22 July 2017

'A Doll’s House, Part 2'

Of all the non-musical plays on Broadway this season, the one that seemed to have gotten the most hype, including buzz surrounding its eight Tony Award nominations, is Lucas Hnath’s Ibsen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2.  This prompted Diana, my frequent theater companion, to want to see it.  Because of reports that plays weren’t doing very well at the box office this season—several had already announced early closing dates off disappointing results at the Tonys—we talked about going up to the TKTS booth to try to score seats.  This became more imperative once the Times announced that Laurie Metcalf, the Best Actress Tony-winner for the show, would be leaving it on 23 July.  So Friday night, 14 July, after passing on our original idea of going on Thursday because of the hot, steamy, and stormy weather prediction, we met at Duffy Square at 6 p.m. and got excellent half-price tickets for the John Golden.  We had a nice dinner at Marseilles on 9th Avenue (good food, but very loud—and we forgot it was Bastille Day, so it was also crowded), then walked back over to 8th and 45th for the 8 o’clock performance.  

(There was a really long line that stretched all the way to 8th Avenue, but I didn’t believe it was for DH2: the crowd was wrong—too young and diverse—and, as I said, plays aren’t drawing this season by all reports.  It turned out not to be for the Ibsen sequel, but I never confirmed what the people were lined up for.  The theater next to the Golden, the Bernard B. Jacobs, is showing Bandstand, which didn’t get very good reviews and was nominated for only three Tonys (winning only one), so I didn’t figure that’s where the crowd was heading.  But the next house east, the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is playing Come From Away, nominated for seven Tonys, including best musical, and winning for best direction of a musical.  It’s gotten a lot of hype and is family-friendly, so I’m guessing it’s attracting a long line of theatergoers.  That’s my story anyway.)

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House famously ends with Nora leaving her husband and children so as to find herself, rather than be defined by her roles as a wife and mother (as well as another reason that doesn’t enter into the sequel—but which I’ll discuss in a bit).  When she slammed the door to the “doll house” and her “doll life,” many theatergoers in 1879 (and even later) were incensed by the blunt way it questions the conventional roles of men and women in the male-dominated society of 19th-century Norway (and much of the rest of the world as well), and the play caused a flash flood of controversy.  (There were riots when the play was published in Copenhagen, where it also premièred soon after.)  A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins with a knock at that famed door: Nora (Laurie Metcalf – Tony; 2017 Drama Desk Award nominee for Outstanding Actress in a Play) has returned after 15 years of absence and silence.

Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell – 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play; 2017 Drama Desk Award nominee for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play), former nursemaid to Nora’s now-adult children, answers the door and is stunned by the person she sees.  Nora playfully asks Anne Marie to guess where she might have been for the past decade and a half.  The former nanny says that everyone thought she’d died—or worse, become a prostitute or, perhaps worse still, an actress.  (What became of Nora after slamming that door in 1879 has been imagined before.  Larry Grossman and the book-and-lyrics team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote a musical sequel in 1982 called A Doll’s Life which lasted five performances on Broadway under Harold Prince’s direction.)  Anne Marie guesses from Nora’s attire that her old mistress has fared well, but can’t imagine how she could have managed the harsh realities of a woman alone in society.  Nora explains that she’s become a successful author, but under a pen name, publishing divisive books that argue against the institution of marriage. 

A prominent judge whose wife left him after reading one of Nora’s books has learned who the writer is, however, and that she’s been living as a single woman while in fact still being married to Torvald, a situation that’s improper, and in some cases criminal, in Norway at the time.  Nora discovers that Torvald never filed their divorce papers as he had promised when she left and the judge now threatens to expose her and destroy her new independent life.  Nora’s come back to get her husband to sign the divorce papers—only a man can do so at will; a woman has to prove some kind of mistreatment or misbehavior—and Nora asks Anne Marie for help finding a way to solve her problem if Torvald doesn’t agree.  They are interrupted when Torvald (Chris Cooper – 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play) arrives unexpectedly to collect some papers he forgot that morning.  He’s stunned when he sees who is sitting in his front room and he sends Anne Marie away so he can talk with his long-missing wife.  He refuses to file  the divorce papers because, among other excuses, he’s allowed everyone to believe Nora had died and that he’d been a grieving widower.  To admit now that he’d been lying for 15 years would leave him open to public ridicule and opprobrium, costing him his social standing and, likely, his job at the bank.

It’s clear Nora will have to solve her own problem, and Anne Marie tells her the best way to find a solution is to get in touch with her daughter, Emmy.  Nora has avoided recontacting her children, feeling they’re better off not knowing she’d come back into their lives, but the old nanny insists it’s the only way she can get what she’s come for.  Emmy (Condola Rashad – 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play), a small child when her mother left and doesn’t really have any memories of her, arrives and makes several suggestions for solving Nora’s dilemma—including capitalizing on the general belief that she’s dead: Emmy volunteers to surreptitiously file a forged death certificate to make her death “official.”  She’ll even fill it out and sign it.  Nora, sensibly, refuses Emmy’s offer.  But when Torvald returns, badly beaten by a stranger on the street, he tells Nora that he had second thoughts and filed the divorce documents; he hands her a copy of the papers.  Surprisingly, Nora rejects Torvald’s gesture and tears up the document and declares that she’ll deal with the judge’s threat herself.  She gathers her belongings and once again, leave the Helmer house.

