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NY Theater Reviews

Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan/ Ph: Richard Termine



The Abbey Theatre, abetted by an all-star cast, hauls out an Ibsen chestnut.

Ibsen as shtickmeister – who knew? During the current BAM production, imported from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, you may find yourself irrepressibly laughing en masse whenever Fiona Shaw – playing Mrs. Gunhild Borkman, estranged wife of a convicted embezzler – abandons her rigid, teapot pose to achieve new heights of histrionics.
Surely Ibsen intended to elicit some sympathy for Gunhild’s plight: Blindly, but in keeping with the mores of the era (1896), she has pinned her hopes on her 23-year-old son, Erhardt (wholesome, gung-ho Marty Rea), to restore the family name.
As for the disgraced pater familias (Alan Rickman at his smoothest), he has effectively doubled his prison term by incarcerating himself for eight more years in the upper floor of the family manse, which is in fact owned by Gunhild’s unmarried twin, Miss Ella Reintheim (Lindsay Duncan, lending the role an intriguing sensuality). There he noisily paces – like “a sick wolf,” according to Gunhild, who has resolutely shunned him since his trial – and plots his comeback, relying on the moral support of one lone visitor, the exceedingly modest and forgiving, one might even say masochistic “minor poet,” Vilhem Foldal (John Kavanagh), whose life savings were likewise wiped out by Borkman’s megalomania. Their exchanges truly do warrant unbridled laughter: Rickman gives us a narcissist extraordinaire.
Ibsen spends a good part of Act I mapping out the Borkmans’ convoluted backstory. It falls to Gunhild and Ella – the latter has suddenly shown up after an estrangement lasting decades – to dole out the particulars. John Gabriel, it seems, was initially in love with Ella, but coldheartedly traded her in for Gunhild under pressure from an influential local lawyer (unseen), who, failing in his own suit, later pulled the plug on Borkman’s wheeling and dealing just days short – or so Borkman claims – of a major coup that would have repaid his clients handsomely. (Unlike Madoff, Borkman’s schemes evidently had some basis in reality.) Ella swooped in to shield Erhard, then a child, from the scandal; having relinquished him, at age 15, to Gunhild, she now wants him back, for a reason that she’ll eventually reveal.
Cue the battling mothers, biological and foster. Ah, but there’s one more combatant: 30-year-old divorcee – i.e., in 19th century terms, fallen woman – Mrs. Fanny Wilton (preening, catlike Cathy Belton), who has sunk her knowing claws into the impressionable young man. Mrs. Wilton is the one character in the play unburdened by self-aggrandizing fantasies of what the future may hold. She even takes the precaution of lining up a replacement, should Erhardt ever tire of her charms.
It’s all pretty shocking stuff, for the time. In straddling the sensibilities of two widely divergent centuries, however, director James Macdonald – using Frank McGuiness’ overall slick adaptation – fatally opens the door to farce. If Gunhild can’t be granted the shield of her now antiquated but retroactively reasonable expectations, she’s left high and dry – literally frigid (amid Tom Pye’s snow-enshrouded set), and ultimately silly and shrill.