You wouldn’t think that a continuation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House — a groundbreaking, 1879 feminist drama about a wife who leaves an unhappy marriage to find herself — would be funny, but humor abounds in playwright Lucas Hnath’s creative sequel. Directed by Sam Gold, A Doll’s House, Part 2 imagines what would happen if, 15 years later, Ibsen’s Nora were to walk back through the door she exited at the close of his third act. At the time, Ibsen’s decision to have his protagonist abdicate her marital and familial responsibilities in favor of self-discovery and personal happiness was a shocking one, seen as a threat to the institution of marriage as a whole; Hnath’s script supposes that the fictional Nora has been confronted with similar accusations as her creator, and deals with them in head-on, often gleeful fashion.
Now an acclaimed writer operating under a nom de plume, Nora (Laurie Metcalf, of last season’s Misery adaptation) has found her voice as an advocate for women trapped in unhappy unions, and her words have had real-life consequences — she takes pride in the fact that more than one wife has decided to leave her husband after reading her books. But one such husband turns out to be a judge who discovers that Nora, unbeknownst even to her, is not what she seems: Though she’s been operating as a single woman both personally and professionally, her ex (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) never filed for divorce, so she can be held criminally liable for conducting business without her husband’s consent and other 19th-century shenanigans. From his position of power, the judge threatens to unmask her if she doesn’t retract her controversial statements, and so she finds herself back at the home she abandoned long ago, forced to face up to her husband, her daughter (Condola Rashad, who costarred with Orlando Bloom in 2013’s Romeo and Juliet), and the nanny (Jayne Houdyshell, a Tony winner for The Humans) who raised her children in her absence.
As we’ve come to expect from Sam Gold (who also currently has The Glass Menagerie on the Broadway boards), there’s a natural quality to the production: The set is minimalist, the costumes are straightforward, and even given the intricacies of period-infused dialogue, the actors toss off their lines with a modern familiarity and nonchalance that belies the hard work behind such a comfort level.
Thanks to stints on sitcoms including Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory, Metcalf has long been established as a formidable comedic actor, but her dramatic talents might be somewhat less expected — albeit unfairly, given her three Tony nominations and her roots as an original member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Here, though, she merges the two with ease and grace: Open yet guarded, defensive about her choices but also convinced that she made the right ones, her Nora is a woman who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to say so. It’s a revelatory performance, rife with physicality and determination.
Cooper is someone with the opposite public image — a “serious” actor whose sense of humor is often overlooked (see: The Muppets, and also: The Muppets) — but as Nora’s stoic, estranged husband, he proves yet again that he knows his way around a punch line. Their characters may be at odds, but these two actors are a well-matched pair, and the rest of the small company is equally accomplished. In her grounded, self-assured portrayal of the now-grown Emmy, Rashad delivers withering barbs and issues stinging indictments of her mother’s behavior with wide-eyed equanimity: Direct in her assessments of the action around her and logical in her reasoning, she doesn’t hide the damage that’s been done to her, but she doesn’t expect apologies either. Houdyshell’s nanny Anne Marie completes the cast, and she’s both hilariously profane and touchingly unmoored by her former mistress’s surprise reappearance.
Literary fanfic of the highest caliber, Hnath’s script is an irreverent yet respectful take on the source material. It may rely a little heavily on wink-wink, nod-nod references to the future that have yet to be realized — Nora’s optimistic hopes for gender equality and the abolition of the transactional marriage contract earn rueful chuckles that seem a bit easy — but from the moment Anne Marie sputters with rage and drops her first f-bomb, it becomes clear that this is not your grandmother’s Ibsen. A worthy companion piece to the original, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is an imaginative postscript to a well-loved standard. A-