Hedda Gabler is not Eve Harrington.
You find it hard to imagine that anyone could confuse Ibsen's play about a restless woman yearning to break free of provincial restraints with the scheming title character in "All About Eve"? You obviously haven't seen Kelly McGillis' portrayal in Sarah Pia Anderson's wrongheaded Roundabout revival.
Anderson, an English director, has set the play in an American living room that suggests the upper middle class of the '40s or early '50s, presumably on the assumption that American women lived in shackles until they were liberated in the '60s. Whatever constraints American women endured have nothing to do with those that confine Hedda. One of the key elements of the plot, for example, is that a woman is unable to walk home alone after dark. Even in New York, a woman of that period could do so without concern for either safety or propriety.
The setting confounds any number of plot turns - if memory serves, for example, '50s America had telephones, which would obviate the need for the characters to write each other so many letters. But none of this would matter if Hedda herself were convincing.
Perhaps Anderson set the play in America because she realized that McGillis' "aw, shucks" wholesomeness suggests Peoria rather than 19th century Norway. McGillis has, in fact, none of the qualities essential to Hedda: a tortured intellect, a firece independence. The only thing that seems apt is her height, but Hedda should tower over the others not physically but because of her withering intelligence; of which McGillis is devoid.
Rather than projecting a frustration and melancholy that point unwaveringly toward suicide, McGillis, in her Broadway debut, suggests nothing more than cattiness. For the last 10 minutes, suddenly she emotes, contorting her face wildly as if she's about to spit out something that tastes weird. The suicide scene, beginning with an obviously taped bit of piano playing, is thoroughly inept.
Laura Linney does well as Hedda's rival, and Patricia Connolly is strong as her irritating aunt.
The men are all wrong: Keith David too young for Judge Brack, Jeffrey DeMunn far too much of a ninny for Hedda's husband, and Jim Abele too callow for her old flame.
Martin Pakledinaz's costumes might be saved in case the Roundabout decides to do "Hedda" properly. David Jenkins' set, which captures the period perfectly, would be ideal for a revival of "Harvey."
As nowadays seems to be welcome custom the honor, or at least the duty, of kicking off the new Broadway season falls to the Roundabout Theater Company - New York's round-the-year adventure into the classic stage.
So the 1994/95 Broadway season officially started yesterday with one of the very few masterpieces calculated to grace its boards during all of the next 12 months - Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler."
And offering it the glamour of a star-power lift there is Kelly McGillis, a bona fide movie star, whose credits range from "Top Gun" to "The Accused." Although making her Broadway debut, McGillis is a Julliard graduate and well-versed in matters theatrical.
The trouble with masterpieces is that they are occasionally handled with too much reverence, or sometimes, as here, with too little; although the version by Irish playwright Frank ("Someone to Watch Over Me") McGuinness sounds lean and idiomatic, with no sense of translantese.
The British director, Sarah Pia-Anderson, has updated the play, from 1890 to the late 40s. While David Jenkins' setting, like the stylishly subtle costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, perfectly convey the period Scandinavia she has chosen, the staging is too flaccid for immediacy.
In certain crucial ways the 100-year-old story of Hedda - an unfulfilled woman who needed to control the lives around her, and whose parched soul withers in a drought of hope - remains as timeless as any suburban tragedy currently inkling tabloid pages.
Yet Anderson's particular time-traveling choice proves willful, adding more the play's problems than to its relevance or even credibility.
For example, faced with a narrative that has more than its fair share of news delivered by messenger or letter, you start to wonder, given the present setting, why no one uses the telephone or listens to the radio.
Fifty years on - although Anderson may not believe it - much has changed. And not just the invention of the telephone.
Why are these people untouched by the effects of World War II? At least give Ibsen's world, with its dawning sense of the new feminism, what is proper to the times, style and philosophy of the 1890s. Hedda could never be a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir.
