Last time we saw Nora Helmer, the Norwegian wife slammed the door on a stifling marriage, a myopic, patronizing husband and headed for … well, we don’t know. Nora’s defiant exit marked the sensational ending of Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking 1879 drama, a heroic gesture of self-emancipation that needed no further comment. Until now, it seems. The daring, youngish playwright Lucas Hnath debriefs us in his coolly detached yet sharply articulated A Doll’s House, Part 2. We learn where Nora has gone and what she’s done – because she comes back through that very door to tell us. A nervous little knock replaces the slam heard ’round the world.
Hnath’s deadpan title strikes a tone both earnest and cheeky. Here is a bona fide sequel that uses contemporary dialogue and does not call for any sort of period acting. (Jayne Houdyshell, as servant Anne Marie, mutters, “Oh well shit. Shit Nora shit,” which gets a big laugh.) By using blunt, everyday language, Hnath is not inviting us to laugh at the stuffy, distant Ibsen. In fact, the attitude toward his predecessor is downright respectful. Characters are treated as three-dimensional human beings, and their personal crises are explored sympathetically. Nora (Laurie Metcalf) has returned because Torvald never granted her a divorce. Since leaving her husband, she has become a successful novelist under a pseudonym. Now a judge whose marriage has been imperiled by Nora’s anti-marriage books threatens to expose her as a married hypocrite. Nora wants that final, legal separation.
The play is divided into a series of tightly focused two-person scenes: Nora and Anne Marie; Nora and Torvald (Chris Cooper, nicely stoic yet wounded); and Nora and her grown, passive-aggressive daughter, Emmy (radiant Condola Rashad). What action there is takes place offstage. The drama lies in the interplay of ideas and the struggle to defend a coherent moral vision when every decision leads to damage and progress. Emmy has been permanently wounded by Nora’s abandonment; she seeks solace in traditional marriage. In the years since his wife left him, Torvald has softened, but remains far from enlightened. Had she stayed, might Nora have increased the happiness in the world? Does gender revolution begin at home? At its deepest moments, the play touches on the fundamental question of how two people can live with each other in equilibrium, free of power games.
Metcalf, with her fluid expressions and ease in the shadow territory between clownish and tragic, holds the center with amazing vitality and grace. Veering between queenly arrogance and flustered shame in a heartbeat, she shows a woman torn between practicality and idealism, who will forever chase a utopia on the receding horizon.
Director Sam Gold, a specialist in stripping work (new and old) to it essence, and collaborating with designers to achieve stark, striking visuals, is perfectly suited to this semi-abstracted material. Projecting large titles on the walls, the production announces each scene (ANNE MARIE, TORVALD, etc.) with a Brechtian flourish. Miriam Buether’s broad, empty box of a set – wallpaper, a few mismatched chairs, a large door upstage and not much else – clears the way for the volley of ideas to engross us for 90 minutes.
And we are certainly hooked by Hnath’s idiomatic but chiseled language, by the neat architecture of his ethical debates. All the same, I was surprised by the sincerity of the enterprise, the absence of postmodern foolery and whimsical weirdness. Imagine what a young Tom Stoppard would have produced, had he been commissioned to write a sequel to A Doll’s House: chaos theory and military marching bands, perhaps. At the end of a long, often disappointing spring on Broadway, this refreshingly intelligent play has been highly – perhaps extravagantly – praised. It is cerebral, humorous, impeccably acted and solidly entertaining. But a bit like Hnath’s The Christians, it advances a provocative argument that doesn’t quite build to memorable drama. Ibsen slammed the door. Hnath picks the lock. Next time let’s have someone demolish the damned thing from lintel to doormat and start there.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.