Just the notion of a sequel to one of the world’s great dramas is to invite scorn. How many sequels are as good as or better than the original? A good party game, but a great idea for new theatre? As it turns out, A Doll’s House Part Two is likely to kick-start a new or revived genre – sequels by other writers. Because it is, unexpectedly, terrific, blisteringly funny and deeply insightful. It takes Nora into a different world, but with equally extraordinary results.
It starts, perhaps unexpectedly, with a knock at the door. No one comes to open the door. The knocking continues, getting more urgent as each moment passes and the door remains unopened. It is hard to think of a better way for a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to begin.
The Ibsen original famously ends with Nora, the central character, leaving her husband and children and slamming the door behind her. Lucas Hnath has imagined what circumstances might have made Nora want to return to her former matrimonial home and what kind of a reception she might have received. Given the intricacies and complexities of Ibsen’s writing, this is a daunting task. But Hnath pulls it off with immaculate and precise skill.
A Doll’s House, Part Two is a very funny, very astute play about life and consequences, and especially about how, no matter what a woman does, men can, and do, work to ensure that she stays in her place. It feels like a serious modern play, dealing directly with the rise of anti-feminism or the resurgence of a need for the white patriarchy to shore up its position. In a way, it hits hard as an expression of resentment about the attitudes concerning women with which President Trump has soiled the White House. The humour of the piece sharply focuses the themes.
But, in another way, it is meticulous study about what might have happened to one of Ibsen’s most famous heroes. It is set very firmly in the period in which Ibsen wrote, and the structure and composition of the language mostly could be language that Ibsen might himself have used. There is profanity which Ibsen probably would not have used, but it doesn’t strike any odd note. When one character says “Fuck you, Nora” it seems utterly, wholly appropriate.
This is not a play which requires any in depth knowledge of the text of A Doll’s House, but it is a play where, if you have that knowledge, you will find different aspects to savour. The narrative is perfectly clear; subtle references and underlying synergies merely add to the overall intellectual texture. Indeed, if you know Hedda Gabler, further interest is piqued by the key, but absent, character of a blackmailing Judge. Absolutely everything about the plot and dialogue here rings true to Ibsen and seems familiar to his work.
What is most impressive about Hnath’s writing is that he manages to wring every ounce of comedy from the situation, almost all of it character based. The ease with which he etches the characters and allows the audience to enjoy their discomforts as old wounds are reopened, old arguments are rehashed, and new arguments are ventilated, is astonishing. At only 90 minutes, there is not a wasted word; everything is crisp, pungent and purposeful.
This is an example for first rate writing for the theatre.
The production is directed by Sam Gold, and it works very well in the reasonably intimate space at the Golden Theatre. Miriam Beuther’s sparse set is angled into the auditorium; it’s a big foyer for a big, grand house. The angle shatters the sense of realism in a starkly simple way. Projections on the walls denote scene changes; interestingly, most scenes are named after one of the four characters. David Zinn’s costumes have a period feel but a suggestion of modernity too, in keeping with the period-modern duality of text and performances.
With one exception, the performances are world class.
Laurie Metcalf is vibrant and passionate in every sentence, every movement, a completely compelling performance. You see clearly the Nora with whom you are familiar from the original play, but you also see, very clearly, how time and circumstances have changed her. The road Nora has travelled is both surprising and unsurprising – as soon as Metcalf tells her story, you realise the clues she has already provided. Layer upon layer is added to the character, as layer upon layer of narrative progression is achieved. It’s hypnotic to watch Metcalf in action.
Quite deliberately, Metcalf has a more modern style overall than the other characters. This serves to distance her from them and their sheltered life inside the big house. It also serves to show how she has bloomed and grown while out in the world, while, at the same time, underlining that Nora’s fate here is very much a reflection of our own times.
Women are only as equal as men let them be – that is the fundamental conundrum of Ibsen’s original work as well as Hnath’s sequel. In shorter time, and with more brutal precision, Hnath makes point after point – and Metcalf, with an insinuating ease, lands every powerful notion with graceful determination, steely defiance. She is wonderful in action. An example of the pure power of superb acting.
Another pristine example of that comes in the form of the amazingly versatile Jane Houdyshell. Here, Houdyshell plays Anne Marie, the servant who raised Nora and then who had to raise her children when she left the family home. It is an exquisite, quite faultless performance, full of bruised ego, maternal rage, status quo complacency and bitter regret. Anne Marie becomes just as real, just as a formidable as Nora herself but for different reasons and for different ends. Houdyshell is quite magnificent.
I don’t think there is better scene work in any play on Broadway at present than in the two handed scenes between Metcalf and Houdyshell. They cover a lot of ground, a lot of conflicting and hidden emotions, and nothing ends up as might be expected. It is riveting to watch and, at times, you scarcely want to breathe in case you miss some aspect of the detailed work these extraordinary actors achieve. One suspects you could watch these performances a dozen times and still find nuances and aspects you missed. Just outstanding.
As Torvald, Nora’s former husband, Chris Cooper underplays nicely, a detachment coolly suggesting the differences between his character and Metcalf’s. But passions rise before long and he shows Torvald’s fury in a clear way, and one which is utterly consistent with the Torvald from Ibsen’s original. In a way, Hnath’s Torvald is perhaps the most interesting character, not because of his traits or emotions, but because of his lack of them.
Cooper fills in the blanks succinctly and with style. He has good rapport with Houdyshell, and you feel her fear of his intention to rebuke her for letting Nora back into his home. Equally, he seems to clearly be the Torvald that Metcalf married and left, proud, lonely, shattered. His Torvald is not dull, nor exciting. Cooper pitches it perfectly.
The one mis-step comes in the form of Condola Rashad, who plays Emmy, one of Nora’s abandoned children. Rashad does not have sufficient internal steel to hold her own with Metcalf and their encounter is not as scintillating – or unexpected – as it ought to be. It’s not that Rashad does not make the character work; she does that. But there is clearly much more that could be mined from the role of Emmy, and Metcalf gives Rashad every opportunity to seize the moment.
Nevertheless, A Doll’s House, Part Two is a masterpiece and Gold’s production truly one to savour. Metcalf and Houdyshell are phenomenal to watch. Hnath has written a tour de force for four actors and one suspects that, over time, this play will become as famous and as well performed as its Ibsen progenitor.