Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

A Doll's House, Part 2

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2017

A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic design by Miriam Buether. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Hair & makeup design by Luc Verschueren/Campbell Young Associates. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Cast: Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, Condola Rashad.
Theatre: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Even a door that's slammed rarely stays shut forever. Certainly in his classically controversial play A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen intended it to represent finality: When, at its end, Nora Helmer exited her home and her marriage to Torvald, it was obvious she was to be gone for good. Not so fast, argues Lucas Hnath in his funny and insightful new play that just opened at the John Golden with the prosaic and provocative title A Doll's House, Part 2: It's exactly the qualities that make Nora so headstrong that doom her to an existence that's intolerable in a different way. In other words, her story wasn't finished. It was only just beginning, and her ultimate reckoning is still to come.

It appears to arrive 15 years after the slam heard 'round the world, when Nora (Laurie Metcalf) returns to Torvald's home for the first time. It looks much as she remembers it—minus a few furnishings, all hers—and so does the nanny, Anne-Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), who's still on hand. But Nora has changed considerably. Her clothes and manner bespeak a wealthy woman who has achieved everything she literally and figuratively set out to, who has successfully proven she didn't need her unwanted husband to complete her. She sort of did; she's become a famous novelist, operating under a pseudonym, whose story of her own marriage and breakup has been all the rage among the feminine set. Other than that, though, she's been fine alone and with a few straggling lovers here and there.

Well, er, mostly. There's just one little wrinkle, she reveals: Torvald did not file for divorce after Nora left him, and given the laws of society, everything (and everyone) she's earned and done could be compromised; and a judge, whose wife left him after reading Nora's book, is blackmailing her to publicly retract her stories or he'll expose her for who and what she is. Nora may not need much in the physical sense, but there's one key requirement for her continued well-being: Torvald must let go of her just as she did him once upon a time. Which isn't so bad on its own, except that Torvald (Chris Cooper) doesn't want to make things easy on her. After all, didn't she let her dissatisfaction torpedo something that might have been made to work better?

"The moment you brought the problems to light," he tells her, "you walked out the door." He continues: "Having epiphanies is easy. But actually doing something about it is..." hard, he doesn't get a chance to finish, but the message is clear. As are the barriers that continue to stand between them, and must be addressed if either is to find what the door couldn't give them: closure.

Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell with
Condola Rashad and Chris Cooper
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Although this play could easily have been little more than a schematic continuation of Ibsen's themes, Hnath, as he did with his religion drama The Christians and his sports dissection Red Speedo (both Off-Broadway), is more interested in twisting the familiar than regurgitating it. He tackles the contemporary view of marriage, in both its actual and ideal forms, exploring the ways in which all the most dedicated Noras may be doing more harm than good. A crucial scene finds Nora meeting the daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad), she abandoned a decade and a half earlier and discovers just how poorly some lessons can be communicated when the right person isn't around to do the speaking. And he provides the blood-drawing conclusion between Nora and Torvald that reinforces how much men and woman in general—and these two in particular—really do need each other, even when it's the furthest thing from their conscious minds.

The juxtaposition of the declared setting (roughly 1895) with our time also underlines important contrasts in how we've grown and how we haven't, and lets us view progress through two lenses simultaneously. This technique glides rather than grates because, despite a few significant departures (there are plenty of strong four-letter words, for example), Hnath largely writes in his own version of Ibsen's high-toned, stylized language, so there are few jarring distinctions between what is being said and how. As a result, the action takes place in every time and in no time, additionally highlighting the eternality of the struggles between the sexes and letting Hnath have his fun without calling undue attention to the machinery that makes it possible.

He has a keen partner in director Sam Gold, who's richly returned to form following his misguided deconstructionist version of The Glass Menagerie earlier this season. Gold's penchant for subtle emotions, and pointing up the natural ironies that often exist between them, is ideal for this group of people who's staked out space in exactly those locales. Few scenes illustrate this better than the one in which Nora confronts an even more evolved Emmy, and we see just how much the definition of a strong woman can change from one generation to the next, but the complexities are evident throughout. The physical production is somewhat uninspiring, with Miriam Buether's Helmer home set distractingly spare and clinically lighted (by Jennifer Tipton), though David Zinn's costumes handsomely straddle the concrete and imaginary eras at play.

Gold has, however, done what he does best and amplified every characterization that the excellent cast members have provided him. Cooper's put-upon businessman persona, Houdyshell's permanently jittery fluster, and Rashad's foot-shuffling confidence are all outstanding portrayals in their own right. But Metcalf exceeds them, her on-edge modernity an airtight match for the Nora who's arrived at this point in time. She shows you her present-day interpretation of independence, yes, but also the erosion of her own headstrong approach to life. She may have lived to the fullest, but you sense that she's also tortured by what she hasn't be able to do, and what may never be within her grasp. This is a woman who's entirely realistic, who's come to understand, in a way her younger was unable to, the high cost of dreams at right angles with reality. You may get what you want, but you always wake up sooner or later.

The grogginess and the bleariness that accompany this realization, and the subsequent attempts to make it right again, are not easy weights to bear, especially for people who were not designed to do so. But if it did nothing else, A Doll's House, Part 2 would still prove that anyone can carry those burdens and make them work, against all odds and expectations. "The world didn't change as much as I thought it would," Nora tells Torvald later on, as she's assessing the ruins around her. She's right about that, but she's also wrong because of how easily she forgets the fact that closing one door is the most common precursor there is to opening another.