Hnath uses sparse but charged and often anachronistic dialogue in order to comment (says the promos of South Coast Rep) on modern marriage and relationships, distilling the story to its central characters (the two Helmer sons are merely mentioned, and, Dr. Rank having died at the end of DH1, Nils Krogstad, Christina Linden, and maid Ellen, are not part of DH2) and setting up a chain of highly fraught two-character confrontations.  In each one, Nora gets an earful of what her decision back a decade-and-a-half has visited upon each of those left behind.  Each character has her or his say about her decision and what she can or should do about her current dilemma.  The play’s intended to be a stylized exploration of the power conflicts in marriage, using 19th-century Norway as a metaphor for the modern West, and the complications that come with navigating entrenched resentments.  

Hnath, 37, was born in Orlando, Florida, but moved to New York City in 1997 to study pre-med.  He switched to dramatic writing at Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2001, and a Master of Fine Arts in 2002.  A member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, he’s been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011 and teaches dramatic writing at NYU.

I don’t know Hnath’s work at all; A Doll’s House, Part 2 is the first of his works of which I’d even heard.  In American Theatre, Diep Tran, an arts journalist and associate editor at AT, asserts that “Hnath aims to disorient his audience so they are induced to think hard about the work they just saw, even after they’re left the theatre.”  DH2 suggests there’s some truth to that statement.  Hnath explains, “I’m interested in unresolved chords because of what they do to the head afterward.”  His influences include Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, and Caryl Churchill . . . and Disney—“for inspiring his love of the artificial and fabricated”: “I love good gimmick,” the playwright grins.  (He grew up seven minutes away from Walt Disney World.  One of his plays is named for the famous animator.)  In an expression that could come from Bertolt Brecht (whom the dramatist doesn’t name as an influence), Hnath says that in his plays, “the sound of thinking should be louder than the sound of emotion.  I want the audience to engage with the thinking, with the reasoning.” 

Hnath’s play Red Speedo, a play about the conflict between Olympic hopes and the ethically challenged world of commerce, was presented Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and won the OBIE Award for Playwriting and for the performance of cast member Lucas Caleb Rooney.  Other plays include Hillary and Clinton, The Christians, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, Isaac’s Eye, and Death Tax, produced by such companies as Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, Soho Repertory Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville (Humana Festival of New Plays), Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, and London’s Royal Court, garnering Hnath acclaim and several awards and prizes for his writing.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 was commissioned by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, where it was workshopped (with actors who gave Hnath input).  Hnath says, however, that “for a while” he’d wanted “to write a sequel to ‘A Doll’s House’” and began working on a script in 2014.  The playwright did research into the divorce laws of 19th-century Norway and read books on Ibsen and marriage.  He even contacted feminist scholars, some of whose names are listed in the program as “Advisors to Mr. Hnath.” 

Directed at SCR by Shelley Butler, the play ran in April 2017.  DH2 opened on Broadway with a different cast on 27 April 2017 after previews which began on 30 March 2017 at the John Golden Theatre (the productions overlapped, probably to get DH2 on Broadway in time for Tony eligibility); it’s currently scheduled to close on 7 January 2018.  (The production has already had one extension from 23 July, and there will be several cast changes at that date: Metcalf, Cooper, and Rashad will be leaving the show, to be replaced by Julie White, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Erin Wilhelmi, respectively)  The New York production is Hnath’s Broadway debut.

DH2, which runs an intermissionless hour-and-twenty minutes (the listing says 1½ hours, but it’s shorter than that), was pretty packed anyway, even though there wasn’t any line outside.  The audience was also very vocal—lots of big laughs.  Nonetheless, both Diana and I didn’t think the play (or the performances) lived up to the hype.  Neither of us could figure out why Lucas Hnath even wrote it; there didn’t seem to be any point aside from messing with a classic.  (The tech director in the theater program where I got my MFA called this kind of production—spotlighting some attention-grabbing gambit that has no justification other than to show that you thought it up—“Hamlet on roller-skates.”)

I have a problem with “sequels” of existing material to start with—it always seems lazy and unimaginative, and then the writer’s stuck with pre-existing conditions (if you’ll pardon the use of the phrase just now) that she or he either has to twist and manipulate to make them accommodate her or his “new” ideas, or ignore completely so they don’t interfere with the new plot or theme.  Then, if the original piece was successful—and we can pretty much agree that Ibsen’s DH fulfills that criterion—it probably pretty much says all that needs to be said on the subject.  In that case, why not write a new original play?  Unless, of course, you can’t—you’re not imaginative enough to come up with your own idea, like an art copyist or forger who can’t paint something original.  

So, that’s my prejudice going in.  And, sure enough, Hnath does ignore an (important, I believe) aspect of DH1 in order to make his play go.  (I won’t say ‘work’ because I don’t believe it does.)  In DH2, Nora has left Torvald and her children 15 years earlier solely because she feels trapped in her marriage (which Nora 2.0 says is always a snare for women, especially in a society that loads the deck against them anyway).  She left so that she could become an independent woman and live her life on her own terms, not as a reflection or appendage of her husband (or father, or the men who lead the community, like a pastor).  That makes her a selfish woman; her motives were entirely about her and her ego.

