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She’s mean at the beginning and even meaner at the end. For her first trick, she mercilessly derides a sweet old lady’s brand new hat. Later she uses a visiting guest for target practice in the backyard. And for a big finish, she consigns a baby to the flames. (A metaphorical baby, that is.) Through it all she exudes tetchiness, weariness and a general contempt for everything in sight. She finds everybody a bore, and even bores herself — to death, essentially.

A more repellent personality would be hard to imagine, and yet Hedda Gabler is one of the eternal fascinators of the world stage. Since she sprang from the imagination of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1890, this coldhearted antiheroine has maintained a tight grip on the attention of audiences across the globe, outstripping all the many other complicated women in Ibsen’s oeuvre, even the door-slamming Nora of “A Doll’s House.” This month “Hedda Gabler” sweeps back onto Broadway — for somewhere around the 20th time over the course of a century — in a new production from the Roundabout Theater Company starring Mary-Louise Parker and directed by Ian Rickson.

In a review of the first Broadway production, way back in 1898, a critic for The New York Times described Hedda as a “degenerate,” “selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter, jealous, something of a visionary, something of a wanton, something of a lunatic.” Another writer for the paper, on the occasion of a revival in 1903, moralized that “her soul is too small even for human sin.” Critical responses have calmed over the centuries as we’ve all become more comfortable with neuroses, our own and everyone else’s. But there’s no pretending that Hedda herself has gotten any warmer. Locked in the fastness of art, she is as she ever was, a scorpion in amber.

So what is the mystery of her attraction? Probably her mystery itself. No matter how many times we encounter her, how many new angles we view her from, Hedda remains strangely inscrutable, her essence as elusive as the murky depths of our own tangled psyches.

If she were created by a playwright today, a new-model Hedda Gabler would probably stride onstage waving the standard flags of dysfunction and emotional disorder. Between bouts of pistol-polishing she’d be blabbing away about her issues with daddy worship, her husband’s inability to fulfill her needs, the oppressive social order and the sterility of Norwegian towns.

She’d have done some time in rehab and maybe had cosmetic work done, although at the time of her marriage to Tesman she had not yet hit 30 (30 was the old 50). A Hedda Gabler newly minted would probably be a lot like the insufferable mascara-dripping gamin played by Anne Hathaway in the cinematic whine-fest “Rachel Getting Married.” “But what about me?” would be her rallying cry.

Actually, that line comes directly from the Rolf Fjelde translation of the original play. (The new production, opening Jan. 25, uses a new adaptation by Christopher Shinn.) One of the hallmarks of Hedda’s modernity — one of the keys to her constant contemporaneity — is the depth of her narcissism. She was far ahead of the curve in the rampaging ego department, obsessively self-involved before it became an acknowledged strain in the modern character. She seems contemporary, too, in the pettiness of her dissatisfactions and her irritated sense of entitlement. And her attitude toward marriage strikes a similarly current note: “To be everlastingly together with one and the same person,” she moans in complaint. Both Miranda and Samantha on “Sex and the City” evinced similar skepticism about the till-death-do-us-part part of marriage.

But Hedda also resists self-revelation. She keeps her deepest secrets to herself, hiding the truth of her motivations behind the steel-gray eyes so peculiarly specified by Ibsen. The deepest roots of her malaise are probably obscure even to her. She admits to Judge Brack, her father confessor figure, that she doesn’t really know why she took that nasty swipe at dear Aunt Julie’s hat. She just felt like it, really. For Hedda, actions do speak louder than words, and all her actions are destructive.

“The odd thing is that she is not particularly introverted or self-analytical,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in an illuminating essay on Ibsen heroines in from the collection “Seduction and Betrayal.” “There is not much pleasure in her self-love. It is of an unproductive, even useless sort and so in the end she looks in the mirror endlessly and yet does not feel ardor for what she sees there.”

Unraveling the coils of her psychology is, of course, what attracts so many stars to the role. For an actress, bewitching an audience through the vehicle of a manifestly unlovable character is a challenge hard to resist. Famous interpreters on Broadway have included Minnie Maddern Fiske, Alla Nazimova and Eva Le Gallienne, the great champion (and translator) of Ibsen in the 1920s. But the list of distinguished actresses who have portrayed Hedda could be elaborated endlessly: Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg in versions currently available on DVD, Glenda Jackson in another filmed version from 1975, Claire Bloom on Broadway in 1971, Annette Bening in a Los Angeles production just about a decade ago.

There is danger in trying too cleanly to diagram the roots of Hedda’s pathology. That way lies reductiveness. In fact, another remarkable aspect of Hedda’s character is how reliably she confounds or confuses even formidable actresses. (Brooks Atkinson was underwhelmed by the interpretation of Le Gallienne, whom he admired more in other Ibsen plays, describing her Hedda of 1928 as being at times “perfunctory rather than artful.”) Every actress with the right aptitude and intelligence wants to play Hedda, but relatively few stars manage to triumph in the role.

The urge to clarify — and to forge a connection with the audience by evoking sympathy or amusement — can trip up an actress in this role perhaps as in no other. Hedda must captivate without seducing, and that can rub against the grain of an actress’s natural instinct. Attempt to reveal too much about Hedda that Ibsen did not specifically plant in the text, or settle too firmly on a neat psychological formula, and you risk reducing her to a bored housewife, a frustrated neurotic, a thwarted artist. She is all these, in part and in theory, but she must be more, too, larger somehow than both her personality and her predicament.

In recent years I’ve seen half a dozen productions, and only one — the New York Theater Workshop production from the experimental director Ivo Van Hove, starring Elizabeth Marvel — was satisfactory. By yanking the play from its naturalistic frame Mr. Van Hove helped restore some of its resounding mystery, and Ms. Marvel’s coolly entrancing performance shimmered with eerie intensities.

Without having any inkling of how she will approach the role, I’d venture to say that Ms. Parker is a promising choice. There is a cool, withholding quality in her economical acting style that seems right for Hedda, a suggestion that calculations and assessments are continually going on behind the big, dark eyes. Even in the Showtime series “Weeds,” for which she is currently best known, Ms. Parker uses this elusiveness to strong effect, infusing her performance as a suburban mom trafficking in drugs with a sense of suppressed desperation.

Her director, Mr. Rickson, whose sensitive, resonant production of “The Seagull” was a highlight of the fall season on Broadway, would seem capable of bringing forth the richer currents of the play. “Hedda is unable to live,” Richard Gilman wrote in the chapter devoted to Ibsen in “The Making of Modern Drama.” “At the deepest level of Ibsen’s vision she is caught not so much in a particular set of circumstances — these make up the dramatic occasion, providing the details by which the dramatic vision is made possible — as in human circumstance itself. She is a victim of the way things are.”

This sharp insight points toward the fundamental appeal of so superficially repulsive a woman. Life just isn’t good enough for Hedda Gabler. That might seem dismissive, making her sound like a teenager having a tantrum. But there are surely passages in every life when the soul sends up a similar cry of frustration. Admit, please, that there are moments when we are all inclined to feel that this frustrating business of existence — as it is lived on the darkest days — isn’t good enough for us either.

Charles Isherwood
New York Times