McGillis' performance is glittering and imperious. Cold as a python, as calculating as charity, luminous with venality, she nevertheless fails to suggest that Hedda is, in part, a victim of circumstances and environment.
Of course, this is largely the fault of the director, who takes a domestic tragedy of manners and dilutes it into a lurid melodrama in which even its final act of violence is made to seem not just inevitable but totally predictable.
Anderson's heavy hand falls on other members of the cast, notably on Keith David's swaggering, bully boy of a Judge Brack, who is given none of the sinister insidiousness of Ibsen's original character.
Other actors do come off better - Jim Abele's tortured Eilert Lovborg, Laura Linney's prissy yet effective Thea and, best of all, Jeffrey DeMunn's brilliantly ineffectual Tesman.
Years ago Ingmar Bergman gave the world stage his timeless "Hedda" (his heroine in the English version was Maggie Smith); by contrast this one - aiming at the same universality - seems simply dated.
Hedda Gabler - Reviews Manager
The actress and film star Kelly McGillis may have a thousand and one expressions at her command. As the title character in the Roundabout Theater Company's unsatisfying revival of "Hedda Gabler," she relies on two.
Baring her teeth in a full, wide mile, holding her head high, she conveys a kind of grand conviviality that wants the world to believe she is in perfect control of herself and her life. The gracious magnanimity is, however, a false front. Behind it lurks Ms. McGillis' other expression: a dark and nuttery discontent. That's when anxious furrows ripple her broad forehead, her chin quivers and she chews on her lower lip.
Back and forth she goes: sunny and seemingly self-assured one minute, gloomy and thoroughly distraught the next - mistress of the realm at the beginning of a scene, a wreck of ragged nerve endings by the conclusion. Although Ms. McGillis's performance, her Broadway debut, is unfolding on the stage of the Criterion Center, it is very much the stuff of grade-B melodrama as practiced on the silver screen in the 1940's.
Ibsen's 1890 play, the study of a driven woman locked into a prosaic marriage and a suffocating society, is as stern and claustrophobic as any he wrote. But in the Roundabout production, it verges dangerously on camp. As Hedda starts to come undone, one is reminded of the actor and female impersonator Charles Busch, who has made a career of sending up now-strong, now-tremulous movie divas in pastiches like "The Lady in Question" and "Red Scare on Sunset." Normally, Mr. Busch's name is not the sort that crops up in discussions of Ibsen - which tells you how seriously awry things are here.
From the outset, Hedda, newly married to the academic pedant Jorgen Tesman (Jeffrey DeMunn), is ill-tempered, without purpose and sinking fast into a morass of boredom. She is uncomfortable in her bourgeois surroundings but fearful of any scandal that might disrupt bourgeois proprieties. Incapable of glorious acts, she sees herself inspiring them in others, especially in the brilliantly erratic author Eilert Lovborg (Jim Abele), whom she loved in her youth. Everything she touches has a way of turning petty and squalid, though, and she invariably brings out the worst in people. To relieve that crushing monotony, she fires her dead father's pistols in the garden.
In the course of the play's four acts, Ibsen relentlessly tightens the noose around her neck. A woman who already senses her uselessness is made to feel truly expendable by events she herself puts in motion. The secondary characters - Hedda's doltish husband, a manipulative judge, a solicitous aunt - have little psychological complexity, almost by design. The play's focus (and its fascination) is Hedda and her response to a dreary shrinking world.
Ms. McGillis's performance is a severe disappointment precisely because it admits to so few possibilities. The perverse shadings and feminine seductions that make Hedda such a mesmerizing neurotic are absent. The actress's ups and downs are those of the clockwork manic-depressive. It's simply a matter of time before she self-destructs.
Although Frank McGuinness's translation retains the flavor and formality of the late 19th century, the director, Sarah Pia Anderson, has set the production in the years just after World War II, presumably to illustrate that Hedda is a misfit for all ages. The set designer, David Jenkins, has come up with a large, dull drawing room and study, decorated in a discouraging palette of grays, browns and steel greens. Even the milky autumn sun streaming through the French doors (courtesy of the lighting designer, Marc B. Weiss) can't banish the drabness.
