Life goes on after playwright’s death in ‘Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy’

by JAY LUSTIG
ibsen's ghost review

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

From left, Christopher Borg, Judy Kaye, Charles Busch and Jen Cody in “Ibsen’s Ghost,” which is being presented by George Street Playhouse at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

The first thing you need to know about “Ibsen’s Ghost” — which the George Street Playhouse is currently presenting at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, in its world premiere — is that it’s not a production of Ibsen’s 1881 play “Ghosts.” The second is that, unlike the Norwegian literary giant’s best known plays, it’s an irreverent comedy.

Its subtitle: “An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy.”

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Thomas Gibson and Charles Busch in “Ibsen’s Ghost.”

It is written by Charles Busch (“The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” “Psycho Beach Party,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”), who also plays the main character in drag. And Busch’s frequent collaborator Carl Andress directs. Although the story is thin, and Busch hasn’t made his characters much more than cartoons, he does fill it with enough laughs — ranging from wry literary allusions to over-the-top absurdities — to make “Ibsen’s Ghost” an enjoyable two hours.

It is 1906, in Oslo. The great Ibsen recently has died — “untimely plucked from the ligon like an unripe ligonberry,” as one character says — and his widow Suzannah (Busch) seems less concerned with mourning than with convincing his business associate George (Christopher Borg) to publish the letters she has been hoarding for decades. She believes they will establish her as her husband’s essential literary colleague, and the inspiration for “his most controversial heroines” (as George says), including the iconic Nora from “A Doll’s House.”

Having given up her own literary career for married life, Suzannah wants, finally, to be famous in her own right. George is eager for the opportunity to make some money from the letters, but wonders if they are too “domestic” in nature to generate much interest.

Another problem arises in the form of Hanna (Jennifer Van Dyck), Henrik’s former protégée and, Suzannah assumes, one-time lover (though Hanna swears the relationship was platonic). Hanna is hoping that the beleaguered George will publish her diaries, which will show, she thinks, that she is the real woman behind Nora. She even has her book title ready to go: “I, Nora.”

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Jennifer Van Dyck, left, and Jen Cody in “Ibsen’s Ghost.”

Other cast members include Jen Cody as Suzannah’s oddball servant Gerda; Judy Kaye as Suzannah’s imperious, belittling stepmother, Magdalene (when Gerda offers her tea she replies, “I’d ask you to toss in a shot of whiskey, but Ibsen’s liquor cabinet is strictly Sven’s Waterfront Saloon”); and Thomas Gibson as Wolf, a sailor who is Ibsen’s son from a brief adolescent affair, and who becomes Suzannah’s new love interest. (As I mentioned, she’s not really into the whole mourning thing.) Borg, in drag, also plays the mysterious character known as The Rat Wife.

Van Dyck steals the show with two different monologues — one short, and one quite long — in which she executes a number of different, comically exaggerated accents in rapid-fire succession. At one point in the show I attended, audience members gave her a spontaneous ovation and Busch — in a characteristically campy touch — broke character and scowled at them, muttering “Was that really necessary?”

Set designer Shoko Kambara creates a set of Old World comfort, and stodginess, in Suzannah’s living room, where all of the action takes place. Andress effectively uses melodramatic music to add to the soap opera-like flavor of the action.

At the end, Busch resolves everything tidily, with an uplifting, feminist twist, and everyone smiling. Ibsen would not approve.

The George Street Playhouse will present “Ibsen’s Ghost” at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Feb. 4. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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