In Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" Nora Finally Breaks Down That Door

In Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2" Nora Finally Breaks Down That Door
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Providing sequels to classics is a great temptation, particularly for authors who don’t necessarily believe that characters lived happily ever after when their creators quilled ”The End.” Some scribblers have even been handed large advances to tell us, for one instance, what happened to Scarlett O’Hara after she said she’d think about it tomorrow. What did she think tomorrow?

For another instance, Henrik Ibsen’s having Nora Helmer slam the door may not have really satisfied any number of people wondering to themselves, “And then?” In 1982 Harold Prince put Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Larry Grossman to work on imagining what happened (musically) to the famous home-wrecker after she left Torvald and the children in the dust. (Not much—the show folded after a total of 23 performances.)

My guess is there are other examples of riffing on Nora’s experiences when she attempts to liberate herself. A safe guess is also that over the years audience members contemplating Nora’s post-marital fate have also had fun thinking up their own possibilities.)

A playwright who has is Lucas Hnath’s. His A Doll’s House, Part 2, has just opened at the Golden. And be immediately aware that of the many promising current playwrights already impressively fulfilling their promise Hnath is definitely one in their cheering number. Others include Lynn Nottage, Annie Baker and Steven Levenson

Like Baker especially, Hnath seems never to repeat himself—A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay on the Death of Walt Disney is unlike The Christians is unlike Red Speedo and so on. Which is to say A Doll’s House Part 2 is like its predecessors only in the intelligence and humanity underlying it.

Yes, Nora (Laurie Metcalf) returns to the household she abandoned. She’s first heard knocking on the door she defiantly pulled shut 15 years earlier. Not incidentally, it’s an out-sized black door that Miriam Buether has designed for a high-ceilinged drawing room furnished only by four side chairs. This is in line with director Sam Gold’s inclination towards sparse sets. (See also his idea of a set for this season’s revival of The Glass Menagerie and the set for his Look Back in Anger revival several seasons back.)

Nora is let in by Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell, fresh from The Humans), the Helmer family retainer. She’s still in situ, after having long ago left her own child for the paying nanny position. Welcoming and salt-of-the-earth funny, Anne Marie is eager to learn what Nora has been up to. Considering the finery she’s wearing, it certainly looks as if she’s done all right. (David Zinn is the costumer.)

Filling her in, Nora—something of a stitch herself—reveals what the audience is also chomping at the bit to know. She’s become a successful author, having produced—as her introductory book and under a synonym—her personal story of a dissatisfied hausfrau.

Anne-Marie becomes less hospitable when she asks why Nora has returned. Nora confides that she’s lived an independent life. There have been several lovers, including “a relationship with a very younger man.” Now, however, Nora has discovered that Torvald never filed the divorce papers and has thereby left her in the position of being a married woman committing criminal acts. She could be exposed and watch her career screech to a halt.

So in Hnath’s comedy-drama—which is certainly a deliberate elaboration of the feminist argument Ibsen began 1879—Nora is intent on having Torvald sign the papers she’s brought with her. She pursues her mission when Torvald (Chris Cooper) returns, digressing only as now grown-up daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad) arrives for a confrontation. (The Helmer sons Bob and Ivor don’t appear.)

By that point, Hnath divides his intermissionless 90-minute play into three encounters (announced by Peter Nigrini’s projections) during which Nora tangles with Torvald, Emmy, Anne-Marie—and indeed herself. Along the way she gets as good as she gives.

The language in which the upper hand deftly alternates between and among the edgy participants is pointedly not restricted to Ibsen’s language. Here, it’s not only Nora who’s become liberated. So have Torvald and Anne Marie. Like so many folks today, they speak as only drunken sailors were thought to speak back in that 19th-century day.

Although eventually Hnath progresses from humor to the seriousness marked by Nora’s temporarily renewed relationship with her husband and daughter, laughs keep coming. Annoyed at what she’s hearing and ready to see the last of the returnee, Anne Marie says to Nora, “There’s the door—I know you know how to use it.” When Torvald asks Nora how that young man performed, Metcalf flashes an expression and a vocal response that reveals everything.

It’s no news that Metcalf is a superlative actress. Looking elegant and completely self-possessed, she presents a Nora who has changed greatly from the “little bird” she was to Torvald. Metcalf’s Nora is very much a modern woman—an obviously calculated manifestation of how Ibsen’s implied message about future equality of the sexes has materialized.

Houdyshell’s Anne Marie is just as much a no-nonsense woman. Since Houdyshell arrived in New York not really that long ago (she made her Broadway debut at 52), she has established herself as possessing a quiet brilliance at seeming not to be acting but simply being. This is another of her memorable portrayals.

Chris Cooper’s Torvald is someone who, as written and played, is a man worthy of a certain sympathy. Perhaps he’s the one character who, more than the others, is seen in a kinder light that Ibsen sees him. Cooper gets all the conciliating nuances.

As Emmy, Rashad is charming and bright. (By contrast, she’s currently bright but tougher in her recurring role on Showtime’s Billions.) This is a daughter, who’s overcome being abandoned by her mother and is now equal to the parent’s unexpected challenging reappearance.

Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 title could imply that he has a Part 3 in mind. Probably not, since he’s so clearly wired to move on to something completely different. Nevertheless, this is another of his must-see works.

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