01/17/2011 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman Unleashes Acting Blizzard

There's a whole lotta acting going on at BAM, where the Abbey Theatre production of John Gabriel Borkman has arrived for a three-week roost. Fiona Shaw, Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, heading the cast, are giving the grand style such a work-out that audiences -- depending on their appetite for such hifalutin histrionics -- will come away from the experience either greatly dazzled or severely dazed.

It may be that director James Macdonald, assessing Henrik Ibsen's next-to-last play (in a new Frank McGuinness version), decided that an over-the-top approach was the only way to keep the script compelling. For the tale it tells -- which may have had resonance in 1895--certainly would try a saint's patience now.

Yes, the drama's concern with the destruction caused by corrupt former bank manager Borkman to himself and his family triggers instant identification with the Bernie Madoff scandal and others along those lines in contemporary times, but the manner in which the narrative unfolds now comes across as woefully static.

The thespians' high pitch kicks in the moment Shaw's left-arm-akimbo, ice-tongued Gunhild Borkman greets Duncan's more soft-spoken-but-not-for-long Ella Rentheim, who happens to be her estranged sister. Gunhild, married to John Gabriel, is living in Ella's estate -- living, that is, on the ground floor, while John Gabriel, out of prison for several years, paces above. Both of them inhabit the house by Ella's graces, since her wealth was not affected when Borkman did everyone else's in and thereby tarnished the family name.

Gunhild holds out hope that her son Erhart (Marty Rea) will restore the reputation somehow, but the young man, who's taken up with local minx Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Cathy Belton) has no interest. Because of his attachment, Erhart certainly has no regard for Gunhild's expectations, nor does he want to return to living under the care of Ella, who raised him from the age of five and who is now terminally ill.

Indeed, Ella's appearance is entirely due to her intention to win back Erhart's love, and the desire to do so sets off the competition between her and Gunhild--a fight that echoes their previous battle for John Gabriel's affection. Making a late entrance to the fracas, John Gabriel disdains both of them, intent only on regaining the power he forfeited and thinking he'll side with whomever helps him achieve that fruitless goal.

In unfolding his plot as if it were a carpet allowed too long to mildew in a cellar, Ibsen presents a picture so misogynistic it makes that other Scandinavian curmudgeon August Strindberg seem positively uxorious. Self-absorbed whenever exposed to the women, to his son and to well-meaning old bank retainer Vilhelm Foldal (John Kavanagh), Borkman maintains he was responsible for nothing that went awry at his bank, owes none of them anything, flinches from them--just as they each flinch when approached by another.

The soulless Borkman and the sisters -- both of them insisting they, too, have had their hearts and souls fatally trounced by him -- are a trio of cold fish. And to make certain no one misses the point, Macdonald has had set designer Tom Pye surround the few period furniture pieces with high mounds of barely navigable snow, which this month creates the curious effect of making New Yorkers feel as if stepping inside the Harvey auditorium isn't much different from having remained outside.

At the outset, the look is an unnecessary statement of the obvious but becomes slightly less pushy when the blizzard into which the principals venture during the final scenes commences. That prolonged sequence, however, stretches the play beyond the point where it should have ended -- no matter that during it Borkman at last undergoes his final hypothermia-stoked hurrah.

John Gabriel Borkman is such a repetitive play -- the women tugging again and again at Erhart like a couple of harridans fighting over a Filene's sale item (and reaping unwanted laughs for their efforts), John Gabriel reiterating his lust for power rather than happiness--that perhaps no director could make it work. Yet, when Eileen Atkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Schofield revived it at London's National in 1996 under Richard Eyre's direction, it seemed less bloated. So Macdonald might have asked his players to exercise more nuance.

Nevertheless, there are rewards. Shaw's entrance alone is worth savoring, for the steady gait she affects and the way she tightly holds her right hand across her chest. She also makes it clear that this woman's bark is her bite, although eventually there's too much of it. (Anyone her saw her hilarious turn last year in the National's London Assurance -- regretfully never imported here -- will appreciate the contrast all the more.)

Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman -- last stateside as perhaps the hottest Amanda and Elyot ever in Private Lives and before that as another pair of saturnine lovers in Les Liaisons Dangereuses -- also have their moments, as does Belton portraying a snake-eyed, quick-tongued Mrs. Wilton. Kavanagh and Amy Molloy as young and innocent Frida Foldal are helpful in roles that get them on and off too quickly to wear out their welcomes. Rea's Erhart, though, is probably more whiny and pouty than required.

John Gabriel Borkman is one of the rarely revived Ibsen works, which may be a reason to see it now. On the other hand, this treatment won't serve as a strong argument for its being brought back more often.