At the end of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House," Nora, the pampered heroine, walked out of a suffocating marriage, slammed the front door and signaled, in the theater at least, the opening round in the battle for women's liberation.
"A Doll's Life," the $4 million musical that premiered Thursday night at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, imagines what might have happened to that beleaguered lady afterwards, and in the process sets back equal rights for the sexes, the dignity of the musical comedy and the longtime veneration of director Harold Prince, who seems at last to have run out of ideas.
Compounded in equal parts of moroseness and pretention, "A Doll's Life" looks like a gloomy Munch canvas and sounds like a sour version of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" -- "A Little Nordic Music," perhaps? Why Prince and his fellow creators (Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who cooked up the preposterous plot; and composer Larry Grossman, who conceived the pleasant, if ill-served score) didn't just abandon the show in Los Angeles, where it underwent a costly tryout last summer, is the real puzzler. They can only suffer acute embarrassment during the New York run, which is bound to be brief.
The musical begins with a present-day rehearsal of Ibsen's play, then once Nora (Betsy Joslyn) has stalked out the door, flashes back to 1879 and the perils and travails that await a woman on her own. She gives herself over to art, by supporting a callow young composer (Peter Gallagher) until he trades her in for an opera singer who can do him more favors. She slaves away in a herring cannery, organizes the female workers and lands in jail. She succumbs to a ruthless tycoon (Edmund Lyndeck) and discovers the sybaritic pleasures of the bed, and finally -- although none too soon -- achieves self-sufficiency as the proprietor of a perfume shop. Money, she concludes, gives you power, which allows you to make choices.
That's not a particularly warming insight, true as it may be. Nor is Joslyn a particularly warm heroine, turning her back, as she does, on the one man, George Hearne as an understanding barrister, who is not only willing to bail her out of mess after mess, but also do the cooking. Pouty, headstrong, and not very bright, Nora is hardly the exemplary figure the show takes her for.
Director Prince has become over the years the Gucci of show business: He stamps every show with his signature, and "A Doll's Life" is a virtual catalogue of effects and techniques he has used elsewhere to far better advantage. The ghosts of "Follies," the quartet that functioned as a Greek chorus in "Night Music," the social protestations of "Sweeney Todd," even the flipped theatrical perspective that made "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" such a stunner in "Evita" -- they're all present and accounted for in "A Doll's Life." But the flamboyant staging doesn't ever spring organically from the material. Prince imposes his mark on the show the way celebrities record their footprints in the concrete before Mann's Theater.
Hearne, a most accomplished performer, is the one note of decency and professional restraint in this saga. In a dutiful, but tired bid to Pirandello, the show mixes then with now, and the actors with the characters they are playing. So Hearne is at once an actor, Nora's domineering husband Torvald, and the benevolent barrister who rescues her. Miraculously, he keeps the various assignments straight and makes them all telling.
Otherwise, "A Doll's Life" is a bungle and a bore. Perhaps it's just as well. Can you imagine the horizons it might have opened up if it had been a smash? "Beyond the Streetcar Tracks"--the musical that shows us what happened to Blanche DuBois once she landed in the asylum. "Long Day's Journey Into the Morning After" -- the singing Tyrones sit down to breakfast. Or "Life of a Saleslady" -- Willie Loman's widow demonstrates in song and dance that there is more to existence than just getting the mortgage paid off.
Nora, dull, dear Nora, you've saved us.