The play is staged as a series of hushed tete-a-tetes. (Ms. Anderson seems to have taken her directorial cue from Hedda, when she draws a former schoolmate into a duplicitous embrace and murmurs, "Let's share secrets.") To encourage the exchange of confidences, the performers are clustered in tight conversational groups and the lights are turned down. From all this, you get a general feeling of conspiracy, if none of conspiracy's tensions.
While Judge Brack is the most insidious member of this society - he makes no secret of his designs on Hedda - as Keith David portrays him, he's too close to the mustache-twirling rent collector in his villainy to be believed. But then, Mr. DeMunn is such a self-deluded cartoon as Hedda's husband and Mr. Abele such a caricature of tormented genius as Lovborg that the male sex in general comes off foolishly.
The two actresses who stand out are Patricia Conolly, as Tesman's caring aunt, who would extend her love to Hedda if Hedda would only let her, and Laura Linney, as the selfless woman behind Lovborg's genius. In a more assured production, they would probably keep to the somber background, their rightful place in the scheme of things. The characters are, after all, among the play's least dynamic. They mostly fret and pass on necessary exposition.
If they loom larger here, it's because you believe them and their quiet solicitude for others. Hedda, wandering the empty rooms and bemoaning her sterile life, is the bold one, the dramatic one, the one you would like to believe. But while Ms. McGillis captures the woman's extremes, she manages little else. The portrayal doesn't cry out for color so much as coloring in.
After several major successes -- chief among them revivals of "Anna Christie" and "She Loves Me"-- the Roundabout offers a case study in the dangers of a non-profit theater going Broadway with an announced agenda of casting movie stars and winning Tony awards. "Hedda Gabler" is one of those mountains actresses want to scale because it's there, or has been for a century. But few can lift Ibsen's unvarnished study of a ruthless, vain, egomaniacal woman above the level of soap opera -- and dated soap opera at that.
Kelly McGillis has spent considerable time onstage in recent years, but Hedda is quite beyond her reach. In Sarah Pia Anderson's nervous production of a new and not especially illuminating translation by Frank McGuinness ("Someone Who'll Watch Over Me"), the star uses her face the way novice actresses use speech, stretching everything out as if taking up more time will substitute for an understanding, and revelation, of character.
Every time a character exits Hedda's presence, regardless of the circumstance , McGillis responds with a catalog of facial tics and grimaces: clenched teeth, flexed cheeks, rolled eyes, etc.
From the first moment, this Hedda is the picture of disdain and disappointment, empty of creative impulse beyond bitchery. And if no audience may ever be able to sympathize with Hedda -- indeed, we are never asked to -- we need some appreciation of the keenness of her disappointment and jealousy, none of which is in evidence here: McGillis fails to make Hedda anything more than a shrew lacking any moral compass.
Most of the production has a similarly impenetrable veneer -- along with the strident insistence of a show that means to demonstrate how relevant it is while succeeding only in underscoring its datedness.
The best performance comes from Laura Linney, as Thea, the muse who has brought a dissolute writer back from the brink, only to have Hedda send him back out there and beyond. Every bit as desperate as Hedda, Thea quickly realizes her new friend is in fact her deadly rival.
But Linney never relinquishes an essential fragility that at some points during this long evening makes Thea's plight almost heartbreaking. And with minimal histrionics, Linney's Thea conveys the fierce bravery Hedda lacks and sets out to destroy.
Jeffrey DeMunn is annoying as Hedda's insufferably mediocre husband, Jorgen; Keith David is a bombastic Judge Brack, and Jim Abele is starchy as Jorgen's intellectual rival.
McGuinness has moved the play to post-World War II England, for no apparent reason borne out by director Anderson. David Jenkins' drawing room set lacks distinction, as do the rest of the production values.