The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick kicks off the new year with the world premiere of Ibsen’s Ghost, written by and starring Charles Busch. It is a fanciful speculation about Suzanna Ibsen, widow of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gabler), and the events of June 1906, following the great man’s passing.
Like so many of Busch’s plays, Ibsen’s Ghost is filled with sexual overtones and rude, potentially offensive humor. As directed by longtime collaborator Carl Andress, Busch plays Suzanna in his best grand dame style, wearing glamorous period outfits designed by Gregory Gale and staking a claim to every inch of Shoko Kambara’s gorgeous drawing room set — one of the best I’ve seen in a George Street production.
Suzanna is trying to interest Ibsen’s long-time publisher, George Elstad (Christopher Borg), in publishing a collection of letters written between husband and wife. She is also trying to cement her standing as her husband’s co-worker, collaborator, and muse. This leads to confrontations with her stepmother, Magdalene Thoresen (Judy Kaye), and one of Ibsen’s female “protegeés”, Hannah Solberg (Jennifer Van Dyck), who claims her life story was appropriated for the plot of Hedda Gabler and plans to have her own scandalous diary published.
Suzanna is also confronted by Wolf Dahlquist (Thomas Gibson), a sailor who is Ibsen’s illegitimate son. Breaking into Suzanna’s house seeking a souvenir of the father he never knew, the two soon embark on a passionate affair. Rounding out the cast of characters is Gerda (Jen Cody), Suzanna’s diminutive, mobility-impaired maid, and the Rat Wife (Borg, in a dual role), an eccentric lady exterminator who appears to have special talents.
The three main female characters — Suzannah, Magdalene, and Hannah — represent different aspects of women writers in the earliest days of the 20th Century. Suzanna, who had her own writing career, abandoned it to take on the roles of wife, uncredited co-author, and inspiration to her famous playwright husband. Magdalene, while not considered a world-breaking talent, is extremely prolific and thus seemingly always in demand. Hanna is talented, but has chosen to present her works under a male pseudonym to be judged on her talent, rather than her sex.
I have to admit that I enjoyed the second act much more than the first act. It was difficult to feel sympathy for the characters at the beginning, with too much of the dialog being mushy. Whether this was due to the cast’s opening night nerves or a problem with the actors’ mikes I do not know. However, I found things were a bit tighter-paced in the second act, with the lines more clearly audible and the action building to a frenetic climax. All in all, I found myself liking the play but not loving it, although it generates its fair share of laughter.
Ibsen’s Ghost may not be on a par with other works by Charles Busch, such as Times Square Angel, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, and The Lady in Question. However, it does make for a pleasant evening in the theater, and the chance to see Mr. Busch performing one of his larger-than-life female characters is not to be missed. An outlandish, unapologetic diva in the high style is hard to find these days, and you will find one in Ibsen’s Ghost.
Ibsen’s Ghost is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Feb. 4, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.