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NY Theater Reviews

Laurie Metcalf, Jayne Houdyshell, Condola Rashad and Chris Cooper in A Doll's House, Part Two/ Ph: Brigitte Lacombe

BREAKING NEW GROUND

By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, and A Doll’s House, Part Two were the standouts on Broadway this season.

While a pair of famous divas – Bette Midler and Glenn Close – are pouring adrenalin by the bucket load into a couple of well-established musical revivals, the really good news this season is that the two best new musicals on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, are totally original, boast no star names, and are out of left field and refreshingly inventive. They are very much their own creations, whose sources owe nothing to the cinema, established plays or novels.
 
Dear Evan Hansen, with a score by La La Land composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Steven Levenson, turns to social media for its inspiration in telling the moving story of an inarticulate, friendless, painfully shy young college student whose inability to connect with his classmates or even a pizza delivery man has turned him into an introverted loner. He’s in therapy, and one of the ploys his therapist has devised to help coax him out of his shell is to write a daily letter to himself.
 
Levenson’s narrative hinges on one of these letters being appropriated by a thoroughly obnoxious student called Connor Murphy, whose own mental problems result in his suicide. When Connor’s grieving parents find Evan’s letter, they naturally assume the two young men were friends and, understandably, begin to cultivate a relationship with Evan in the hope that he can shed light on why their son killed himself.
 
Meantime, Evan, who has a crush on Connor’s sister Zoe, goes along with the deception, in the process of which his celebrity among his fellow students rockets. A website called The Connor Project is launched, and from being an introverted nerd Evan Hansen positively blossoms. At the same time his deception soon begins to weigh heavily on his conscience until he is no longer able to live with his duplicity.
 
The subject is so original and up to date that Dear Evan Hansen might have worked just as well as a straight play. The score, however, takes it to places words alone couldn’t reach.
 
There is no room for sentimentality in Michael Greif’s finely nuanced direction, and as the eponymous hero Ben Platt throws in his marker as a potential superstar. He grows with the role, sensitive to all its highs and lows and variegated mood swings. Excellent work, too, from Mike Faist as the objectionable Connor, Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe, and Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s mother, whose anguish as her son is corralled by Connor’s parents will break your heart. The state-of-the-art set is by David Korins. 
 
In these turbulent times, with so many humanitarian crises involving homeless refugees seeking shelter and acceptance, Come From Away could not be timelier. Based on interviews given by a group of people whose planes on 9/11 were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, it tells the feel-good story of how the island’s population extended their unconditional hospitality to the passengers and crews regardless of color, creed or sexuality. Nothing was too much trouble for them. For several days Gander’s population doubled in size as 38 planes emptied their human cargo before resuming normal service.
 
The 100-minute narrative fashioned by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (who also supplied the book and lyrics) from these interviews creates a world in microcosm that is not unlike Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in some respects. After a slowish start, Christopher Ashley’s direction ingeniously clicks into place, its most noteworthy aspect being the way his paired-down cast of twelve seamlessly double and triple as passengers, crewmembers and local residents.
 
Though the themes explored in Come From Away are big, the show itself, complete with an onstage band, is more modest in scale. There are no truly defining moments, eye-catching sets, memorable showstoppers or above-the-title names in the cast. What’s immeasurable about it is the size of its heart, which deserves to keep pumping away for some time.
 
In 1879, when Nora Helmer literally slammed the door on her marriage to Torvald, the shock waves reverberated with seismic force across the Western hemisphere. As Judge Brack so memorably remarked when Hedda Gabler committed suicide, “People don’t do such things.” Well Nora did, and the consequences of her actions, some 15 years later, provide the simple but brilliant premise of Lucas Hnath’s dazzling A Doll’s House, Part Two, the best new play I’ve seen in quite a while.
 
After a decade and a half in which Nora (Laurie Metcalf) managed to avoid any contact with Torvald (Chris Cooper) and her three children, Nora returns to the home she deserted, knocks on the door and is let in by Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), the Helmer’s long-serving retainer and, presumably in Nora’s absence, a surrogate mother.
 
So, what has Nora been doing with herself since her act of self-liberation? Quite a lot, it turns out. She’s become a bestselling author of women’s fiction, never remarried, and lives alone and likes it. A major legal problem, however, has come to light: Torvald, it would appear, has never officially divorced her. It’s an unavoidable issue that has to be resolved, and Nora has no option but to confront him about it.
 
Over a period of 90 minutes (no intermission), Hnath, with a great deal more humour than Ibsen supplied in A Doll’s House, and without ever becoming preachy or didactic, gives all four of his leading characters –including the maid and Nora’s now grown-up daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad) – a chance to discuss the consequences of Nora’s actions from varying points of view.
 
Though the play remains in period, there’s a contemporary feel to the dialogue (as well as to Miriam Beuther’s spacious yet uncluttered set), whose viewpoints, assumptions and arguments no audience familiar with the original play can have failed to ponder themselves. The cast under the caring eye of Sam Gold is terrific, with Metcalf and Houdyshell especially so. Ibsen would have loved it.