But in DH1, Nora 1.0 leaves not so much—or at least not only—because she wants to be independent.  In fact, in Ibsen’s play, she doesn’t mention that as a reason, though she does say that her marriage to Torvald is demeaning and false.  The reason Nora leaves her home—and, most importantly, why she leaves her children behind—has to do with something people, including Ibsen, actually believed in the mid-19th century; it was considered a scientific fact, and it’s all through A Doll House (and it’s in The Master Builder and, especially, Ghosts).  Nora believes that her crime (forging the loan document that precipitates the plot of Doll House) is a sign of moral corruption and that, first, moral corruption will have a physical manifestation (which is why Rank is dying of a spinal disease—because he lived a dissolute life as a young man) and, more important, that that condition will be passed on to the corrupt person’s children (which is why Oswald Alving in Ghosts has inherited his father’s syphilis—even though we know today a child can’t inherit syphilis from a father).  So, in Ibsen, Nora doesn’t leave for selfish reasons, but altruistic ones: she’s afraid if she stays, she’ll infect her children with her condition—so she has to leave the house and leave them behind to save them.  (She says to Anne Marie, among other instances, that the children will be better off without her.  I talk about much of this is my report on DH1 in “TFANA’s Scandinavian Rep,” 13 June 2016.)

In order to make DH2 happen, Hnath can’t bring any of this up.  Besides cluttering up the simple plot (which he then proceeds to complicate with add-ons contributed by each character to make Nora’s contrived problem insoluble), it would make Nora too noble for his purposes.  (I suspect it would also be too hard to explain and justify to a 21st-century audience without a lot of historical exposition.  Ibsen had Rank, Christina, and Krogstad as test subjects and models of this moral-corruption theory—which in 1879 was common belief anyway—and those characters don’t exist in DH2.  Although, Nora and Torvald’s daughter, Emmy, comes up with a solution to Nora’s dilemma which would require the daughter to forge an official document, repeating her mother’s DH1 crime.)  Aside from a kind of dramaturgical dishonesty, this omission makes Hnath’s play one-dimensional (which DH1 decidedly isn’t).  

In the end, A Doll’s House, Part 2 isn’t satisfying dramatically—and I haven’t even mentioned Sam Gold’s directorial idiosyncrasies (which fortunately don’t rise, or fall, to the level of his Glass MenagerieGott sei Dank—see my blog report of 8 April).  I also haven’t commented on the affected acting exhibited, especially by Metcalf, which I assume was also at Gold’s behest and guidance.  (The language in DH2 is not only contemporary to the 21st century, but it’s fairly vulgar—lots of F-bombs.  I wonder if Nora and and Anne Marie in the 1890’s would even know the words they use.  (The play is set 15 years after Nora walked out, making it around 1894.)  In contrast to the acting style and language, the costumes are late-19th-century; the set is chronologically ambiguous since there’s almost no furniture in the room—just a small table (on which sits a modern box of tissues!) and 2 pairs of chairs which looked like mid-20th-century “Dansk Design” Scandinavian modern.  (The program doesn’t specify a date for the setting, but the dialogue refers several times to the 15 years since Nora left.)

Continuing from the brief sketch of the set above, scenic designer Miriam Buether devised the most spartan of stage environments since director Gold’s almost-bare Glass Menagerie set.  A minimalist take on the traditional box set, the Helmer apartment has three egg-shell colored wall with elaborate moldings giving it a vaguely 18th-century look, accented with only huge (about 10 feet tall), brown double doors (yes, that door—the door whose slam was heard round the world).  There are no decorations whatsoever on the walls, and the furniture, as I noted, is sparse and anachronistic.  There’s also one large potted plant next to the doors, and all of these set pieces are against the walls so that the whole center of the stage is empty—except when the characters move the chairs in now and then. 

At  preset—there’s no front drape currently in use at the Golden—an immense lighted sign greets the arriving audience, lighted yellow letters spelling out “A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2” hanging from the flyspace—just in case someone wandered in looking for some other show, I guess.  As the play progresses and each character gets a turn in the spotlight with Nora, large projected signs with his or her name are cast onto one of the blank set walls, explaining why they’re so white . . . and blank—all for the sake of four effects of a few seconds each.  Now, there’s a design coup!  (The lights were designed by Jennifer Tipton, a 2017 Tony nominee for Best Lighting Design of a Play, and the projection design was from Peter Nigrini.)  David Zinn’s costumes (he’s a 2017 nominee for Best Costume Design of a Play for the Tonys), as I indicated, are perfectly period-appropriate for the 1890s—though Houdyshell wears a cap that I love: it makes Anne Marie look like something from a Dutch Masters’ painting from a couple of centuries earlier.  (The production’s hair and makeup were designed by Luc Verschueren and Campbell Young Associates.)

I don’t usually have much to say about the music a production uses during scene changes or as the audience settles into its seats, but I have a few words this time.  Leon Rothenberg’s sound design includes preset music that didn’t seem to have any relation to the play or its themes.  (It was by female rockers, however.)  Not only is it rock ’n’ roll, but it’s loud and insistent; in fact, it seemed to increase in volume as curtain time approached.  Now, I’m from the rock generation, so rock ’n’ roll music doesn’t bother me in principle, but Diana never misses a chance to inform me that she dislikes that music so this exercised her from the moment we walked into the Golden Theatre auditorium.  It may even have increased her displeasure at the performance as a whole—or, at least, set her up for disappointment.  I have no idea, though, what the purpose of this anachronistic music or the degree to which it was amped up is with respect to the show.  I have to assume that Rothenberg didn’t make these decisions in his own, any more than Buether came up with the scenic design without input from Gold, so I put much of the responsibility for this choice on the director.

