"There's something about this place that is toxic," says the timid guest, cowering on the threshold. Can you blame him? He stands at the door to the dangerous domain of the Dance of Death, and whoever dares to enter had better be prepared for a terrifying tango. Strindberg's poisonous portrait of a marriage is now enjoying (if that's the word) its 100th birthday in a searing New York revival at the Broadhurst Theatre, with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren dancing a devastating pas de deux. And a few blocks away, at the Ambassador, there's a revival of another deadly drawing-room drama, Hedda Gabler, written a decade earlier (1890) by Ibsen, Strindberg's contemporary, starring the splendid Kate Burton. Pioneering work by the twin Vikings of modern drama. Two bracing blasts of Nordic air across the barren landscape of conventional, imprisoning marriage.
Or are they? Are these rusty revivals of nineteenth-century bourgeois melodramas, predictable psychological portrayals of people going crazy in cold climates? Not at all. Both productions, in their new, colloquial versions (by American playwrights Richard Greenberg and Jon Robin Baitz, respectively), preserve the power of the original dramaturgy and at the same time challenge the traditional interpretations and surprise us with fresh, daring approaches. They follow on the heels of The Seagull, by another of their contemporaries (the gentler Chekhov), which enjoyed a star-studded revival in Central Park in August. The trio of masterpieces were written within a ten-year period (1890-1900), and their diva performances (Burton, Mirren and Meryl Streep) provide us with a fortuitous centennial opportunity to revisit them and reassess the contributions of their authors anew.
Take Nicholas Martin's production of Hedda Gabler, which challenges the notion that these classics are set in those dark, claustrophobic "tasteless parlors," giving off "an odor of spiritual paraffin." Henry James, when he said that, hadn't seen Alexander Dodge's smart, high-ceilinged, white-walled set (which is more Noël Coward than Norwegian). The grandeur of this haute bourgeois palace with its promising social prospects makes the ultimate fall of Hedda, the beautiful young socialite who presides over it, all the more horrifying. Played in the past with icy irony (Glenda Jackson's satin-swathed Hedda in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the 1970s) or erotic intensity (Annette Bening in the Los Angeles Geffen Playhouse production of 1999), Kate Burton's surprising Hedda is as bright as those white rooms she circles at high speed, looking for any way to break out of her pristine prison. Newly returned from her honeymoon, Hedda, proud daughter of the legendary General Gabler, finds herself trapped in a suffocating provincial town and in a hopeless marriage to the meek and sheepish scholar Tesman (played effacingly by Michael Emerson). And yet she is determined to maintain her status, which she guards as fiercely as a Fifth Avenue socialite. The unexpected arrival of the fiery Eilert Lovborg, a former suitor and now Tesman's academic rival, shatters the brittle veneer of Hedda's social front and plunges her into a precarious state of potential exposure and loss of status. Subject, furthermore, to an unwanted pregnancy, social and sexual blackmail (by Judge Brack, a purported family friend, played satanically by Harris Yulin) and fear of scandal, Hedda ultimately seeks the only way out–self-destruction–both as an escape and a triumph.
"People don't do that sort of thing," goes the famous closing line of the play, and up until now Burton hasn't either–played such a dark, unsympathetic role. And yet, in her unique and unconventional performance, she gives us a spirited, sardonic, passionate portrayal of a woman we readily recognize–one who is pinioned by both her status and her need for it–one who hitherto has been portrayed as inhuman, but who now invites pity. You've come a long way, Hedda, and so have we.