Following up on his contemporary morality play Red Speedo, playwright Lucas Hnath comes to Broadway with A Doll’s House, Part 2 currently playing at the Golden Theatre. As the title suggests, this play is a follow-up to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece, which concluded with a door slam heard around the world. The production, however, is such a mixed bag that – depending on the focus – the individual audience member can either have a satisfactory evening at the theatre or a terrible one.
First to the good: Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell. Metcalf roars through the production as Nora, investing the 15 years between the shutting of that door and her return with pathos, urgency, nuance, and good humor. Her scenes with Houdyshell (recently of The Humans) crackle with wit and an undercurrent of tension and loss. A play constructed around these two would have been quite satisfying indeed.
Next to the troublesome: Condola Rashad as Emmy (Nora and Torvald’s daughter) offers a winning presence, but she cannot resolve the contradictions written into her role. Often it seems that Hnath has written her a line for the purpose of being funny, even if it is out-of-stop with an aspect of her character expressed in a previous line.
And finally to the not so good: Chris Cooper. Cooper is an actor I have long-admired on film from Lone Star to his award-winning performance in Adaptation to Capote, but here he seemed completely at sea. I understand he has experience on stage, but he came across as unsure in the medium. His instrument, compared to his co-stars, was weak. Alas, in the preview I saw, he even called for line. He struggled to create a character with a clear narrative arc, and he failed to be a strong scene partner for Metcalf.
The fault though lies with the script. Metcalf and Houdyshell simply steamrolled over the play’s weaknesses, while Cooper could not resolve them with his process. Like Red Speedo, this work dramatizes Hnath’s concern with ethical behavior accompanied by staccato Mamet-esque dialogue. However, the play simply did not know what it wanted to be, or even when it wanted it to be. First, period costumes mixed with extremely knowing and irony-laden contemporary speech. Tom Stoppard made this work with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as his piece was an absurdist work of theatre engaging with Shakespeare’s while Shakespeare’s was in process. The lack of naturalism in both works played well with each other. Ibsen’s however is so period specific and so naturalistic that Hnath’s play has not more weight than one of those shallow Hollywood No-Fear-Shakespeare-esque retellings of a classic text. And while there is some attempt to explore the ramifications of Nora’s original decision to leave hearth and home, the stakes are extraordinarily low. Finally, Hnath’s play robs the original Nora of her power and agency. She returns. She walks back through the door. She seeks Torvald’s help on a matter that is too convoluted for here and never quite convinces in its urgency. I believe that Hnath wanted to build upon the proto-feminist impulses inherent in the Ibsen, but the results rob Nora of her remarkable pioneering feminist achievements.
Sam Gold, who seems to be everywhere now, keeps the proceedings brisk and provides a an appropriate sense of claustrophobia with his staging and set.
For fans of Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2 will provide a fun evening at the theatre. For fans of Ibsen, it will not.