Gold’s directing, as I’ve hinted, is in line with what I’ve come to expect of him: pared down, minimally evocative of period or milieu, focused on the actors and the acting.  This apparently lines up as well with Hnath’s dramaturgy.  I’ve seen three previous productions of Gold’s, including one Encores! concert presentation (The Cradle Will Rock, report posted on 1 August 2013; the others were Annie Baker’s John, 1 September 2015, and The Glass Menagerie, 8 April 2017).  (Guest blogger Kirk Woodward reported on a Gold production of Look Back in Anger on 28 February 2012.)  John, of which I had other complaints, as an outlier: a generally conventional staging on a set that was so far from minimalist that it was positively cluttered.  Even the Encores! Cradle, however, was more sparsely staged than usual for that stripped-down series.  The granddaddy of Gold productions, though, was the recent Tennessee Williams classic, The Glass Menagerie.  Unlike that reinterpretation, Gold didn’t violate the text of Hnath’s play along with his revisionist setting.  Of course, I don’t know how much the director influenced the playwright with regard to revisions during the rehearsals.  (According to the few reviews of the SCR mounting I skimmed, there seem to have been some design changes, at least—the entire production team was different in California; I can’t tell about text alterations.)

I hinted earlier that the acting in A Doll’s House, Part 2 is “affected.”  I don’t mean to suggest that it’s some form of “eccentric” acting, something highly stylized and choreographed.  But the actors, especially Metcalf, moved and posed in ways that called to mind 20th-  and 21st-century people more than women and men from the 1890s.  Now, Gold and Hnath’s intention clearly isn’t to update Ibsen’s play—at least not entirely—since they made a stab a dressing the characters in period-invoking clothes.  From what I’ve learned of Hnath’s playwriting, he mixes contemporary elements with period or regional ones because he wants to conflate the past and the present so that the audience thinks about both at the same time.  Some of Hnath’s language isn’t out of place for the play’s period—which makes the anachronistic expressions all the more noticeable. 

For the same reason, the modern movements and gestures of the actors jar and call attention to themselves.  This goes as well for the frequency with which actors, again particularly Metcalf, come down to the edge of the stage to deliver speeches.  They’re not addressing the audience—their focus is somewhere on the back wall of the house and the speech is more like old-fashioned soliloquies—so neither Diana nor I could see what this gambit was about.  Is it Gold’s intention to  make these actions self-referential, to shine a spotlight on his own directing?  Is it just the director’s ego—that Hamlet-on-roller-skates impetus?  (If this is so, I wonder how Hnath feels about his collaborator’s efforts.)

As Torvald, Chris Cooper is pretty much wasted in this production.  This isn’t the actor’s fault, and not so much Gold’s, either, as Hnath has written Nora’s estranged husband as a sort of human backboard: he’s there for Nora to knock forehands against and to send them back just as hard.  His decision to acquiesce to Nora’s request in the end is almost a dues ex machina and seems like a playwright’s decision so he can end a play which would otherwise go round and round endlessly.  Cooper does well enough with the assignment, but he can’t make this Torvald an interesting or engaging figure.  (To be fair, Ibsen’s Torvald isn’t all that sparkling a role, either—but we’re not talking about that Torvald.)  In the vicinity of Metcalf’s Nora and Houdyshell’s Anne Marie, he can’t help but shrink in stage stature—which is ironic considering how important he is in all their lives. 

Houdyshell’s former nanny is doughty and commanding in her own way—a servant who knows all the secrets and all the hot buttons.  I couldn’t tell if it’s the actress or the character who was uncomfortable with Hnath’s obscenities, but it seemed odd coming out of her mouth.  (Not a problem with Metcalf’s Nora, except for the matter of its anachronism.)  She raised Nora, then her children, and now she looks after Torvald, alone in the house.  No wonder Nora comes to her for help—even if she can’t provide it.  (That’s not terribly surprising: Hnath devised a problem for Nora that has no solution.  It’s part of his dramaturgy and he fulfills his mission here.)  Houdyshell’s Anne Marie is a sort of an early-21st-century vision of a late-19th-century servant in the mold of the mid-20th-century housekeeper Hazel played by Shirley Booth on TV—the one that keeps everything spinning in the right direction and everyone on the right path.

Daughter Emmy is only slightly more integral to the set-up than Torvald, and Condola Rashad (daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad) makes the most of the role.  She has the irrepressibility of a teenager and the imagination of her mother, the writer (though Emmy says she seldom reads).  Her outlandish plan to solve her mother’s problem has all the hallmarks of an adolescent who hasn’t developed impulse control yet.  (Emmy, the youngest Helmer child, would, in fact, probably still be a teen.  Rashad is actually 30, so there’s little doubt this is acting.)  If anything, she’s too much a modern teenager—but that would be Hnath’s and Gold’s plan, I’m sure.

That brings us to Laurie Metcalf and Nora.  Metcalf’s performance is the showcase for Hnath’s and Gold’s theatrical styles, which largely seem to come together in A Doll’s House, Part 2.  She’s a mix of contemporary womanhood and 19th-century proto-feminism. I can’t say she made it work for me, but Metcalf concocts a blend of the period-appropriate and the anachronistic that almost seems natural.  Perhaps blend is the wrong image—it’s more like a mosaic or a patchwork quilt: the elements remain discrete but form an integrated picture.  Metcalf’s Nora exists in two universes at the same time: ours and Hnath’s and Gold’s vision of Ibsen’s—but the modern one dominated.  It wasn’t a thoroughly satisfying performance for me (or Diana, from her reaction), but it was an accomplishment as an actor.

Ninety percent of Show-Score’s 59 published reviews (as of 17 July) were positive, leaving 7% mixed notices and 3% negative.  The average score on the site was 83 with a high score of 100 (Front Row Center), followed by one 98 and six 95’s (including Time Out New York); the lowest rating was a single 30 (Wall Street Journal), backed by a single 45--the site’s only two negative notices.  My review round-up will cover 27 publications.

