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, constantly 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 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 at adult age. It would be a mistake to reveal any more plot details than this, for Hnath has a way of doling out exposition through dialogue that makes it far more valuable for an audience member to discover in performance than in reading a synopsis before seeing it. 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 play 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 through separate two-person scenes 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 at asking an audience to become members of a jury in the court of moral judgements, and the fact that it’s done in ninety minutes with writing as tight as a drumhead doesn’t hurt. Of course, morality plays don’t work if the arguments are not all sound, but Hnath can construct a dialogue in which both sides are completely correct like magic, and the result is a play in which the audience is as much an active participant as the characters. It’s 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, especially writing a sequel for a classic with an ending that is generally regarded to be one of the best of all time. 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 about 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—it takes care of the basic explanations for stage novice audience members—, but you’ll laugh quite a bit harder if you have.
The fact that Part 2 is a comedy might come as a surprise to some, especially considering that Hnath isn’t exactly known for his humor, but his amusement at his own subject is infectious, especially in Sam Gold’s production, which lets the zingers galore run rampant through the halls of the Golden. Perhaps there will eventually be a production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 that ultimately gets at the heart of the work better than the Broadway premiere, especially because when the play slows down to become serious, it’s as serious as a heart attack, but this boisterous staging is appropriate for a commercial audience, and Gold’s staging makes the most out of the large playing space, helping make sure that the play never feels swallowed up by a Broadway house. Contributing to this are Miriam Buether’s towering set walls and monstrous door, which make the chairs and bedside table which comprise the actual set look threateningly minuscule, not cheaply so.
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 counterweight perfectly, even though she doesn’t come onstage until about two thirds through the play. Chris Cooper is simply miscast as Torvald, his sneering face impossible to imagine playing Ibsen’s character fifteen years ago, and his weakly projected voice causing him to simply disappear when faced with Laurie Metcalf’s Nora. Metcalf is giving a true star-turn here, perfectly navigating the character’s tricky arc while driving home every laugh line she can find. It is one of those performances where the audience is left with no doubt as to who is the star and who are the supporting players, and given the nature of the role, 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.