Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Doll's House, Part 2

If the title of Lucas Hnath's new play A Doll's House, Part 2 sounds like a joke, that's because it is, but Hnath is determined to mine a classic playwriting exercise for all the comic gold it's worth.

Yes, I know instructors who have given the assignment: "Write an extra scene for Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House after Nora leaves." This is usually a way to get students thinking, not generally a recipe for a new Broadway show.

The Nobel Prize-winning Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek wrote a play called What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband in 1980, so Hnath's success in getting a sequel to A Doll's House produced is not unprecedented. However, when your precedent comes from a Nobel Prize winner, putting something like this on Broadway seems like a gutsy move.

Does it pay off? Well, the piece certainly earns its fair share of laughs. In the first scene, Nora (played by Laurie Metcalf) returns to the Helmer household after having made a new life for herself as a successful writer. There's something she wants, and she takes her sweet time in enlisting the help of her former governess, Anne Marie (played by Jayne Houdyshell).

It turns out that her husband Torvald (Chris Cooper) never actually filed for divorce. This surprises Nora, though personally, I always assumed Torvald wouldn't make the separation legal. That would take more spine than he's got. Watching Torvald try to avoid honestly looking his wife in the face is amusing, largely because it's so rooted in character.

The best scene, however, isn't with Anne Marie or Torvald, but comes when Nora is forced to face her adult daughter Emmy (played by Condola Rashad). Emmy is affable, energetic, playful, and extremely perceptive--everything Nora is in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Having grown up without a mother, though, she has chosen a very different path and has a completely different view of marriage and family than her mother.

After the wonderful Emmy scene, Hnath still has some twists and turns for the audience, but Nora's confrontation with her daughter is the heart of the play. While everyone is dressed in nineteenth-century clothes, the dialogue remains self-consciously modern. This sequel might not be as good as the original when performed by top actors, but it is still a great deal of fun.

If you want to go, check out the show's website. Also, $29 tickets are available through TheaterMania. Those tickets are in the back row, but when I saw the show on Tuesday night, the ushers moved us up to the front mezzanine before the play started.