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness declared that “A Doll’s House, Part 2 doesn’t have anything particularly original to say on the subject” of “[l]ove and marriage [as] a casualty-strewn battlefield.”  (The FT reviewer added, “That old controversy acquires contemporary resonance thanks to the profanity-strewn American vernacular.”)  “A puckish Laurie Metcalf invests an opening tirade on this theme with plenty of abrasive charm while Jayne Houdyshell offers barbed rejoinders as the long-suffering maid Anne Marie,” acknowledged McGuinness, but the play “soon runs out of ideas after the rhetorical fireworks of Nora and Anne Marie’s initial exchanges.”  Cooper’s “ponderous Torvald . . . is tepid” and Rashad’s Emmy “gets plenty of laughs” though her “dialogue sounds overwritten.”  The review-writer also complained about Gold’s “decontextualised staging, which blends period costumes with a stripped-down, nondescript set resembling a business hotel or conference centre.”  McGuinness’s main objection, however, was that the “sense of speechifying artifice frequently resurfaces throughout Hnath’s play, which fails to replicate Ibsen’s talent for integrating ideas and exposition.”  He warned that Hnath has “cannily preserved” Ibsen’s “most famous title, thereby appealing to theatregoers who might not usually be drawn to a piece of new writing.” 

Alexis Soloski of the U.S. edition of the Guardian characterized DH2 as “less a conventional sequel than a thought experiment,” adding, “Luckily, Hnath . . . is no mean thinker.”  Soloski continued, “Provocatively, the play functions as both homage and riposte, casting a critical eye on Nora’s choices and trying to wrestle with their consequences.”  Suggesting that the play’s description might “make the play sound rather dry and intellectual,” the Guardian reviewer asserted, “It isn’t.  Hnath writes fast, vibrant dialogue—much of it in a salty, modern vernacular—and while Gold inserts a few postmodern touches, he mostly pushes the actors onstage and has them talk things over with hustle and vigor.”  Soloski dubbed the cast “excellent, particularly Metcalf,” adding special praise for her iniial entrance, “a gripping concatenation of anticipation, anxiety, pleasure, nostalgia, and probably some other things, too.”  Metcalf “nearly makes you forget than the play succeeds far better as a vivid and playful philosophical exercise than as a character-driven drama,” she affirmed, observing, though, that “Ibsen managed both, but that’s a high bar.”  Soloski quipped that “most audience nails will go unbitten,” but concluded, “This shouldn’t put ticket buyers off.  The play’s sophisticated arguments about what we owe to ourselves and to each other, about how liberation can become illiberal are welcome mat enough.”  Her final recommendation?  “Step in.”

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley, dubbing A Doll’s House, Part 2 a “smart, funny and utterly engrossing new play,” declared that Hnath’s “audaciously titled” work “features a magnificent Laurie Metcalf leading one of the best casts in town.”  The Timesman reported that Metcalf’s performance is “exquisitely poised between high comedy and visceral angst” and Houdyshell is “fabulous as usual.”  Far from being “just a bright quick-sketch concept” or “hubristic project with the humility and avidity of an engaged Everyreader,” DH2 “gives vibrant theatrical life to the conversations that many of us had after first reading or seeing its prototype.”  Advising that Hnath’s post-modernities “may sound too wise guy for words,” Brantley assured us that the playwright “has a deft hand for combining incongruous elements to illuminating ends.”  What the Times reviewer asserted Hnath has written isn’t “a feminist play.  Or an anti-feminist play”—it’s “an endlessly open debate.  Which for the record never feels like a debate.”  In Gold’s “fine, sensitive production” with “the emotional commitment of the cast,” the “unexpectedly rich sequel” depicts a cast of characters, each of whom “is very much a living individual—a solipsist, as we all are, with his or her own firm and self-serving view of things.”

Terry Teachout started his review of A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the Wall Street Journal by stating: “Hugh Kenner defined conceptual art as that which, once described, need not be experienced.  Lucas Hnath’s ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ comes perilously close to filling that bill.”  He described the production as “90 melodramatic minutes” which Gold has directed “with ostentatious austerity.”  I generally dislike quoting a review at length, but in this instance Teachout (whose notice received Show-Score’s lowest rating) lays out his whole argument in a couple of paragraphs:

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” is an exercise in what I call the theater of concurrence, whose practitioners assume that their audiences already agree with them about everything.  The success of such plays is contingent on the exactitude with which they tell their viewers what they want to hear.  To be sure, Mr. Hnath flirts with ambiguity and crams his script with attempts at ironic comedy, all of it tiresomely facetious (Nora’s aging ex-housekeeper, played by Jayne Houdyshell, says “shit” and “f—” even though it’s 1894).  Nevertheless, we are never allowed to seriously doubt that Nora was right to abandon her family for the sake of her own happiness.  The result is a poorly crafted play—I can’t remember when I last sat through a lumpier exposition—that is not a risky challenge to established belief but a collective celebration of an article of firmly settled faith.  “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is tensionless: We know going in what we’re supposed to think of Nora, and we know we won’t be asked to change our minds about her.  That’s why it’s being performed on Broadway by Ms. Metcalf, Mr. Cooper, Ms. Houdyshell and Condola Rashad instead of in a black-box theater by nobody in particular.

