correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified “Resolving Hedda’s” scenic designer. This article has been updated.
Henrik Ibsen’s violent tragic heroine Hedda Gabler has always had impulse control disorder, and now in Jon Klein’s modern knockoff, “Resolving Hedda,” the newly snarky, anachronistically hip Hedda self-diagnoses as she tries — for once — to actually live through the end of the 1891 play.
“I know a lot of stuff that might surprise you,” Kelly Karcher says directly to the audience as Hedda, interrupting the notice about turning cellphones off. That sets up a busy two hours of explaining and comically resisting Ibsen’s plot, the one in which she is an unhappy pregnant newlywed with a dull husband, a dashing ex-lover, a lush blond rival and a lecherous judge lurking around the household (friend of the family, naturally).
Obviously this is inside baseball, and the better you know “Hedda Gabler” the more likely you are to snicker at the big blond wig that Emelie Faith Thompson totes on as Hedda’s frenemy Thea. The show is a natural choice for the Washington Stage Guild, the literary troupe whose house writer is the early Ibsen champion George Bernard Shaw.
Karcher drops sarcastic punchlines about feminism and foreshadowing, you might find yourself thinking of the camp travesties by Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company. But Klein isn’t that wild and extravagant; “Resolving Hedda” is more like an engineering project, an experiment to see whether the doomed Hedda can escape Ibsen’s infernal machine.
Steven Carpenter’s production in the intimate Undercroft Theater races like a speedboat but still seems long at two hours. Though Klein has splendid tricks up his sleeve in his second act, he can’t condense the incidents enough to keep it at a zoom.
But the cast knows where the laughs are, starting with Karcher, and if she had more colors to play than miffed and mocking, her Hedda might be more than just naughty fun. The supporting cast gets to dodder about as magnified versions of Ibsen’s melodramatic figures, with Jamie Smithson a particular hoot as Hedda’s Olympian-grade nerd of a husband. Matthew Castleman smolders as old flame Lovborg, Steve Beall cackles like a villain as the judge and Jewell Robinson brings 19th-century deportment as Aunt Julia, baffled by practically everything this Hedda does.
If “Resolving Hedda” is a show that actors can act, another comedy a few blocks away at the hole-in-the-wall gallery Caos on F is so understated that it feels as if it would rather be read. Veronica Tjioe’s “Dead Dog’s Bone” anatomizes a splintered family with such labored whimsy that their dying dog is a character. Karen Lange plays the dog and gets the evening’s few laughs; she also croons lonesome cowboy tunes. You can see the soul and ache that probably drew Nu Sass Productions to the script, but very little actually happens, and the lyrical bits that even include the Virgin Mary just come off as glum.
Resolving Hedda, by Jon Klein. Directed by Steven Carpenter. About 2 hours and 10 minutes. Scenic design, Tara Lyman-Dobson; lights, Marianne Meadows; sound design, Frank DiSalvo Jr. Through April 14 at Washington Stage Guild, the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. $50-$60. 240-582-0050. stageguild.org. Dead Dog’s Bone, by Veronica Tjioe. Directed by Mara Sherman. With Andy De, Aubri O’Connor, Dannielle Hutchinson, Erik Harrison and Schuyler Atkins. Set, Sherman and Julia Colpitts; costumes, Nina Howe-Goldstein; lights, Lauren Gallup; sound, Colpitts. About 2 hours and 10 minutes. Through April 14 at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. $20. nusass.com.