A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath
At the Golden Theatre on Broadway
BS rating: A
Show-Score rating: 98
Several years ago, I attended a Q&A session with Edward Albee, then the greatest living American playwright. One of the audience members asked Mr. Albee, “What happens to George and Martha the next day in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’” Albee, never one to mince words, responded, “Nothing! The play is over. There is no tomorrow for George and Martha.” But the question was fair, if not the playwright’s responsibility. Much of the post-performance discussion of Albee’s play, and many other plays, centers on what happens to the characters and their circumstances in the future. That is what makes the theatre such a stimulating and thought-provoking experience. And occasionally, some misguided playwright tries to write a sequel to a great play, usually with disastrous results.
So it was with great trepidation that I entered the Golden Theatre to see A Doll’s House, Part.2. In this case, the up-and-coming playwright is Lucas Hnath, who has recently caught the attention of New York audiences with two fairly successful off-Broadway productions: The Christians at Playwrights Horizons, and Red Speedo at the New York Theatre Workshop. But now he was doing what several previous playwrights had tried and failed at: writing a sequel to the play that many see as the birth of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen’s classic and controversial portrait of marriage, identity, and responsibility.
To use the vernacular, I was “blown away” by Mr. Hnath’s extraordinary success, particularly considering several of the additional obstacles that he has overcome. In the current state of Broadway theatre, it is very rare for any new play to have its premiere on Broadway without some type of try-out, either off-Broadway or in a regional not-for-profit venue, giving the playwright the opportunity to revise and rework the play away from the buzz of the Great White Way. It is unheard of for a playwright’s first Broadway endeavor to open without a previous production. Actually, Part 2 was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre, one of California’s most acclaimed NFPs. However, according to reports, when the New York producer Scott Rudin read the script, he decided it was ready for Broadway and negotiated an agreement that allowed him and his producer associates as well as South Coast to premiere the play simultaneously. He was right!
Mr. Hnath’s play is not so much a sequel as it is a very modern look at marriage, identity, and the role of man and woman in- and outside of the home, set in the time and circumstances of Ibsen’s original. The four characters from the original speak in contemporary language even though the action takes place only fifteen years after Nora’s “door slam heard around the world.” We are never given the feeling that we are watching a play about the past. Hnath has used the context of the original to reexamine much of its content as currently relevant. What happens as a marriage evolves (or devolves)? What are the responsibilities of each partner? What happens to individual identity when that individual becomes a mother or father? And most importantly, for what and to whom are we responsible?
Hnath investigates these questions with wonderful pointed humor, something rarely seen in the original playwright’s oeuvre. He also develops a sequence of events that forces each character to confront their situation using a combination of pressures both within and outside of the home, a quality that mirror’s Ibsen’s techniques without the feeling of a poor imitation. There are some similarities to Mr. Hnath’s recent off-Broadway successes. As with The Christians, his discussions of issues are tinged with a dialectic. That play investigated the breakdown of religious belief for a holy-roller minister and his conflicts with his faithful associates (including his wife). In Part 2 he is interested in the most fundamental aspect of dialectal thought: choice. While choice was a fundamental undercurrent of Ibsen’s original, in Hnath’s sequel it is the main current. What is choice; are we free to make choice; how do we live with our choices? Sounds like a heavy evening in the theatre, but this is all accomplished with lots of laugh-out-loud humor combined with thoroughly believable character development.
The production at the Golden Theatre is near perfect. Laurie Metcalf gives a fully dimensioned performance as Nora. Returning home after fifteen years of independent success in the outside world, Metcalf portrays Nora’s conflicted soul and current challenges with clarity and empathy. Chris Cooper makes Nora’s husband, Torvald, into a deeply internalized and equally conflicted man who has never gotten beyond the original door slam. It’s not surprising to find Jayne Houdyshell cast as the maid, Anne Marie. But Hnath has made this minor character into a central figure and, also not surprisingly, Ms. Houdyshell gives yet another outstanding performance as a follow-up to her recent Tony award winning role in The Humans. In fact, these two roles, one as a loyal wife, the other as a vested family servant, give Houdyshell the opportunity to help us understand two very different versions of the woman who keeps the house together. Condola Rashad effectively plays the grown-up daughter, Emmy, who was merely a very young child in the original play. She embodies the other side of Nora’s dialectic, ready to marry a banker and afraid of scandal. Rashad plays her as quietly forceful, not unlike her mother in the original. Miriam Buether’s set is stark, tall white walls with four simple chairs, a small table, and “that door.” Thrust into the audience, the almost vacant stage tells us to focus on what is said, not where or when it’s said. Sam Gold’s direction is clear and smart, including the color-blind casting that gives Emmy a sort of “otherness,” not to mention the benefits of the choices made by a very fine actor, Ms. Rashad. But the real star of this production is Mr. Hnath’s script. Rarely is something from the past made so present.