Teachout also has complaints about the Ibsen original which impact his view of DH2:

Incidentally, when did you last see “A Doll’s House, Part 1”?  It hasn’t played Broadway for 20 years, and there’s a reason for that, which is that it’s a bomb that’s already gone off, a moldering landmark whose time has come and gone.  We live with its consequences—we know them well—but the play itself is a turgid piece of bourgeois-baiting that is now of purely antiquarian interest.  As the saying goes, it’s history.  This matters because “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a sequel, one that makes sense on its own but is still vampirishly dependent on Ibsen’s play for its dramatic effect.  If you’ve never heard Nora slam that famous door, then you won’t hear its metaphorical echo in Mr. Hnath’s play.  All that he offers in its place is the droning therapy-speak of a writer who doesn’t know what to do with words other than line them up in a row: “Once I could hear my voice, I could think of things that I wanted that had nothing to do with what anyone else wanted.”

(I should remark here that, as ROTters know—and as I noted earlier—I have seen a recent revival of DH1: at Theatre for a New Audience in June 2016.  I don’t share Teachout’s disparagement of the play.)  Theatergoers who attended A Doll’s House, Part 2, the WSJ reviewer asserted, “got their money’s worth,” saving lavish praise for Cooper’s work.  He compared Hnath’s play, however, with the current musical Waitress, observing that DH2 “is the ‘serious’ counterpart of ‘Waitress,’ which preaches pretty much the same sermon, only with songs and dances added.”  Teachout’s final word on the play: “Yes, ‘Waitress’ is as thuddingly predictable as ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2,’ but at least you can tap your foot to it.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz labeled DH2 a “compact and provocative comedy” which “pick’s up” after Ibsen’s original “[w]hether or not you think the story needed to continue.”  He asserted that the “fast-[p]aced” production, “which plays Nora’s situation very much as comedy,” is Hnath’s “best work to date.”  The characters each raise “serious subjects” which “aren’t new but presented in intriguing ways.”  In Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” in Long Island’s Newsday, she dubbed the play a “[d]azzling, droll sequel to Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House’” and pronounced it “a psychologically serious, deliciously amusing tragicomedy” which ended the current Broadway season “with dazzling theatrical fireworks.”  The production is  “surprisingly breezy” in Gold’s “stark, audacious, daringly acted” staging.  Praising the cast for “trenchant” performances, Winer also touted Hnath’s “twisty, devious plot.” 

For New York, Jesse Green (in his last review for the magazine), labeled DH2 a “thrilling imaginary sequel” to Ibsen’s original, “at its core a public forum on questions of marriage that still bedevil us.”  Green assured us, “Though he is deeply interested in argument . . . Hnath provides enough ingenious structure to allow A Doll’s House, Part 2 to function quite smoothly as an often hilarious puzzle drama.”  Complimenting the whole cast, Green praised Metcalf and Houdyshell especially.  Further, he argued, “Hnath is not using the preexisting characters and their backstory (let alone the real woman — a friend — on whom Ibsen based the tale) as ways of avoiding having to create something original; rather, they are springboards to something very new indeed.”  In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold asserted that the play’s “deadpan title announces both Hnath’s serious intent and his flat-affect postmodern comic sense.”  Feingold, however, confirmed, “There will be no fancy writing here, and no self-consciously spoofy striving for laughs. . . .  Hnath also eschews any updating.”  The Voice reviewer found the script “both powerfully dense and elegantly sparse.  Ideas seem to shoot off in all directions.”

Dubbing the play “invigorating,” the New Yorker’s Hilton Als described A Doll’s House, Part 2 as “an irresponsible act—a kind of naughty imposition on a classic, which, in addition to investing Ibsen’s signature play with the humor that the nineteenth-century artist lacked, raises a number of questions.”  Als affirmed, “To go from dreaming about Nora’s life to writing it required a leap of faith—an author’s faith in his own imagination—and that’s the kind of energy that jumps out at you from Hnath’s play.”  It’s “a kind of metafiction,” the New Yorker writer asserted.  “‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ is a play about a play, and about men looking at women—though not condescendingly, or with anything approaching lust and, thus, the idea of possession.”  Als praises the women in the cast, but laments that “Cooper’s passive-aggressive energy, sublime on film, gets swallowed up by the powerful actresses around him.” 

In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman described DH2 as “lucid and absorbing” and a “taut sequel” which “is about airing things out.”  The new play is “[m]odern in its language, mordant in its humor and suspenseful in its plotting,” continued the man from TONY, and Gold’s “exemplary direction keeps you hanging on each turn of argument and twist of knife.”  He concluded, “Everything about the production works. It’s a slam dunk.”  Maya Stanton of Entertainment Weekly observed, “You wouldn’t think that a continuation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House . . . would be funny, but humor abounds in playwright Lucas Hnath’s creative sequel.”  Gold’s direction has “a natural quality” and “the actors toss off their lines with a modern familiarity and nonchalance that belies the hard work behind such a comfort level.”  Calling the play “[l]iterary fanfic of the highest caliber,” Stanton asserted that the play “is an irreverent yet respectful take on the source material.”  She objected that the script “may rely a little heavily on wink-wink, nod-nod references to the future that have yet to be realized,” but “it becomes clear that this is not your grandmother’s Ibsen.” 

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney dubbed DH2 a “spry deconstruction” and a “terrific new play,” reporting that Nora 2.0’s entrance “bristles with tension, provocation and unexpected subversive humor.”  Hnath’s “pithy sequel,” his “audacious Broadway debut,” “delivers explosive laughs while also posing thoughtful questions about marriage, gender inequality and human rights that reverberate across the almost 140 years.”  Gold has staged the “taut, 90-minute” one-act play “with stylish austerity and not an ounce of flab.”  It’s “as much an ingenious elaboration and deconstruction of A Doll's House as a sequel, and it stands perfectly well on its own.”  The “series of two-character exchanges,” Rooney affirmed, “have the energy of a vigorous squash match.”  The playwright, said the HR reviewer, “shows a superb knack for balancing humor—from the droll to the uproarious—with serious issues.”  The writer’s “lightness of touch . . . carries through”  to the performances and the director’s “zesty staging.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio called Nora’s return a “dramatic parlor trick” and observed, “Despite the modern idiom that Hnath slings around with gleeful humor, it’s amazing how women’s lives haven’t changed.”  Stasio asserted that DH2 “isn’t really a play, but a very funny and quite biting manifesto” and expressed “hope . . . that Hnath will put Nora’s futuristic views into some dramatic context.”  Though she had praise for all the cast, the Variety review-writer declared, “Metcalf is amazing.” 

