Why does Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler burn Ejlert Løvborg’s manuscript? Why does she marry the pedant Jørgen Tesman, who cannot possibly satisfy her? What is the root, or roots, of her perversity? Questions like these will never be definitively answered, which is why you can spend a lifetime going to see good, bad and indifferent productions of Hedda Gabler without ever quite getting to the bottom of the play’s mystery. I’ve seen a half-dozen Heddas on stage, and a few filmed productions, including Glenda Jackson’s tense 70s performance, with Patrick Stewart as Ejlert Løvborg, and an Ingrid Bergman TV production that boasted Trevor Howard, Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson, no less, in support. Jackson was a believable bad seed while Bergman was utterly miscast, but both offered some insight into what might make Hedda tick.
A few years ago on Broadway, Kate Burton did a perfectly respectable, if unexciting, production of Hedda, in which her interpretation emphasized a kind of burnt-out flippancy; it worked, in a small-scale sort of way, but I never thought I’d be pining to see it again until I was confronted with the full-scale disaster of this Roundabout Theatre slaughtering of the play at the conspicuously tacky American Airlines Theater. I was most interested in seeing this production because it features Mary Louise-Parker taking her stab at Hedda; in Proof and How I Learned to Drive, particularly, Parker staked her claim as maybe the most stimulating and promising theater actress of her generation, and she seemed ready to put her own deadpan, contemporary spin on the big parts. She usually has a kind of spontaneous magic on stage that does not translate fully to her film and television work; you can’t edit or chop up what she’s doing without losing the way she can create and build on very pure emotions.
The curtain opens on Parker lounging bare-assed on an opulent couch upstage, while PJ Harvey’s ludicrously “restless” music plays, and she eventually gets up and moves around “restlessly,” her every movement pre-determined and lifeless. In her first scene, it’s impossible to tell what this Hedda is thinking or feeling when she insults an old lady’s hat, because Parker plays practically the whole part on one single note of frozen “I can’t believe this!” impatience. When she seduces Ejlert Løvborg (Paul Sparks) over a picture album, Parker briefly unleashes the hidden sexuality that would seem to be the key to her performance, but it is quickly lost when Hedda denies herself such simple satisfaction, and Parker again resorts to aimless, rag-doll incredulity for the rest of the play.
The adaptation by Christopher Shinn is intelligent enough, though he screws up Judge Brack’s famous curtain line by removing its more general irony. The real culprit here is the director, Ian Rickson, who can’t possibly have given any useful direction to his performers, all of whom seem to have no idea what they’re doing. Ana Reeder’s Thea is a particular travesty, especially when Rickson has her jog half a city block back and forth to Spark’s Løvborg in their final confrontation. Michael Cerveris cringes uncertainly through the difficult role of Tesman, and Peter Stormare’s Judge Brack seems to be disconnected from everyone. The Roundabout certainly has money to throw around on enormous doors and fetching fabrics, but they have a terrible knack for either miscasting stars in famous plays or creating an environment in which stars like Parker are set up to fail in roles they were born to play.