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<b>Daily Dispatch: Oct. 12, 2001</b>: 'Hedda Gabler'; 'The Spitfire Grill'

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Why do the plays of Ibsen still fascinate after more than 100 years? Because they examine the perverting effects of repressive society on vital individuals, a topic which is still relevant. In "A Doll's House," Nora slams the door on her stifling marriage, while the title character in "Hedda Gabbler" turns her rage inward and destroys herself. She's an anti-Nora, bent on fulfilling romantic ideals, refusing to settle for dull evenings of chit-chat, and in the end, choosing death over domestic suffocation.

Nicholas Martin's production of "Hedda" has recently opened at the Ambassador Theatre after playing three prestigious regional theatres. It's been heralded by Ben Brantley of the New York Times as a benchmark staging for the play and a breakthrough performance for the actress Kate Burton. Up to this point in her career, Burton (the daughter of Richard Burton) has been known for steady, workmanlike roles on stage, film, and TV. Here she is given an opportunity to become a star. Unfortunately, she seems too aware of this and her performance takes too many actress-y turns. Too many dramatic lines are shouted for theatrical effect. Too many broad gestures appear to be directed at the audience. Burton is best when delivering a sarcastic quip to her dull husband (Michael Emerson), followed by a sly smile. Her comic timing is perfection, but her follow-through on delineating a flesh-and-blood woman is weak. We're seeing technique and flash, not a fiery spirit consuming itself.

Director Martin has also given way to pleasing a short-attention-span crowd rather than plumbing the depths of Ibsen's script (in a snappy new adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz). Characters rush around melodramatically. Ironic lines are played for big laughs. Long, Pinter-esque pauses are inserted after frenetic confrontations. The (implicitly) adulterous pair Eilert Lovborg and Mrs. Elvsted act like a modern couple cuddling and touching when such open displays of affection would never be tolerated in a turn-of-century household. The pacing and action all seems to be pasted on rather than organically grown out of relations and interactions.

David Lansbury's Eilert Lovborg is a disheveled, self-pitying bore when he should be a charismatic genius. Harris Yulin's sleepy Judge Brack is hardly the threatening drawing-room dictator he's mean to be. Michael Emerson has chosen not to go the usual route of playing Hedda's spouse Tesman as a clueless buffoon and he succeeds in creating a creditable character as does Jennifer Van Dyck as the courageous Mrs. Elvsted who leaves her husband at a time when such an act would be unthinkable.

The set by Alexander Dodge is like a European picture-postcard of a magnificent estate as are Michael Krass's lovely costumes.

Meanwhile, Playwrights Horizons began its season of wandering from theatre to theatre while its new home is being built with a new musical at the Duke Theatre on 42 Street. "The Spitfire Grill," based on the film of the same name, is by James Valcq ("Zombies from the Beyond") and the late Fred Alley. The plot is standard-order heart-warming and tear-jerking: stranger comes to dead little town, livens the place up, and opens up the emotions of crabby residents. The tunes are catchy, particularly as augmented by Valcq's tangy orchestrations. David Saint's direction is fluid and flowing. The element which lifts the show above average is newcomer Garrett Long in the lead. She takes a cliche (closed-off ex-con making a new start) and gives it a beating heart. Broadway vet Liz Callaway is her match in the smaller role as a mousy housewife. She has the impossible task of making a quiet, passive woman active and interesting. She brings it off without calling attention to the feat. Unfortunately, the show closes this weekend.

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