Updated `Hedda Gabler' Would Disappoint Ibsen

Nearly every aspect of the Roundabout's revival is second rate

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HEDDA GABLER. Play by Ibsen. Translated by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Sarah Pia Anderson. Presented by the Roundabout Theatre at the Criterion Center.

AFTER a season that included such notable successes as two Tony-nominated musical productions (``A Grand Night for Singing'' and ``She Loves Me''), the Roundabout Theatre Company is to be forgiven for a misstep, and they have definitely come up with one in their revival of Ibsen's ``Hedda Gabler.''

Ibsen's tragedies are difficult to perform under the best of circumstances (National Actors Theatre, which has a similar mission and is located just around the corner from the Roundabout, had one of their biggest failures with ``The Master Builder''). Still, this production is, surprisingly, overwhelmingly bad in every respect.

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To begin with, playwright Frank McGuinness (``Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'') has provided a translation that is archaic without being poetical, and unrelentingly awkward.

Someone, either he or director Sarah Pia Anderson, has updated the action to the post-World War II era, which does nothing to enhance the subtext of the work, while making the desperate emotionalism of the characters seem anachronistic.

Anderson's direction is overstated at every turn, and reduces a cast of fine performers, who have all done distinguished work elsewhere, to overacting and posturing.

Hedda is played by Kelly McGillis, who, besides a string of movie triumphs (``Witness,'' ``The Accused,'' ``Top Gun''), has also distinguished herself with acclaimed classical performances at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.

Here, she seems adrift; her Hedda inspires neither pity nor revulsion. Jeffrey DeMunn, normally a vital and intense performer, overplays the bookishness and nerdiness of her husband, Jorgen, to the point of ludicrousness. Keith David is a physically imposing presence as Judge Brack, but too much of his performance lies in the way he brandishes his huge cigar.

As Eilert Lovborg, Jim Abele (a last-minute replacement for Michael O'Keefe) is a disaster. Lovborg, onstage only briefly, is supposed to be a brilliant, charismatic presence. He is the object of desire for two women in the play and sets a series of tragic events in motion. Instead, Abele's bland performance completely defuses the situation.

Only Laura Linney, who is becoming an increasingly luminous presence, emerges from the production unscathed. As the lovelorn Thea Elvsted, she suggests her character's desperation with grace and economy.

Director Anderson, besides her updating, doesn't seem to have had any particular ideas about the work, except to instruct the performers to bluster their way through it. The results, slow- paced and obvious, reduced the audience to a somnolent state. Even the set, by the usually reliable David Jenkins, was tacky and unattractive.

This ``Hedda'' was work suited to an ill-rehearsed and under-budgeted summer-stock company, not a major theater on Broadway.

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