nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 23, 2006
Ibsen's Little Eyolf isn't performed as often as some of his other plays, but its themes surely have significant resonance for contemporary Americans. Written in 1894, the drama tells the story of Alfred and Rita Allmers, a married couple whose relationship has reached a crisis stage. She is a daughter of weath and privilege who has taken Alfred as something of a trophy husband; he is an intellectual and a bit of a dreamer, a teacher by profession whose affection for Rita—if indeed it ever really existed—has diminished in recent years. After a period of separation (during which he worked on an aborted book project in the mountains), he has returned home, but his enthusiasms and affections are now all for little Eyolf, their disabled young son.
Alfred is also devoted—perhaps obsessively and unhealthily—to his sister, Asta. (I wasn't certain how much of a more-than-hinted-at incestuous infatuation is adaptor David Greenwood's idea and how much is Ibsen's.) Rita is resentful of Asta, particularly because Eyolf seems to prefer his aunt to his mother. The play's other main character is Engineer Borgheim, a road builder in love with Asta, whose main function appears to be dramaturgical, to take various personages offstage (for strolls in the garden or wherever) in order to allow those remaining to have a private conversation.
There is one other individual who makes an appearance in Little Eyolf: the Rat-Wife, whose brief but memorable cameo in Act One foreshadows all that follows. She's a creepy Pied Piper-ish figure with a little dog named Moakesman who helps her root out the rats in various villages she wanders to. She describes her modus operandi in a neat speech that enchants the audience and young Eyolf. Does her unexpected appearance, and her grim account of luring rats to the sea to drown them, cause the events that follow, supernaturally or otherwise?
I hate to actually disclose precisely what happens so as not to ruin the play for you (though when you cast eyes on the title character, decked out in a little uniform and hobbling on a crutch, you will probably guess at it). The circumstances that transpire force Alfred and Rita to re-examine their priorities, so to speak. I'm not sure that Ibsen could have foreseen how pertinent his selfish, self-involved characters would appear in this age of overgrown yuppie refugees from the Me Generation; so pertinent, in fact, that perhaps the most acclaimed new American play on Broadway this season, David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, covers nearly identical terrain as this one. What I liked best about Little Eyolf is that Ibsen sees hope for his battling couple, but only if they resolve to work together and embrace a cause larger and more significant than their own personal concerns. Such an enlarging philosophy is worth airing just now.
This production, staged by Greenwood, does a credible job putting over this seldom-seen work, but it suffers from the too-contemporary adaptation (in attempting to make the work's language more accessible to modern audiences, Greenwood often chooses clunky idiomatic expressions that land untheatrically on the ear) and from a too-cramped performing space. The actors, working on Casey Smith's nicely realized sets, are literally inches away from the front-row audience members; the problems their characters are wrestling with are very personal, but Ibsen's scope is nevertheless epic here, not intimate, and we need much more distance to appreciate them. So Alyssa Simon and Christopher Michael Todd, both doing fine work as Rita and Alfred, are also playing much bigger than this tiny venue can support; we're seeing them as if magnified under a microscope, and the resultant detail distracts badly from the broader picture.
The production as a whole is serviceable, nevertheless, and certainly provides a clear look at a play worth looking at.