is her idea of a Norwegian accent – right out of some hoary vaudeville routine.
As the play neared its climax, the audience could have been watching an episode of MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, so primed were they to guffaw at that crazy lady on the stage and her wacky antics. Any hard-won empathy one might have felt toward a titular character, stifled by gender and place in society, was simply nonexistent. Hedda, who must be both compellingly charismatic and cruel, is a notoriously difficult role to play, one which somehow completely escaped the actress born to do it – Bette Davis. Ingrid Bergman was conventionally cold and dull in the role, Glenda Jackson snorted like Ferdinand the Bull on a single, monotonous note of anger when she acted it, Fiona Shaw crazily munched every bit of available onstage bric-a-brac, Kate Burton played it as if she were the maid. A super-elegant Cate Blanchett made a boldly effective attempt at it, filled with black humor, at BAM in 2006, which was nearly undone by the wrackingly obvious direction of Robyn Nevins, replete with those thunderous music effects underlining the end of each act which have become the tiredest modern theatrical cliche of them all.
CATE BLANCHETT AS HEDDA (2006) Photo by Steven Siewert
The best Hedda I’ve ever seen happened in 1954, and you can see it for yourself if you go to The Paley Center (The Museum of Television & Radio) and request the videotape. Tallulah Bankhead was 52 when she did it for a TV broadcast of the U.S. Steel Hour, but proved that age is wholly irrelevant as she invested it with all the magnetic glamour, laser wit and terrifying malevolence Ibsen surely must have intended. Hedda Gabler is, like MEDEA, or Blanche DuBois (or HAMLET for men), a role which no amount of theatrical training and personal desire can prepare one for. In short, Bankhead was a truly extraordinary woman, playing just that: the perfect, rarest marriage of personality and part.
TALLULAH BANKHEAD, THE BEST HEDDA I EVER SAW
(Portrait by Augustus John, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.)
MAGGIE SMITH (1970)
DIANA RIGG (1981)
FIONA SHAW, 1993
JANET SUZMAN (WITH JOHN SHRAPNEL 1977)
EVA LE GALLIENNE (PLAYED IT ON BROADWAY IN 1948)
INGRID BERGMAN, 1963
GLENDA JACKSON (1970)
ELIZABETH MARVEL (2004)
KATINA PAXINOU (PLAYED IT ON BROADWAY IN 1942)
ASTA NIELSEN, 1925
MRS. PATRICK CAMPBELL (1907)
PEGGY ASHCROFT, WHO GAVE A MEMORABLY SAVAGE PORTRAYAL IN 1954
CLAIRE BLOOM PLAYED IT ON BROADWAY IN 1972
JILL BENNETT PLAYED HEDDA IN 1972, FROM AN ADAPTATION BY HER THEN HUSBAND, JOHN OSBORNE
ISABELLE HUPPERT, 2005
DELPHINE SEYRIG, 1967
IRENE WORTH, 1970
NANCE O’NEILL, 1917
ITALIA ALMIRANTE-MANZINI, 1919