Thursday, 27 April 2017

A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 by Lucas Hnath

     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.  


  1. Nora has committed a crime as a married woman of not having had her husband’s permission to do her writing); the “crime” will destroy her career and her wealth. But she needs more than a mere divorce; she needs a divorce dated 15 years earlier because even if Torvald grants her one now (in 1894), she will still have been married at the time she violated the laws. Unless she has antedated divorce papers (producing which would involve fraud), she has committed the "crime." No one in the play seems aware of this. What is interesting to me, more than what transpires on stage, is that Torvald has sown the seeds of his own demise by not making the divorce take place after Nora left and, instead, allowing the fiction of Nora's death to define him to the public, for public esteem and status are what he has always prized. In the play, we are led to believe that a divorce will save Nora from the lawsuit but will lead to Torvald's demise. But the horse is out of the barn. Even in 1894 Norway, the scandal befalling a prominent woman author exposed for violating the law would eventually ensnare her husband. In other words, the wheels of Torvald's downfall have been in motion for 15 years and have been accelerated by the lawsuit. Nora can “survive” the lawsuit but only if her divorce is (fraudulently) dated 1879; Torvald's lie about her death is irreversible and ruination is only a matter of time. Nora’s tearing up the divorce papers may be an act emotionally equivalent to walking out the door 15 years earlier, but with the wrong date on them, it’s a pyrrhic victory. And she could always get another copy because it’s registered at the town hall. Throughout the play the characters focus their energies on matters that are beyond their control as if they were not.

    One other thing: All the scenes consist of exchanges between only two characters, except around the edges, and one of the characters is always Nora. One of the underlying questions is: how would the lives of these people been different if Nora had stayed? Nora more or less answers that question, but the others don’t. The exchanges are lively and often funny, but I wonder what sparks might have flared had Nora, Torvald, and Emmy wrangled all at once. I found Emmy the most intriguing character—sardonic, self-assured, and coolly unemotional: the perfect character to ask her parents what they saw in each other in the first place. To what extent is she this way because Anne Marie brought her up?

    The questions about marriage, freedom, maternal responsibility, the role of women in society and marriage are often compelling. All sides are presented--“fair and balanced,” like Fox News. Sometimes, though, I wish that a play would put more weight on one side or the other, an imbalance that might make the arguments even more compelling and the stuff of dramatic (rather than just intellectual) conflict.

    This is a long comment, perhaps too long, but the play was interesting enough for me to think about what bugged me about it.

  2. If you look at Ibsen's plays, they are all comprised of a series of exchanges between two characters. Hnath is copying and modernizing Ibsen's modus operandi.