Shadowy, mellow, a little scary, Annette Bening's voice is a true instrument of cunning. Once the last shot has rung out in director Daniel Sullivan's cautious go at Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at the Geffen Playhouse, it's Bening's thrumming alto you remember.
At her best--and, considering the 10-year gap between theatrical engagements, her best is very good--Bening uses her vocal instrument to fine effect, without throwing it around. She can level an opponent with a single insult, whether directed at an offending hat or something more sinister. It's a voice that sounds like an interior monologue, overheard. It cuts straight to Hedda's nearly accidental moments of self-awareness, when a provincial life of "insane" boredom cracks open to reveal the desperation underneath.
In the movies you don't always hear what Bening can do with that voice, especially when she's playing virtuous, "sensible" types. (An exception is "The Grifters," where Bening's great, sly achievement came in creating a con woman who seemed simultaneously dumb as dirt and smart as a whip.) But Ibsen's antiheroine--thwarted sensualist, a woman wrestling with her inner troll, belle of a ball that never comes--is neither virtuous nor sensible. She's no easy-to-read villain, either, nor a mere vindictive brat, though plenty of actresses have reduced her thus.
Bening lays into the venomous sarcasm mighty heavily, but she's cagey enough to avoid reductive extremes. In the end, though, director Sullivan lets her down. The stakes feel a little low. Ibsen's play is a nervous breakdown, and here we're watching it at a remove.
Hedda Gabler has, in Ibsen's own words, "poetry deep down," but she can't access it. So she looks for poetry in all the wrong places: in controlling the destiny of her not-quite-lover, Eilert Lovborg, or in romanticized acts of suicide. Anything to take her mind off a marriage to an academic specializing in "the domestic handicrafts of Brabant during the Middle Ages."
Written in 1890, "Hedda" carries a weirdly chipper tone; it's a tragedy played out with the compression of a farce. Everything that perplexed late 19th century audiences in several languages has served it beautifully ever since. When it first appeared in London, one critic noted unfavorably the play's "hissing conversational fireworks, fragments of sentences without verbs, clauses that come to nothing. . . . " All of which today lend "Hedda" its supremely actable, jabbing rhythms.
The fine new adaptation by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, working from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey, picks up on that quality. At times it's colloquial to a fault--a party is described as "out of control"--but Baitz, best known for "The Substance of Fire" and "Three Hotels," finds the humor in all that nervous energy. He has a ball with the character of Tesman in particular, with his verbal tics ("Eh? No?") and trail-offs, the distracted sounds of a man obsessed, joyously, with "utterly vital minutiae."
It's hard to lose in the role of Tesman, Hedda's husband; it doesn't even need an actor as naturally witty and verbally dexterous as Byron Jennings, who is wonderful here. (His Tesman is a big, satisfied grin on two legs.) As Judge Brack, eager to establish himself as the third point in Hedda's domestic triangle, Paul Guilfoyle has precisely the right amount of fun with the character's oily hypocrisy. Carolyn McCormick's sharply drawn lovesick Thea and Rosemary Murphy's Aunt Julia--self-sacrifice incarnate--serve the piece well, as does Marjorie Lovett's maid, Berta.
Director Sullivan goes for a brisk, straight-ahead quality, and there's evident ease in the playing. (Bening, Jennings and McCormick worked together years ago in regional theater.) Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez's sharply angled drawing room bears down on the characters, as if egging them on toward disaster. Only Patrick O'Connell's Lovborg seems at sea in this world, in ways unrelated to character. O'Connell doesn't convey the dark charisma the role needs, and there's something missing from the key Lovborg-Hedda exchanges--a change in process and mood, a more insinuating sexual current.
Yet Sullivan's staging--by design, I suspect--doesn't give the text or the performances any unexpected kinks. That's too bad. The production is elegant and smooth. (Costume designer Dunya Ramicova's burgundy and blue full-length dresses for Bening don't lack for elegance.) But it's controlled to a fault.
Clearly Bening has a first-rate Hedda in her, a thing of danger and beauty. What's missing is a full dynamic range. Both Bening and Sullivan tend to establish a given tone or pace in a given scene and stick to it, rather than providing the unpredictable change-ups so crucial to Hedda's psyche. Here and there, too, Bening falls back on some obvious external traits, nail-biting and the like, to indicate distress.