On WNBC, the network-owned television outlet in New York City, Robert Kahn felt that Hnath is “mining . . . pain for comic gold in a star-studded sequel (of sorts)” to Ibsen’s A Doll House.  He reported that “Hnath’s dialogue is full of sudden eruptions of profanity” and characterized Gold’s staging as “minimal and trendy.”  Roma Torre, labeling DH2 “a neat little play” on NY1, the news channel for Spectrum cable TV, reported that the “compact 4 character drama offers no easy answers in a superb production that asks a lot of provocative questions.”  Torre believed that “Hnath’s stylized take on the Ibsen classic brings the institution of marriage into sharp focus,” but warned, “Don’t expect any judgments here as this very smart 90 minute play only seems interested in opening the door wide to your own interpretation.”  WNYC’s Jennifer Vanasco pronounced Hnath’s “splendid” play “deeply satisfying (and very funny).”  The characters argue about marriage, but, Vanasco reported, “in Hnath and director Sam Gold’s telling, none of them are straw men (or women).” 

On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell pronounced A Doll’s House, Part 2 a “smarty pants sequel” and said that Hnath “thinks he has the answers.”  The dialogue is “sharp and intelligent” and Gold “brings it to sizzling life.”  Durell declared that Metcalf “is thrilling to watch and listen to.”  TheaterScene.com’s Ron Cohen, calling DH2 “boldly written” and “forthrightly entitled,” asserted that it “gives audiences something to celebrate.”  Hnath’s “elegantly provocative script” receives “an immaculate production” from Gold in the playwright’s “auspicious” Broadway début.  With praise for each cast member, the TP reviewer asserted, “A Doll’s House, Part 2 revivifies the old-timey concept of a play of ideas.”  Samuel L. Leiter, on his blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side, states that the play “is always entertaining, frequently funny, and quite thoughtful.”  Then he added that “it’s also often unconvincing.”  By way of explanation, Leiter continued that “it’s occasionally hoist by its own cleverness” and gives “the impression of a sharp-witted playwright’s playful ‘what if’ exercise.”  Nonetheless, insisted the blogger, “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.”  (Like most other reviewers, Leiter complimented all the actors.) 

Matthew Murray, labeling DH2 a “funny and insightful new play” with a “prosaic and provocative title” on Talkin’ Broadway, felt that the playwright “is more interested in twisting the familiar than regurgitating it.”  “The juxtaposition of the declared setting (roughly 1895) with our time also underlines important contrasts in how we’ve grown and how we haven’t,” Murray found, “and lets us view progress through two lenses simultaneously.” The cyber reviewer affirmed, “This technique glides rather than grates.”  The “somewhat uninspiring” set is “distractingly spare and clinically lighted,” but the cast is “excellent.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer characterized DH2 as “a completely original work, that can entertain and stimulate on its own.”  The CU reviewer assured theatergoers that “there’s nothing talky or boring here.  The talk is sharp, funny and ripe for exploding into high drama.”  The play, she asserted, is “as amusing and thought provoking as any sequel can get.” 

“The frenetic Broadway spring comes to a thrilling conclusion with the lightning-bolt opening of Lucas Hnath’s ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2,’” raved Christopher Isherwood on Broadway News, “a new play so endlessly stimulating that it could give audiences fodder for heated conversation until the fall season is in full swing.”  The theater, Isherwood asserted, “does not regularly present us with new plays of ideas—let alone comedies of ideas.  Hnath’s play fairly sets your head spinning with its knotty perspectives.”  While DH2 “is often mordantly funny, and the language is contemporary—Hnath’s play is fundamentally, and profoundly, serious.”  Isherwood explained that “for all its intellectual richness, this is not a dreary ‘they-loved-it-in-London?’ evening at the theater that will have you furtively checking your (proverbial) watch,” reporting that “the production is as much an engrossing entertainment as it is a theatrical treatise that stirs the heart even as it invigorates the mind.”  Gold directs “with his usual intelligence and incisiveness” and Metcalf “delivers what is easily her finest Broadway performance to date.”  In conclusion, the Broadway News reviewer stated that DH2 “is far too complex to be boiled down to a single apothegm,” but it “moves gently to a surprising, moving conclusion.”

On Front Row Center (the review that scored 100 on Show-Score), Tulis McCall opened her notice with a suggestion: “Here’s a timesaver for you.  Stop reading this, just for a few minutes, go directly to the phone or whatever ticket site you prefer and get tickets to this play.”  She declared, “A Doll’s House Part 2 is a stupendous creation in nearly every way.”  McCall felt, “It is the combination of empathy and bravado, clarity and uncertainty, resentment and hope that Hnath has given his characters that lets the play sneak in and grab you where you live.”  Under Gold’s direction, “This is a feast all around.”  TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart emphasized, “Hnath takes a massive risk in amending an essential drama of the Western theater.”  The TM reviewer, however, confirmed, “It is a leap that pays off in delightful and often hilarious ways.”  With “sheer clarity and brutality,” the playwright “raises deeper questions not just about a certain brand of feminism, but the cult of individualism that is so engrained in modern society.”  Director Gold “has led everyone in this cast to thoughtful and revelatory performances in an appealingly clean production.” “This is theatrical austerity done right,” pronounced Stewart.  In the end, he maintained, “it will be hard to walk away from A Doll’s House, Part 2 claiming that you have all the answers.”

