Author Lucas Hnath specializes in postmodern morality plays in which four characters spend ninety intermission-free minutes arguing with each other within the context of some kind of metatheatricality: always reminding the audience that they are watching a play of some sort. In short: downtown theatre, the kind of play one might expect to be presented at a respected off-Broadway company, get rave reviews, and then close after the set six-week run. So what on earth is A Doll’s House, Part 2, a very postmodern, tongue-in-cheek “sequel” to Ibsen’s famous masterwork, doing at the Golden, an 800-seat Broadway house, in a glossy production produced by the almighty Scott Rudin? That question is seemingly impossible to answer, but New Yorkers should rejoice either way. A Doll’s House, Part 2 is an exceptionally strong play, and is exactly the antivenin needed by audiences weary of the parade of over-produced Broadway theatre.
Part 2 picks up fifteen years after Ibsen’s play ends, where Nora Helmer, after slamming the door on her husband and children and living a life of her own, returns to Torvald’s house for mysterious purposes. The large ensemble of Ibsen’s Doll’s House is reduced here to four: Nora, Torvald, Anne Marie (the maid), and Emmy—Nora and Torvald’s daughter—now a young woman. It would be a mistake to reveal any more plot details than this, but suffice to say that Nora is once again prepared to upheave the lives of those she left, who perhaps are not as satisfied with her removal from societal standards as she and Ibsen were.
The structure of the work is similar to that of Hnath’s earlier play, The Christians. A main character enters the playing field with a demand, the other characters each refute this original demand separately, in which their own moral argument is presented for an audience to decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong. It’s difficult to say if this is a new status quo for the author, but it’s a smart and effective way of asking an audience to become members of a jury in the court of moral judgements. That it’s done in ninety minutes with writing as tight as a drumhead doesn’t hurt. Hnath can construct a dialogue in which both sides are completely correct and yet totally helpless, and the result is a play in which the audience is as much an active participant in the drama as the characters. It is theatre of the brain, not the heart, but dazzling nonetheless.
A Doll’s House, Part 2, much like the rest of Hnath’s oeuvre, is a prime example of metatheatre. Here, the mere idea of writing a sequel is parodied in process, particularly in writing a sequel for a classic with an ending that is generally regarded to be truly definitive. Part 2 clarifies something that doesn’t need to be clarified, and it has delicious fun in doing so. From the completely colloquial dialogue laced with profanity to the loud proclamations from Torvald of his desire to change his legacy (as if the character had, himself, read Ibsen’s play and decided he didn’t like it), the play is wickedly funny both in and out of context of its prequel. You don’t have to have read or seen Ibsen’s play to understand Hnath’s, but you’ll laugh quite a bit harder if you have.
That Part 2 is a comedy may come as a surprise to some, but Hnath’s distant amusement at his own subject is infectious, especially in Sam Gold’s production, which lets the zingers run wild through the halls of the Golden; but when the play turns serious, it’s as serious as a heart attack. Contributing to the overall effect are Miriam Buether’s towering set walls and monstrous door, which make the barren set design all the more stark and lonely.
Jayne Houdyshell, a remarkable character actress who can say one-liners like no-one else in the biz, is bawdy and totally convincing as Anne Marie: her sly and mischievous voice adding megawatt levels of punch to some of her very best moments. Condola Rashad, who plays Nora’s daughter Emmy, is similarly excellent, and is able to ground herself as the play’s emotional foil perfectly, even though she doesn’t come onstage until an hour in. Chris Cooper is arguably miscast as Torvald: his sneering face and thin voice are impossible to imagine having been Ibsen’s brutish antagonist fifteen years ago, and his weakly projected voice is no match for Laurie Metcalf’s Nora. Metcalf, who is giving a true star-turn here, perfectly navigates the character’s emotional arc while driving home every laugh line she can find. There’s no doubt as to who is the star and who are the supporting players, and given the nature of the role with the talents of Ms. Metcalf, I’d say it’s totally appropriate.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 does sputter out towards the end, where it wraps up without truly concluding in a meaningful way, as though Hnath simply got bored after a while of writing, but a mediocre five minutes are no reason to skip eighty five thrilling ones. This is the type of show that Broadway needs more of: a crowd pleaser where eggheads and tourists will walk out with like delight.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 plays at the Golden Theatre in New York City through July 23rd. Tickets and information available here.