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Theatre in Review: A Doll's House, Part 2 (Golden Theatre)

Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.

Having, so many years ago, sat, gobsmacked, through A Doll's Life -- the show that answers the question, What happened to Ibsen's Nora after she famously slammed the door on her marriage? -- I confess to having arrived at the Golden Theatre the other night in a state of curiosity mixed with apprehension. Let's just say that, having seen that notorious musical -- Comden and Green's highest-profile flop -- I have spent the ensuing years firm in the conviction that A Doll's House is complete in itself, and Nora's story needs no further explication. Indeed, I've always thought that part of the play's fascination involves wondering, after the final curtain has fallen, exactly how Nora, who has no job skills and, until the play's final moment, a child's view of life, will be able to make her way in the world.

I hadn't reckoned with playwright Lucas Hnath and actresses Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell, who, at least in the opening scene of A Doll's House, Part 2, convert this situation into pure deadpan hilarity. Metcalf, of course, is Nora and Houdyshell is Anne Marie, the faithful family retainer who is, to say the least, nonplussed upon encountering her former employer after a fifteen-year absence. Struggling to say something civil, she insists, "I, for the record, never thought you were dead."

Nora, who is pretty sensationally decked out by the costume designer, David Zinn, is clearly well-off; as it happens, she saved up her pennies from sewing jobs, and, adumbrating Virginia Woolf's prescription about needing a room of one's own, took up residence in a shack up north, where she began writing feminist fiction. She launches into a lengthy speech about marriage -- which, she notes, "is cruel and destroys women's lives"-- that is delivered with the fervor of Tony Robbins rallying the crowds at a TED talk; Metcalf has always been brilliant at advancing an argument on stage, and here she presents a convincingly bleak -- and also very funny -- vision of marital relationships as inevitably hollowed out by fading desire and the changes wrought by time. Looking slightly wild-eyed, she insists that, in the future, monogamy will be as outdated as the buggy whip; everyone will live in a paradise of equality and sexual satisfaction. This state will be reached, she is certain, in twenty, maybe thirty years.

The most interesting thing about Hnath's Nora is how she lives in a kind of time warp. Both she and Anne Marie are dressed à la the nineteenth century, and the largely unfurnished room, designed by Miriam Buether, in which they play out A Doll's House, Part 2, has a certain Second Empire quality -- but the very few chairs on stage are Danish modern. (The large sign of illuminated block letters, spelling out the play's title, is also of today, as are the projections that announce the beginning of each scene.) Also, both characters speak in a thoroughly modern idiom -- and Anne Marie isn't above a few four-letter words. Hnath has deliberately placed his characters in two simultaneous time frames, as if to make the point that Nora's search for autonomy is an uphill struggle, no matter when it takes place.

As it happens, Nora's books, written under a pseudonym, have made her a sensation -- the Erica Jong of 19th century Norway. So destabilizing are her ideas that she was forced to kill off her heroine in the final pages to appease her publisher. Even so, a judge whose wife, under the influence of the book, has fled their marriage, is threatening to ruin Nora; even worse, he knows her as Nora Helmer. This leads to the stabbing realization that Torvald, Nora's husband, never bothered to file for divorce. As anyone who has seen A Doll's House -- I'm not going to call it Part 1 -- knows, thanks to the marriage laws in Norway at the time, all of the contracts Nora has entered into over the years are, if she is still married, null and void. And let's not even talk about the potential scandal associated with her many romances. Somehow, Nora announces, Torvald must be made to do the gentlemanly thing and file the necessary papers to free them both. (This won't be an issue for theatre fans, but general audiences should bone up on their Ibsen, as any understanding of the characters in Hnath's depends on one's knowledge of the earlier text. This contributes to the sense of A Doll's House, Part 2, being a very long revue sketch.)

As long as Metcalf and Houdyshell command the stage, armed with Hnath's mordant dialogue, A Doll's House, Part 2, looks like a play that is going places. (I particularly treasured the moment when Anne Marie, furious at being dragged into dealing with Nora's problems, snarls, "There's the door. I know you know how to use it.") Trouble sets in, however, with the appearance of Torvald, rather palely portrayed by Chris Cooper; at first, there's considerable crackle when Nora sheds her composure and savages her spouse for his milquetoast ways. ("I don't like that you're scared; it's a really big turn-off.") There's also a certain amount of fun as he reads out loud from Nora's book, noting with considerable distaste the passages that focus on him. "You go and you make everything about you," snaps Nora, sounding like the wife in a New Yorker cartoon.

But Torvald isn't an equal partner at all, dramatically speaking, and Cooper often seems a little overwhelmed by his leading lady, which causes their confrontations to go surprisingly limp. There's a fair amount of tension when Nora enlists the aid of her adult daughter, Emmy -- a total stranger, to all intents and purposes -- only to find herself overmatched by a young woman who, despite her considerable spine, has no interest in her mother's political ideas or literary achievements. Discussing her own wedding plans ("I have some experience with this kind of thing," Nora says, in warning), Emmy says, sweetly, "Because you left, I know nothing about what a marriage is and what it looks like. But I do know what the absence of it looks like and what I want is the opposite of that."

Condola Rashad delivers an Emmy who is all sugar and spice and not in the least bit nice, but by the time this scene rolls around, A Doll's House, Part 2, has begun to suffer from a certain amount of flagging energy. The issue of the divorce papers comes to seem more and more like a McGuffin, existing only to provide a premise for confrontations in which the same issues are repeatedly litigated; for all the cleverness of its conception, the play has little more to offer than the not-very-surprising insight that feminism, whether espoused by nineteenth century housewives or their 21st century sisters, keeps running into roadblocks that thwart its most revolutionary promises.

The idea that woman have been forced to fight the same battles over and over throughout history unfortunately lends itself to a certain reliance on platitudes. "It's really hard to hear your own voice," Nora says. So we've been told. Still, Sam Gold's direction finds every available laugh and bit of insight in Hnath's script; even when it begins to disappoint, there's a baseline level of professionalism below which this production never drops. It only begins to show signs of outstaying its welcome at the very end of its brief, ninety-minute running time. In addition the designers mentioned above, Jennifer Tipton's lighting is generally lovely, although I wish that the actors' faces were better highlighted. (I have made this comment about every Sam Gold-directed production this season.) Peter Nigrini's graphic projections, if not strictly necessary, certainly make a strong visual statement.

And you won't want to miss Metcalf, who once again proves that she is one of the toughest, funniest, most compelling actresses around. Equally irresistible is Houdyshell, who lands enormous laughs with a simple pause or a single uttered word. The material that these ladies have to work with may not be the freshest -- if anyone is planning Hedda Gabler, Part 2, I implore them to cease and desist -- but they remain two of the theatre's finest evergreens. -- David Barbour

(28 April 2017)

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