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Stage Review

Not all fun and games in ‘DollHouse’

Deep layers in New Rep’s production

Sarah Newhouse as Nora and Will Lyman as Evan in “DollHouse’’ at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Sarah Newhouse as Nora and Will Lyman as Evan in “DollHouse’’ at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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WATERTOWN — There’s a moment, near the end of “DollHouse,’’ when the men in the audience chuckle together at a comment about a woman attracting a man by talking “about feelings.’’ It’s followed, barely a minute later, by a collective giggle on the part of the women in the audience, who laugh at a joke about a man thinking about anyone but himself. More than a hundred years after Henrik Ibsen wrote his classic drama of one woman’s liberation, Theresa Rebeck’s contemporary retelling has both the ring of truth and a sense of irony. Do men and women still struggle to understand each other?

The New Repertory Theatre’s revival is a wonderfully layered production, thanks to director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, who casts against type. Sara Newhouse, an actress who oozes competence and control, plays Nora, a woman whose busy day involves a Christmas shopping haul from Barney’s, Anne Taylor, and Godiva, to name a few. She is less of an airhead than a woman distracted by her own charm, and proves herself quite clever when the need arises. Her crime, in Rebeck’s version, is embezzlement, for which her accomplice, the accountant Neil Fitzpatrick (Gabriel Kuttner), has gone to prison. Unlike Ibsen’s Nora, she is keenly aware of her options: Although she is tempted, she resists the amorous advances of Damien Rank (Diego Arciniegas), and when it comes to committing a crime, she chooses to do what she believes is best to protect her family and in particular, her husband.

Evan, Nora’s husband, is played here by the extraordinary Will Lyman, a master at finding humanity in characters who could easily be dismissed as two-dimensional. Although Rebeck builds in a little vulnerability by having Evan recently recovered from a heart attack, Lyman too finds complexity in this man whose first line in the play is: “We can’t go back.’’ As he starts a new, high-powered job as the head of a bank, Evan is convinced appearances are as important to his career as his performance on the job, and he needs Nora to play her part. Rebeck isn’t subtle about their need to perform, sending them off to a costume party, in which designer Rafael Jaen dresses them in Ibsen-era garb.

Rebeck tweaks the characters of Christine (Jennie Israel), Nora’s childhood friend, to make her a battered wife, rather than a widow, who is trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She is still the catalyst for the revelation of Nora’s crime to her husband, but her relationship with Fitzpatrick, who has come to blackmail Nora, is more platonic than in the original, and so her role in helping to change his mind feels a bit contrived.

Kathryn Kawecki’s scenic design brilliantly captures all the conflicting ideas Nora and Evan have about their house, and by extension, their marriage. Although both go on about how they built the house together, it’s full of graceful angles that, while beautiful, don’t really seem to fit together. That sense of Evan and Nora’s inability to fit together makes this “DollHouse’’ work on a deeper level than simply male dominance and female submission. In the hands of O’Leary and company, this drama is all about communication breakdown, something that doesn’t change over time.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

DOLLHOUSE Play by Theresa Rebeck, based on Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House’’

Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary.

Sets, Kathryn Kawecki. Costumes, Rafael Jaen. Lighting, Chris Brusberg. Sound, Scott Nason.

Presented by New Repertory Theatre at Arsenal Center for the Arts through March 20. Tickets: $28-$58. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org.