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.
Lucas Hnath has written the best play David Mamet didn’t. That assessment may initially appear to be damning with faint praise. Yet, Hnath has exceeded the reach of his predecessor in several key elements.
Currently coming to the end of it’s run at New York Theatre Workshop, Hnath’s Red Speedo details the late career hopes of professional swimmer Ray (played with off-kilter intensity by Alex Breaux). The plot revolves around whether or not he took performance-enhancing drugs to aid him for his Olympic trials. The moral quagmire encompasses Ray, his brother/manager Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), his coach (Peter Jay Fernandez), and ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoë Walters). Hnath shares Mamet’s ability to bring his drama alive with staccato lines spat out like frantic machine-gun fire from Apocalypse Now. He also dramatizes the moral rot that can pervade an institution and how the appearance of propriety often becomes more important than actual propriety.
Hnath excels in some compelling ways. First, in Lydia, Hnath has created a fully realized female character. Lydia is not an idea or caricature or plot device. As embodied by Walters, Lydia — even though she appears in a single scene — is fully a part of the tapestry of the world. Her reach — the effect that she has on the narrative outcome — far greater than her stage time might at first indicate. Morally damaged like the other characters, Zoë is the one who tries to find a path — stumbling in the dark as she does — to something more ethical, something that allows her to leave her past behind.
Second, the playwright carefully weaves the personal and the professional together. Choices flow organically from character, from damaged pasts, from desperation. If a character chooses a morally questionable path, the drive emanates as much from the pains of failures, the fear of abandonment and loss, and the desire to escape errors. Greed is not so much a motive as fear. That makes them more understandable, more relatable. We can bring them closer to us, rather than judging them from the distance. Of course, once we have brought Ray into our hearts — when we think he is a jerky, somewhat stupid, somewhat deluded guy — then Hnath brings down the hammer and we are confronted by the monstrosity of Ray’s actions.
And that, finally, leads to Hnath’s greatest playwriting strength: the ability to surprise. None of the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross are particularly likable. We see them for what they are from the start. And when they fall upon one another in the second act, it is entertaining to be sure, but the audience is kept at a distance from them; we can happily feel morally superior to them because we are removed from them. Not so with Ray. Hnath sets his drama so that we believe Peter to be the fast-talking lawyer with the ethics of a deranged squirrel while Ray has just been along for the ride but is ultimately a sweet kid, redeemable. As the play unfolds, we see different shades of both that reveal complexity and nuance to both. The playwright carefully reveals details that leave us, at the end, with the judgment of Ray that is starkly different, starkly darker than where we started.
Director Lileanna Blain-Cruz stages the drama brilliantly, and the transformation of the New York Theatre Workshop space into the side of a swimming pool serves the work admirably. Fernandez excels as the Coach, and he lays bare the contradictions of his character as he must navigate the shoals of which moral compromises to make and which to avoid.