Nora Helmer’s exit from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was the door slam heard around the world. Since 1879, scholars, sociologists, and others have speculated about her fate. Now playwright Lucas Hnath attempts to reveal what came next in A Doll’s House, Part 2, using modern language and the commanding Laurie Metcalf to deliver a post-feminist message about marriage, freedom and self-knowledge.
While it is certainly a bold move to take on an iconic illustration of the role of women in a male-dominated society, Mr. Hnath’s vision isn’t quite worth the wait. To his credit, he recreates some of Ibsen’s original patterns, giving middle-aged Nora a number of unpleasant options from which to choose her next steps. He also does not shy away from examining the questions of criminality and betrayal raised in the original classic. Having set up his typically provocative framework, however, Hnath wraps it up in a mixture of flippant retorts, tedious arguing, and lectures that are only mildly engaging. The laughs are largely of the cheap variety, stemming from mugging and the dropping of “shocking” f-bombs. The plot becomes so buried under bluster that my companion — a wise and wonderful theater vet — missed the final point completely. This made me wonder what experienced producer Scott Rudin saw on the page that made him invest in this production based solely on the script. Perhaps the rush to Broadway was a misstep. On the plus side, being intimately familiar with “Part 1,” while certainly adding to one’s understanding, is not essential.
Hnath is helped along his misguided route by the usually excellent Sam Gold. Gold has chosen to stage many of the longer speeches as if they are TED talks, with the actors facing the audience instead of their scene partner. This results in significant revelations being delivered butt first, which is as disengaging as it is contrived. Whatever flow remains is halted by the intrusion of green neon signs projected on the walls announcing the central character for the next beat. How strong is the exchange of wits in dialogue if you need to be told which viewpoint to follow? Set off by Miriam Buether’s clean scenic design, David Zinn’s costumes and Luc Vershueren’s hair and makeup are divine. Nora conveys almost as much with her outfit as she does in her opening lines.
Despite what appears to be disappointing early ticket sales (there were tumbleweeds blowing through the mezzanine at the preview I attended), Ms. Metcalf is still being discussed as a possible Tony nominee. She is indeed an excellent Nora-by-way-of-Hnath, with splendid delivery and body language that combines triumph and frustration. Recent Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell takes on the lighter role of nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie in classic comedic style. Chris Cooper, returning to Broadway after a 40 year absence, gives us a rather dry and somewhat disappointing Torvald. (Although one could argue that’s exactly the Torvald we should expect.) Rounding out the cast is Condola Rashad as the talking-slightly-too-fast Emmy, Nora’s daughter.
With its stark set, talky script and short runtime, this production is a modest one by Broadway standards. It may be difficult to command the $147 asking price for premium seating. But if you can grab a discounted seat and wade through the tidal wave of words, it is worth seeing the brilliant Metcalf poke gently through a modern lens at a once scandalous character. Tickets for the limited engagement ending July 23, 2017 are available at http://dollshousepart2.com.