Saturday, May 13, 2017

6. (2017-2018): Review: A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 (seen May 11, 2017)

“Who’s That Knocking at the Door?”

The final stage direction in A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 examination of marital relations, declares: (From below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door slamming.

The opening stage directions in Lucas Hnath’s (The Christians, Red Speedo) multi-award-nominated sequel, A Doll’s House Part 2, read:

(The room is empty.)
(Silent and empty for awhile.)
(Until. . .)
(Until there’s a knock at the door.)
(Then silence.)
(No one comes to answer it.)
(Then knock-knock.)
(And another knock at the door.) 
Laurie Metcalf, Jane Houdyshell. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
In Part 2, a commanding, black version of that famous door, whose slamming in Ibsen's drama became a symbol in the women’s rights movement (a purpose Ibsen denied having), is placed near the upstage center apex of Miriam Buether’s spare, nearly unfurnished, diamond-shaped set.

Anyone familiar with Ibsen’s still frequently revived classic knows who’s knocking. It’s Nora (Laurie Metcalf), of course, estranged wife of banker Torvald Helmer (Chis Cooper). In A Doll’s House, Nora, unable to bear being her patronizing husband’s little pet, walks out, slamming the door behind her, abandoning not only Torvald, but her three young children, and going off in search of her own individuality. In Hnath’s play, 15 years have passed, and Nora’s back, with a mission.
Chris Cooper, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
The question of what happened after Nora left has intrigued many writers. Although he called what he did “barbaric,” Ibsen himself, in an attempt to prevent others from doing it first, came up with an alternative ending in which Nora didn’t leave. Among other efforts was the flop 1982 Broadway musical, A Doll’s Life, and the well-regarded 1979 What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband by Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek.

Nora, thought dead by the locals (an impression Torvald has done nothing to prevent), is determined to get an official divorce. Now a financially well-off (pseudonymous) writer of feminist books, she needs the divorce—for which Torvald never filed—to protect her from prosecution for having behaved like an unmarried woman; given the patriarchal laws, only Torvald, who’s reluctant to comply, can grant it. Hnath dramatizes her efforts to figure out her options in five separate scenes, each of the last four introduced by a character's name emblazoned across the set in huge letters.
Jane Houdyshell, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Nora, an advocate of free love, holds the radical belief that marriage must be abolished and that, in 20-30 years, people will wonder how they could ever have been so stupid as to have accepted it for so long. Still a grand manipulator, but now using reason rather than lapdog charm, her ideas provide fodder for considerable contemplation, if not necessarily agreement.
Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
A Doll’s House Part 2 is always entertaining, frequently funny, and quite thoughtful; it’s also often unconvincing. There are times it produces the impression of having been forged by a playwright noting the choices made by a gathering of four gifted actors who’ve been asked to improvise plausible backstories for what they'd been doing over the past 15 years and how those who were deserted would react to Nora’s return. In other words, it's occasionally hoist by its own cleverness.
Laurie Metcalf, Condola Rashad. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Hnath doesn’t attempt to mimic Ibsenian language; his words are more or less contemporary, even using profanity that would have shocked Ibsen’s audiences as much as or even more than his subject matter. Of course, when we hear the old servant Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell) say “shit” in a Victorian setting we too are shocked—into laughter, not disgust; this only serves to underline the impression of a sharp-witted playwright’s playful “what if” exercise.

Hnath’s heightening of the play’s theatricality so that it can’t be taken as Ibsen-like realism allows New York’s hottest director, Sam Gold (The Glass Menagerie), to stage it so that the blocking, using only a handful of simple chairs, can sweep freely about the expansive stage. The actors often come to the lip of the stage, facing the audience directly with their backs turned to whoever it is they’re addressing. In one of the most dramatic scenes, Torvald and Nora even sit and lie throughout on the floor.
Laurie Metcalf, Jane Houdyshell, Condola Rashad, Chris Cooper. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
This relatively stylized approach lets Nora, in her long, full-skirted, period dress (costumes by David Zinn), move and behave in decidedly anachronistic ways, slouching on chairs or sitting with legs spread widely. It may also help some viewers to justify the colorblind casting of Condola Rashad as Nora’s grown daughter, Emmy, who has little sympathy for her long-absent mother’s dilemma.

Anything with Laurie Metcalf is worth seeing; to have her onstage throughout this play’s intermissionless 90 minutes is alone worth the price of admission. Her loose-limbed comic approach, in which she can be both persuasively argumentative and hilariously comic (those sardonic facial expressions!), give the production tremendous zest. You may not love this Nora but it’s hard not to love this actress. The marvelous Jane Houdyshell’s presence is another plus. She makes Anne Marie—resentful of Nora’s ingratitude for her having given up raising her own kids on behalf of Nora’s—amusingly feisty and believably aggrieved.
Laurie Metcalf, Condola Rashad. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper, back on Broadway for the first time since 1979’s Of the Fields, Lately, is less flamboyant than his costars, but creates a surprisingly sympathetic Torvald. His big argument with Nora shows him at his righteous best. While there are stylistic differences among the other actors, the one performance that fits least well is Rashad's, technically adept but projecting a cold, wide-eyed, slightly robotic quality.
Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
There have been three New York productions of A Doll’s House (one of them called Nora) in the past two years. Now that we know Nora’s ultimate fate, perhaps it’s time to put Nora and her problems aside and learn whatever happened to An Enemy of the People's Doctor Stockmann and his family 15 years after his discovery that his town's baths were polluted.


John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St., NYC
Through July 22