Nora in Rep
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 28, 2012
A Doll’s Life, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Larry Grossman’s musical sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, flopped on Broadway in September, 1982 after a run of 18 previews and 5 performances. The reasons, as critics, pundits, and musical theater historians later speculated, were numerous, ranging from miscasting to director Hal Prince’s mammoth staging that dwarfed the material, to the material itself, which forgoes cohesiveness in favor of a series of vignettes that show how Nora, liberated from Torvald, her children, and her macaroons, comes to realize how liberation may not be all that she thought.
Like most flops, A Doll’s House has its small but devoted following, fans who find it a minor curiosity in the canon of the legendary team that produced classics like On the Town, Wonderful Town, and The Will Rogers Follies. It is with love that The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective has given us a 30th Anniversary revival of the piece, paired in repertory with its dramatic prequel, at the New Ohio Theatre. It would take a miracle to convince anyone that A Doll’s Life is a forgotten gem, though I’m told the York’s scaled-down and somewhat revised version in 1994 came as close as possible. Steven Carl McCasland’s production for Beautiful Soup (of which he is artistic director) features passionate performances and impressive singing, but can’t overcome the material, which just isn’t that good.
The fiercely determined Mallory Berlin is Nora, who, after marching out of Torvald’s house, finds herself on a train to Christiana (as Oslo was called) to begin her new life. Over the course of the piece, she becomes entangled with three potential suitors: Otto (the big-voiced Jonathan Gruntert), the poor composer of a second-rate nationalist opera; Eric (the appropriately slimy Alex Pagels), a wealthy industrial magnate; and Johan (the heartbreaking Thomas Dolan), a solicitor who sees in Nora what no one else can: her potential to become the free woman she truly wants to be. Along the way, she becomes a social activist, learns to enjoy sex (as opposed to sex being a wifely duty), and realizes that maybe independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Comden and Green’s episodic book is hard-to-follow, though their lyrics are far stronger and grittier, especially combined with Grossman’s occasionally beautiful score. Ultimately, it leaves nothing to the imagination; sad, considering that the ambiguous ending of Ibsen’s play is one of the best in the drama. McCasland’s inventive and well-paced staging makes a lot out of very little; suitcases and trunks double as furniture, and a single door represents the inner and outer world.
Kudos must be given to the full company for performing the first act—on Saturday, January 28—using only the house’s work lights after the board crashed right before the start of the performance. They soldiered on valiantly like it was nothing, and the problem was solved in time for the second act.
By the looks of it, Christopher Street has become the new in-spot for flops. On the way to the New Ohio, where A Doll’s Life runs through February 5, one has to pass the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where MCC’s revised revival of Carrie, perhaps THE most infamous flop musical, will begin previews on January 31. At least twice (February 4 and 5), devoted theater geeks will be able to see both as a double-header. How often can you say that?