Saturday, May 30, 2020

129. A DOLL'S HOUSE (2 PRODUCTIONS). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Donald Madden, Claire Bloom.
"In Lieu of Reviews"

Reviews of live theatre being impossible during these days of the pandemic, THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is pleased to provide instead accounts of previous theatre seasons--encompassing the years 1970-1975-for theatre-hungry readers. If you'd like to know the background on how this previously unpublished series came to be and what its relationship is to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

Donald Madden, Patricia Elliott, Claire Bloom.
A DOLL’S HOUSE [Dramatic Revival] A: Henrik Ibsen; TR: Christopher Hampton; D: Patrick Garland; DS: John Bury; P: Hillard Elkins; T: Playhouse Theatre; 1/13/71-6/26/71 (111)

Few recent decades have passed without one or more New York revivals of Ibsen’s once enormously controversial 1879 A Doll’s House, about a distressed wife leaving her family to find peace of mind. There were two between 1970 and 1975, the present one being part of a two-play Ibsen repertory starring English actress Claire Bloom as Nora, the heroine of A Doll’s House, and the title role in Hedda Gabler.

The present production, performed during a period of widespread feminist consciousness raising, struck many by its immediacy to current concerns, but audience reactions could be distressing to the star, especially when, as often happened, women in the audience were so elated by Nora’s decision to leave her fatuous husband, Torvald (Donald Madden), that they shouted “Right on!” Similarly annoying were the hisses emanating from male spectators. Bloom tried to play down the play’s “relevance” and suggest instead its universal concern with “human freedom and dignity.”

A Doll’s House received “a superlative revival,” according to Clive Barnes, in what T.E. Kalem described as “a strong, scrupulous and thoroughly rewarding production.” Martin Gottfried called it “one of the most satisfying  stage experiences of my life.” The staging, acting, and design were highly thought of, but there were disclaimers from a few. To Harold Clurman, the mounting lacked a “living texture—truth of feeling and behavior,” despite its “clean, crisp, brisk, intelligible handling.” The British influence (director, designer, star) may have robbed it of “shadows, hesitations, [and] ambiguities,” he suggested.

Robert Gerringer, Claire Bloom.
Stanley Kauffmann and Clurman may have been turned off by what they viewed as the star’s cool and unappealing Nora, but almost every other reviewer rejoiced at her triumphant embodiment of the role. Bloom’s skill at suggesting early in the play the path Nora would eventually take gave her interpretation an unexpected depth, so that “Even as Nora was nestling her pretty head against her husband’s waistcoat while she seduced him with quick flattery . . . there was a strain about the eyes, an indication of an intelligence withheld,” observed Walter Kerr. Yet this approach may have robbed her of a basic appeal, as “clipping the butterfly’s wings left us with something of a dragonfly,” he averred.

Clurman took the opposite view, seeing only “routine jollity” in the opening scenes and failing to note the hints that Kerr describes. John Simon perceived “an extremely fetching, diaphanous yet real Nora. She uses a minimum of vocal and behavioral props, but manages not only to age but also to come of age in a matter of minutes before our eyes. . . . [W]hat is truly in the final phase is that a good deal of the innocence, vulnerability and grace of Nora is preserved even in the hour of hard lucidity. . . . It makes the concluding scene profoundly and believably moving.”

Roy Shuman was Dr. Rank, Patricia Elliott was Mrs. Kristine Lind, Robert Gerringer was Nils Krogstadt. Bloom was selected by the Drama Desk for its Outstanding Performance award. Her performance can be viewed in a 1973 film version, again directed by Patrick Garland, with Anthony Hopkins as Torvald and a supporting cast of stellar British actors: Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson Edith Evans, and Helen Blatch. 

