NEW YORK — “Teeth.”
The word is uttered in neutral (read: purely evil) tones by Reed Birney’s O’Brien in the lugubrious new dramatization of George Orwell’s “1984” that had its official opening Thursday night at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. And at that point, I broke out in giggles.
This is not the reaction co-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan are going for, in an adaptation of George Orwell’s celebrated, cautionary novel that aspires to nerve-jangling terror.
No, I chortled because O’Brien’s announcement was the preamble to another round of the torture of poor Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge) — whom we’ve already watched having his fingertips cut off. He’s been arrested for thought crimes, as Orwell recounts in his 1949 masterwork, and since Winston’s thoughts still aren’t ordered according to Big Brother’s prescriptions, blandly sinister O’Brien brings a team of thugs in hazmat suits into notorious Room 101 to yank Winston’s teeth out. A sensory overload of disorienting flashes of light and earsplitting sounds punctuates the session, during which Sturridge’s Winston screams in agony, and after a short blackout, we see him writhing and spitting out mouthfuls of viscous blood.
It’s not funny, of course; the producers have professed themselves so concerned about the upset the torture scenes caused during early performances that they’ve now issued a blanket prohibition on audience members under 13. But my own reflexive response to onstage savagery of this magnitude tends to be the giddiness of disbelief, amplified in this case by the disturbed reactions of several of those seated around me, who blanched or looked away in distress.
The effort to freak out the audience is taken to such extremes in Icke and Macmillan’s grim British-born production that this “1984” manages nothing so successfully as upstaging Orwell himself. “1984” might not be a subtle book — Orwell wrote it as an allegorical projection of the totalitarian excesses of Stalinism — but the most memorably harrowing elements of the novel are atrocities of the imagination: the erasure of whole lives through “un-personing”; the obliteration of history at the Ministry of Truth; the abomination of Newspeak; the eradication of love.
What ends up feeling underserved in this version, as a result, is the really scary stuff, a portrait of an entire society, perennially at war, its political elite incubating nests of informers among children, and the citizenry losing its grip on the truth. (On the other hand, the disturbing unreliability of Winston’s account is nicely handled, in sequences that repeat, sometimes with slight changes.) It was the aspect of “1984” dealing with efforts to mislead the populace by undermining reason — exemplified by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway’s coining of the term “alternative facts” — that propelled the novel back onto American bestseller lists at the beginning of this year. If you were looking, though, to this Broadway treatment to illuminate further the unsettling absurdity of government running roughshod over common sense, you will be disappointed. Because the reductive inclinations of the adapter-directors here are more in the gothic horror vein than in the service of disruptive political narrative.
Sturridge, who was well cast as the erratic Henry VI in the BBC’s Shakespeare history play compilation “The Hollow Crown,” is less than an ideal choice for Winston. His sore-thumb countenance makes him seem more suited to one of the peculiar characters in Dickens than to Orwell’s colorless clerk in the Ministry of Truth, who writes his journal as an act of rebellion. Olivia Wilde is a better fit as Julia, the severe functionary whose romantic alliance with Winston ultimately reveals that even love under duress has a breaking point. Birney, a Tony winner as a guilt-ridden head of household in Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” treads admirably lightly in the role of the heavy. In Orwell’s Oceania, evil truly is banal.
It may well be that “1984” is simply allergic to the physical limitations of the stage. I’ve seen other, more modest versions that also accentuated the torture to try to amp up the chills, and still could not mitigate a sense of hollow storytelling. Big Brother may be watching, but on this occasion, he may feel the urge to change the channel.
1984, by George Orwell. Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Sets and costumes, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; videos, Tim Reid; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin. With Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Cara Seymour, Michael Potts, Sami Bray, Willow McCarthy. About 100 minutes. $35-$149. At Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.