Hedda Gabler, last seen prostrate on a couch with a bullet hole in her head, makes a surprising return in Jeff Whitty's sprightly new comedy, "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler," which had its world premiere Friday at South Coast Repertory. Her new address, appropriately enough, is "the cul-de-sac of tragic women," where Medea frequently stops by in a bloodstained frock she'd rather not talk about and Tosca literally drops in, a crashing corpse, from the ceiling.
While not exactly alive, Ibsen's seductively dangerous protagonist -- an honest-to-goodness antihero in a stylish black dress and smart brooch -- is anything but dead after her suicidal end. Doomed to relive her unhappy plot for as long as her character exerts a hold on the public imagination, she exists in a literary afterlife alongside her dud of a professor husband, George Tesman; their servant, Mammy (yes, the Hattie McDaniel character from "Gone With the Wind"); and a small army of minor personalities from literature, film, theater and TV who have somehow managed to worm their quirky way into posterity.
After a voice-over reenactment of the final moments of "Hedda Gabler," the lights come up on a stuffy middle-class parlor that seems a replica of the original, with one exception: The giant portrait looming over the household isn't of Hedda's glamorous father, Gen. Gabler, whose image reminded her of just how far she had fallen into stultifying bourgeois mediocrity; it's of her creator, Henrik Ibsen, who now refuses to let her off the tragic hook.
"The study of an exasperated woman" is how Henry James characterized "Hedda Gabler." These words don't quite do justice to the frustration this post-Hedda gives vent to after learning what's in store for her -- night after calamitous night.
What's most satisfying to report is the way Whitty takes a premise that could easily have amounted to a revue sketch -- a series of gags of diminishing returns -- and transforms it with his giddy wit and fertile inventiveness into a genuine play. Though "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler" is not likely to repeat the commercial success of his Tony-winning book for "Avenue Q" (the musical that co-opted the "Sesame Street" format for the "Real World" generation and eventually conquered Broadway and Vegas), it too gets unexpected theatrical mileage from a conceit bordering dangerously on a gimmick.
At the heart of Hedda's new escapade is the question of change. How much can she rewrite her story without losing the essence of who she so memorably is? And by extension, how much can any of us change -- or try to change -- before we erase our souls?
Grappling with a new yet uncannily familiar reality (described by the reliably sagacious Medea as a "world of infinite possibility coupled with heart-rending limitations"), Hedda decides to make a break from her own fictional prison. She asks Mammy to pack up her trunks and join her on a fugitive voyage to the furnace of their authors' imaginations. Surely they deserve better stories, even if Mammy seems relatively content in her domestic servitude (no matter that none of the more contemporary black characters will have anything to do with her) and Hedda is venerated in this literary limbo.
Whitty spins the action in an unpredictable and increasingly political direction. For example, Mammy isn't the only character forced to confront an identity that's considered way past its expiration date. Patrick and Steven, two self-hating homosexuals from what looks like Mart Crowley's 1968 "The Boys in the Band," serve as tour guides to the two women, offering Mammy a martini-fueled ride in a rowboat labeled "African Queen" along with a lesson on the way stereotypes can be groundbreaking for their time and just plain fabulous. The boys' more difficult assignment is teaching Hedda about her power to spark sympathetic humanity in others, even if her own story remains unchanged by their compassion.
Not all the scenes hit their humorous marks. A longish bit involving four versions of Jesus (holy infant, beatific teacher, crucified victim, and, well, clownish magician) strives for an irreverent zaniness that noticeably fizzles. And the multitude of compelling ideas behind Whitty's comedy are still clamoring to find their place and fit together. Pirandello, the meta-theatrical dramatist best known for his elegantly philosophical "Six Characters in Search of an Author," might not be impressed. But Whitty's imaginative ambition and daring trump his play's occasionally muddled vision.