Victor Gluck of TheaterScene.net labeled DH2 a “witty, funny and clever sequel” with a “stellar Broadway cast.”  Gluck found “that aside from being faithful to the Ibsen precursor, it has a decidedly modern sensibility.”  The “new story is absorbing and twisty, interestingly creating an entirely new set of ethical and social questions than was handled” in DH1DH2 “is a play of ideas,” and “the debate is always engrossing, always surprising.”  Nonetheless, the play “is quite funny in its Shavian way,” and the TS.net reviewer contended that director Gold “allows the actors and the dialogue to speak for themselves, rather than imposing any directorial touches.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale observed that A Doll’s House, Part 2 is “a play that will no doubt provoke discussion, particularly discussion about the fact that a Broadway play that debates issues regarding a woman’s fight against institutionalized sexism was written and directed by men.”  Designating the Broadway staging an “invigorating production,” Dale noted that it “showcases four stellar performances.” 

Christian Lewis of Huffington Post pronounced the Broadway presentation of A Doll’s House, Part 2 “masterfully written and acted,” with Metcalf, “who is quite simply superb,” “[a]t the helm of everything.”  Lewis, though, found, “The largest problem of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is the ambiguous time period” which rendered the play “a somewhat confusing experience for the audience.”  (I suggest Lewis learn to speak for himself.  Having read over two dozen reviews, I can testify that many viewers had no problem with this mixed chronology.  Even I, who didn’t much care for the tactic, knew it was a coordinated dramaturgical/directorial concept.)  “That being said,” the HP contributor backpedaled, “it was still an incredibly enjoyable play” with “four powerhouse actors.”  In the end, contended Lewis, “the true triumph of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is its refreshingly feminist political message.”  The review-writer proclaimed, “Nora proves that women don’t need a man”—who remembers the ’60s aphorism “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”?—“and if for nothing else, this is an excellent reason to go see A Doll’s House, Part 2.

In sum, I have to say I think the play’s a mess.  I understand what Hnath was trying to do from reading some analyses of his playwriting, but I didn’t find it viable in practice.  If I had to read about it afterwards, it can’t have communicated well on stage.  Furthermore, if Hnath’s examining the vicissitudes of modern marriage, even if he used a mock-up of a 19th-century one as a template . . . well, haven’t we done that in our theater (and film) for some time?   I don’t get the critical praise A Doll’s House, Part 2 received (it won only one of the Tonys for which it was nominated, which may be a warning) or the audience reception it got.  If I hadn’t had doubts to begin with, it’d have been a great disappointment.  As it was, it only confirmed my prejudices.  Fortunately,  we only paid half price, otherwise it would have been an expensive disappointment.

If you haven’t already seen DH2, I don’t recommend it.  I guess that’s obvious, isn’t it?

[A brief word about the title of Henrik Ibsen’s original play: The name under which Ibsen published his new play was Et Dukkehjem, Danish (the language in which the Norwegian playwright wrote) for simply “a doll house,” the name of the child’s toy.  The most common, and traditional, English translation is A Doll’s House, but some translators, especially American ones, prefer A Doll House, eschewing the possessive.  I fit into the second category, as readers can see from the above report, and there are two principal reasons for this decision.  The late Rolf Fjelde, the chief American translator of Ibsen’s plays, makes the argument that, first, the expression “doll’s house” is primarily British and became attached to the English rendition of the play by tradition because the British translation was the first English version to be published.  In the United States, we generally call the toy a “doll house,” and, just as I prefer to spell  ‘theater’ the American way, I prefer to call A Doll House by its American title.  (The standard German title for the play, by the way, is Nora.  Swedish film and stage director Ingmar Bergman made a 1981 adaptation of A Doll House which he also entitled Nora.  It doesn’t come with the complications of the English translation, but it’s also far less evocative.)

[Furthermore, as Fjelde also argues, Nora is the doll in this tale, and the Helmer house doesn’t belong to her.  That is, after all, the point, at least in part, that Ibsen was making.  She calls herself a “doll wife” when she explains to Torvald why she must leave, and she lives in a “doll house.”  So, for linguistic, possibly chauvinistic reasons and thematic, certainly logical ones, I’ll continue to refer to Ibsen’s play about the place of women in Norwegian society as A Doll House, except when discussing a production or script that goes by the British title (as I did in my report on TFANA’s Scandinavian rep).]

1 comment:

  1. Producers of 'A Doll's House, Part 2' announced that the play will leave Broadway early, closing on 24 September 2017. The show, which began previews 30 March, opened 27 April, and was scheduled to close on 7 January 2018, will have played 30 preview and 173 regular performances by its final performance.

    On 25 July, three original cast members, Laurie Metcalf (Nora), Chris Cooper (Torvald) and Condola Rashad (Emmy), were replaced by Julie White, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Erin Wilhelmi; Jayne Houdyshell remained as Anne Marie.

    When the play began performances, it was greeted with lavish praise but audiences didn't warm to the sequel to Ibsen's 1879 drama. Laudatory reviews and eight Tony nominations changed that response and 'DH2' began playing to near-capacity houses. After the cast changes, however, despite good re-reviews, the production's attendance fell off again and never recovered.