My first thought as I experienced this brilliant play is that it is too good for Broadway, which is sadder for Broadway than for the play. In the past couple of years, Lucas Hnath has given us a series of stimulating, challenging plays about big issues. Like Henrik Ibsen and the classical Athenian playwrights, Hnath's plays are consciously a series of intense dialogues on big subjects: faith (or the loss of same) and doctrine in THE CHRISTIANS, American moral corruption in RED SPEEDO. There's none of Ibsen's solemnity in Hnaths' fast, furious and often funny work. He's more like George Bernard Shaw at his best. Hnath's plays are certainly well-made and highly theatrical. He has a strong sense of narrative and draws rich characters. And his plays, models of dramatic economy, are full of surprises.
You don't have to know a lot about Henrik Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE to enjoy Hnath's sequel. Nora left home, marriage and family to find herself. In Norway in the1870s, this was a scandalous act. The sad fact is that there would be nowhere for such a rebellious woman to go. Perhaps she could find a menial job or become a prostitute. Hnath's Nora (Laurie Metcalf), was much cleverer. Under a pseudonym, she became a writer of best-selling feminist novels, the first of which is a fictional retelling of her stultifying marriage. Women love her novels; men in power want to destroy the woman who wrote them. Fifteen years after walking out the door of her home, Nora returns beautifully dressed and very self-possessed. She has come back because she has discovered that Torvald, her husband (Chris Cooper), never divorced her. This means that as a married woman she had no legal right to conduct business or have affairs. Nora needs a divorce or she could be ruined. However, if she has her way, everyone else could be ruined. In a series of witty, intense dialogues with Torvald, her old nurse (Jayne Houdyshell) and her daughter (Condola Rashad), Nora continues to argue for her freedom and her beliefs. Nora's feminism and anti-marriage stance have validity, of course, but like many radicals, Nora is not very strong on compassion or on arguments based on emotional need. Like many of Ibsen's heroes, she's both a creator and a destroyer. There's a lot at stake here for all the characters.
One of the fascinating aspects of the play and the simple but effective production by the ubiquitous Sam Gold (obviously influenced by the work of Ivo van Hove), is the confluence of past and present. Rock music blasts from the speakers as the audience enters the theatre and a neon sign bearing the play's title hangs over the stage. The walls of Miriam Buether's thrust stage set could be of a large 19th century house, but the few chairs are contemporary. A box of Kleenex sits on a small table. The language is definitely a mix of period and contemporary. The audience laughs when Nora says that within thirty years her feminist ideas will take hold. We know there are still places in the world where women are in positions worse than Nora could ever imagine.
What a cast! Laurie Metcalf stalks the stage like a person hungry for power. She's something of a bully but Metcalf brings out all the humor in the text. Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper and Condola Rashad are worthy adversaries.
Unlike SWEAT, which will probably win all the awards, A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2, is never preachy. It never falls into melodrama. It deserved the cheering it got at the performance I attended.
If I gave stars, Hnath's play would get five.