I was in the critical minority from the start on this one. But even after attending the Broadway production three times (twice with the original cast, once with the replacement cast) and reading through the script twice, I just don’t see what the big deal is about A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s 85-minute, four-character debate that purports to be a sort of sequel to A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s provocative staple of modern drama (which has been produced in recent years at Brooklyn Academy of Music and Theatre for a New Audience).
I have been following Hnath’s output and rising reputation with great interest, including A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Soho Rep in 2013, interesting if static), The Christians (Playwrights Horizons in 2015, a captivating contemporary tragedy exploring how American religious institutions are affected by moral leadership, community support and financial backing), and Red Speedo (New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, a brutal and unsettling depiction of cheating in professional sports).
A Doll’s House, Part 2 did not technically receive its world premiere on Broadway (that honor went to South Coast Repertory, just weeks before the Broadway production went into previews), but it may as well have been the world premiere. I am hard-pressed to think of a similar scenario in recent years where a mega-producer (Scott Rudin, already in the midst of presenting Hello, Dolly!, The Glass Menagerie and 1984) decided to mount a commercial Broadway production of an unknown play by an unknown author, with a title that ought to turn off those unfamiliar with or uninterested in A Doll’s House, without the sort of star actors who can sell a play no matter the title.
The play was also the last to premiere before the 2017 Tony Awards eligibility cutoff, following a nonstop barrage of opening nights (most of which have become a blur for me). Of course A Doll’s House, Part 2 was going to get lost amid the hoopla. Of course it was going to sell few tickets during previews. But finally came opening night and, low and behold, most critics went wild for the play, Sam Gold’s focused production, and the superb ensemble of Laurie Metcalf (Nora), Chris Cooper (Torvald), Jayne Houdyshell (the family nanny Anne Marie) and Condola Rashad (Nora’s grown-up daughter Emmy). Overnight, it became a hit, with packed audiences and a load of Tony nominations. Most significantly, the play’s limited run was extended from mid-summer into early January, even if it meant needing to replace the majority of the cast.
I don’t dislike the play. On the contrary, I find it to be a clever imagining of Nora and Torvald’s circumstances more than a decade since Nora notoriously slammed the door and walked out on her family in the hope of finding her true identity. The one-on-one scenes of argumentation (including about the past actions of Nora and Torvald and who is to blame for the legal predicament that has led to Nora’s unexpected and uncomfortable return visit) are intellectually stimulating and often humorous, to the point that A Doll’s House, Part 2 is more reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw than Henrik Ibsen.
But how much of a play is really there? It does not have a plot so much as a premise that lends to bitter squabbling and sly references to the past. If Nora and Torvald come off as deep characters, it is because they were deep characters to begin with. Even while acknowledging the play’s surprise hit status, did it really merit a Broadway production? On the contrary, this is the sort of thing that Classic Stage Company or Theatre for a New Audience might produce in repertory with A Doll’s House. (Speaking of which, I bet we’ll see quite a few enterprising theater companies do that going forward.)
Each time that I have re-attended the play, I have gone in with the sincere hope that this will be the time that I finally get caught up with it, in the way that so many other critics apparently have, but I continue to find it overpraised and far less compelling than Hnath’s earlier plays, especially The Christians. But I welcome its success, which shows that a commercial production of a smart and challenging new play can succeed on Broadway under the right circumstances.
I actually enjoyed the play the most the third time around with the replacement cast, which includes Tony winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed) as Nora, Stephen McKinley Henderson (numerous August Wilson plays) as Torvald, and Erin Wilhelmi (Ivo van Hove’s revival of The Crucible) as Emmy. Jayne Houdyshell (who earned a 2017 Tony Award for The Humans), as Anne Marie, is the only holdover from the original cast.
Whereas Metcalf emphasized raw drama over comedic timing, with Nora scared as hell at the thought of losing all that she has achieved since she slammed the door and gained personhood, White’s Nora is more gently oblivious and self-centered. I think those who find the play compelling on its own terms will prefer Metcalf, and those who find it lacking will prefer White because she brings in a lot more laughs through her body language and precise delivery of lines.
Henderson’s effortlessly gentle, upright Torvald is far more effective than Cooper’s befuddled, oddball portrayal. With Henderson, you really do get the sense that Torvald did love Nora (and probably still loves Nora, in spite of everything), and Torvald’s climactic action at the clerk’s office now appears to be done out of love, not as an ill-advised whim. I also prefer Wilhelmini over Rashad as Nora’s daughter Emmy. Whereas Rashad was well-composed and careful not to let her guard down in front of a woman who abandoned her years ago, Wilhelmini allows Emmy’s anger and frustration at Nora to spill out, which makes her scene alone with Nora far more interesting and dramatically charged.
As for Houdyshell, this is not likely to be one of the defining moments of her career (i.e. The Humans, Follies), but I dare you to name anyone who can have a greater impact as an old maid who greets her former employer by bluntly cursing her out. I also came to appreciate the spare scenic design and scaled-back size of the stage (focusing our attention on the characters), the way each scene is presented as a one-on-one combat and divided by character, and how the rich period costumes define the characters (from Nora’s elaborate, somewhat gaudy power dress to Anne Marie’s grim and dowdy maid uniform).
As I left the Golden Theatre, I thought, what if A Doll’s House, Part 2 sets off a wave of contemporary playwrights creating sequels to classic dramas? They don’t have to be written in the style of the original plays (A Doll’s House, Part 2 isn’t, for example). And they don’t have to be viewed as sequels, but rather responses or reflections upon the plays. What if some kind of event were created in which major American playwrights were commissioned to write plays that respond in some way, shape or form to classic dramas?
Just in case you were wondering, we are unlikely to see any further recasting of A Doll’s House, Part 2. A revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (also produced by Scott Rudin) is set to play the same venue in the spring. But you can be sure that A Doll’s House, Part 2 is going to be produced in every regional city in the next year or two – and it ought to be popular in Europe too. In fact, why not produce it in Copenhagen, where A Doll’s House received its world premiere in 1879? Perhaps they can even find the original door that Nora slammed.