If you should see any ashen-faced individuals wandering near Times Square, looking up at the bright hoardings announcing plays on theaters, be kind to them. For these broken people are likely theater critics who have just endured a full-on battery of Tony season plays and musicals (this year’s nominations are announced on Tuesday). For a few hours at least, these glazed-eyed, battered souls need a dark room—and peace.
The final show to open aboard the crowded Tony charabanc, Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, is a wonderfully arranged and observed snow globe of conflicts. It is variously a crisp comedy, an interrogation of feminist ideals, and a moving study of marriage, family, and independence. (Full disclosure: One of its producers is Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, which owns The Daily Beast.)
Its audacity is announced right there in its title: This is a subversive and also feeling and respectful sequel to a theatrical classic, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), which culminates in Nora Helmer’s dramatic flit from the Helmer family home, slammed door behind her—renouncing the traditional roles of wife and mother to find herself.
In setting the sequel 15 years later, Hnath—winner of the 2016 Obie Award for Playwriting for Red Speedo and The Christians—wittily asks what happened next, and plausibly deconstructs the motivations and inner lives of four of Ibsen’s characters in the original play: Nora (Laurie Metcalf), husband Torvald (Chris Cooper), daughter Emmy, now a young woman (Condola Rashad), and Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), Nora’s former nanny who has bought up Nora’s children in her absence.
In the projection announcing the title of the play, there is an immediate modernity to the 90-minute, intermission-less show, as there is to other projections, announcing the names of all the characters who get a section of the show each.
A modernity is also signaled in aspects of speech: “Fuck you, Nora,” shouts the magnificent Houdyshell to a storm of applause at one point. (Houdyshell played the harried mom in The Humans, winning her the Featured Actress Tony last year.)
Miriam Buether’s mostly clutter-free space features furniture (just a few chairs, really) that look mid-century modern, while the austerely simple costumes of David Zinn—while very 1894—signal them as very much accessories to the spoken word. Sam Gold, who in recent months has mounted distinctive productions of Othello and The Glass Menagerie, directs the action with both a fluid pace and a wonderful intuition of encouraging his actors to make the most of this open space: a domestic, gladiatorial arena.
Every performance is considered, and a fine individual exercise in contrasts. Metcalf has all of Nora’s feminist zeal and personal calculation, and also a great range of facial mugging—familiar to all viewers of Roseanne—to signify disbelief, embarrassment, pleading, and sarcasm.
Her first encounter is with the absolutely gloriously wry and deadpan Houdyshell. Anne Marie is barely servile to her employers, dressed in black and with all the facial hardness of a Van Eyck portrait, and not taking a moment’s nonsense from anybody. Her first words to Nora: “You got a little fatter. You got older…”
The humor of the piece is in its bluntness, such as when Anne Marie informs Nora that everyone—including her family—thinks she is dead. For herself, Nora herself thinks there’s not much point seeing her children: Who is she to them?
For all the wisdom and self-assurance she seems to have, Nora is also self-delusional and self-aggrandizing. Is Torvald broken, she asks Anne Marie, hopefully seeking confirmation of her power over her husband. No, tells her straight (even though, beneath the barbs and snark, the women share a deep bond and trust, and Nora thanks Anne Marie for being the mother she never was).
If Nora thought she could breeze back into her old world she is proved so wrong; when Anne Marie tells her to fuck herself, she adds that on her return, her first words “should have been: Thank you, Anne Marie. Thank you for abandoning your own life, your own child, and raising mine, so that I could go off to do my little thing.”
Nora initially tries to make those years away into a victory for independence and independent thinking. People expect women who leave their husbands and families to have a difficult time, but she did not, she insists.
She has made her fortune as an author, writing thinly veiled autobiographical fiction (not under her name), with the underpinning wisdom being that “marriage is cruel and it destroys women’s lives”—the received lesson of the original play—because of its emphasis on ownership and enforced, claustrophobic monogamy.
That is not what Hnath is interested in rehashing. If Nora is first challenged by Anne Marie, she is subsequently challenged by Torvald, and Emmy.
Nora is lying to herself, of course. Indeed, this Nora in Part 2 turns out to be as trapped by the era and inequality as she was in Ibsen’s original play. She is the subject of a possible blackmail as someone threatens to reveal her true authorial identity, and she needs Torval’s aid to sign divorce papers. Her much-desired freedom is at best equivocal. It depends, depressingly, on men.
In a darkly funny set of missed beats, Torvald doesn’t even recognize his wife. When he does, he reflects that his one wish is that he left her, revealing a piercing laundry list of complaints about her behavior. Her epiphany and departure weren’t radical; staying and working things through would have been.
Nora dismisses his anger as playing the victim when it was he who looked down on her. Hnath spikes this heaviness with throwaway wit, such as Nora noting, “I don’t like that you’re scared—it’s a really big turnoff.” A moment passes signaling his incomprehension. “Sorry, I’m not trying to turn you on right now,” says Torvald. He could have added a “like, duh” for emphasis.
In a beautifully acted scene that has even more tense comedy to it, Nora and Emmy come face to face, another broken family relationship that Nora wants to repair for her own pragmatic ends, but she is soon capsized by the intensity of what is occurring.
Emmy is certainly her mother’s daughter, coolly and commandingly dismissing her mother’s ministrations, seeing right through her soft manipulation to try and influence Emmy to influence Torvald, and recommending Nora stay dead. She has been no mother to her, and there isn’t much point trying to start now.
Emmy has no time for her mother’s theatricalized politics, having lived up close and personal with the damage of her departure and absence: “How many women have left their husbands because of you?” Emmy wonders of her mother’s writing. “How many women have left their children? How many women have left their husbands and children, and gotten themselves into the same kind of trouble you’re in right now?”
What is ultimately striking about A Doll’s House, Part 2 is that it is a work of equality in a play that wrestles with that very concept. It has an encompassing generosity: Every character on stage, as written by the masterful Hnath, is conceivably right, which isn’t to say that their faults aren’t also clearly shown too. We believe all of their emotional truths, and all their self-delusions.
In the denouement, shared between Torvald and Nora, sitting on the floor scarred and exhausted, some kind of peace is found. It is not of the rosy, romantic finality kind you’ll see in a movie, and A Doll’s House, Part 2 ends as Ibsen’s original play did, with the very final closing of a door. But thanks to Hnath and this brilliant group of actors, this time we feel we know why that door has closed for all the characters on stage.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York City. Book tickets here.