Liv Ullmann, Barton Heyman.
D: Tormod Skagestad; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Martin Aronstein; P: New York Shakespeare Festival Lincoln Center; T: Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 3/5/75-4/20/75 (56)

Even though it was a mere four years after Claire Bloom’s successful production, the pull of Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann’s presence—bolstered by her stardom in the films of Ingmar Bergman—and the potency of Ibsen’s subject at a time of surging feminist awareness, gave enough impetus to this revival to sell out the house for its entire seven-week engagement even before the show opened.
Liv Ullmann, Sam Waterston, Barbara Colby.
Ullmann’s casting was a stark departure for producer Joseph Papp, who had previously avoided star-headlined productions. He also reached out to Norwegian Tormod Skagestad to handle the staging. Near unanimous raves welcomed Ullman’s performance, although the middling production and uneven cast did not escape unscathed.

Ullmann’s Nora, deemed a triumph of charisma, technique, and insight, earned her a Tony nomination. The glow of her performance illuminated all the weaknesses in her fellow players. “She is a sensitive, intelligent, bewitching and tremendously real Nora,” wrote Douglas Watt. She succeeded brilliantly in depicting the subtle changes undergone by the character from dependent doll-like wife to independent woman. Here was “a rich, many-layered performance that has about it the quality of a moral force,” commented Clive Barnes. “Her playing is wonderful, especially aided by her lustrous beauty and magnetic presence,” added Martin Gottfried. “It is certainly the most intensely felt Nora I have never seen, as powerful in the nervous artificiality at the beginning as in the painful, growing self-awareness at the end,” remarked Howard Kissell.

Only T.E. Kalem of the major critics thought Ullmann to be mediocre, incapable of projecting within the Beaumont’s vast spaces, and marred by “a thin voice with a narrow, monotonous range,” “an arbitrary rhetoric of motions,” and “a misconception of the role.”

Judith Light, Michael Chambers, Liv Ullmann.
Sam Waterston’s notices for the unsympathetic role of Torvald were respectable but many thought him unfit to walk the same stage as Ullmann. The rest of the company—including Barbara Colby as Mrs. Lind, Michael Granger as Dr. Rank, Barton Heyman as Krogstad, and even a young Judith Light as Helene, the maid—were widely criticized as inadequate, as was the director’s plodding and unatmospheric treatment of the action.

Previous entries:

Abelard and Helo/ise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais                      
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little                              
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel
The Beauty Part
The Beggar’s Opera
Behold! Cometh the Vanderkellens
Be Kind to People Week
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Bette Midler’s Clams on a Half-Shell Revue
Black Girl
Black Light Theatre of Prague
Black Picture Show
Black Sunlight
The Black Terror
Black Visions
Les Blancs
Blasts and Bravos: An Evening with H,L. Mencken
Blue Boys
Bob and Ray—The Two and Only
Boesman and Lena
The Boy Who Came to Leave
A Breeze from the Gulf
Brief Lives
Brother Gorski
Bullshot Crummond
The Burnt Flower Bed
Button, Button
Buy Bonds, Buster

The Cage
Candide (1)
Candide (2)
The Candyapple
Captain Brassbound’s Conversion
The Caretaker
La Carpa de los Raquichis
The Carpenters
The Castro Complex
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Changing Room
Charles Abbott and Son
Charley’s Aunt
Charlie Was Here and Now He’s Gone
Chemin de Fer
The Cherry Orchard
The Chickencoop Chinaman
The Children
Children! Children!
Children in the Rain
Children of the Wind
The Children’s Mass
A Chorus Line
The Chronicle of Henry VI: Part 1, Part II,
The Circle
Clarence Darrow
Cold Feet
Conditions of Agreement
Coney Island Cycle
The Constant Wife
The Contractor
The Contrast
The Constant Wife
The Country Girl
Crazy Now
The Creation of the World and Other Business
The Crucible
Crystal and Fox

Dames at Sea
The Dance of Death
Dance wi’Me/Dance with Me
A Day in the Life of Just about Everyone
Dear Nobody
Dear Oscar
The Desert Song
Diamond Studs
Different Times
The Dirtiest Show in Town
The Divorce of Judy and Jane
Do It Again!
Doctor Jazz