Thursday, July 20, 2017

Period Costumes, Contemporary Issues, and Timeless Theatricality

Review: A Doll's House, Part 2

Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf in A Doll's House, Part 2.

Do not let the somewhat intimidating title fool you. While A Doll's House, Part 2 is technically a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's groundbreaking 1879 drama, this razor sharp new play requires next to no knowledge of its predecessor. Nor is the play some stuffy period drama; this is a wholly contemporary work which combines both comedy and pathos in its blistering examination of the institution of marriage and a woman's place in a patriarchal society. They are the same themes Ibsen tackled in his original work over 100 years ago, and Broadway newcomer Lucas Hnath proves that there's still so much to say about them.

The setup is brilliantly simple. Nora Helmer returns home 15 years after she walked out on her husband Torvald, their kids, and their marriage at the end of A Doll's House, scandalizing much of 19th century society. But Torvald never actually filed for divorce after Nora left, and without his help ending their marriage she risks losing everything she's built for herself since. (The irony that the strong-willed and independently minded Nora needs a man's help to get what she wants doesn't escape anyone.)

Hnath's perfectly structured one act is divided into five scenes, sharply delineated by harsh lighting cues and yet seamlessly flowing into one another. In addition to Nora's point of view, we get major insight into how her leaving has affected Torvald, their daughter Emmy, and their housekeeper Anne Marie (who ended up raising the children in Nora's absence). A hyper-literate polemic, A Doll's House, Part 2 manages to expertly articulate each character's point of view so you find it difficult to disagree with any of them, even though they rarely agree on anything. It is also striking just how much the issues initially raised by Ibsen are still shockingly relevant today, particularly when it comes to the options that are and are not afforded to women.

What makes the play rise above mere intellectual discussion and become truly compelling drama are the carefully nuanced performances of the four person ensemble. Leading the charge is Laurie Metcalf in an absolutely sensational (now Tony-winning) performance as Nora, the fiercely independent woman at the center of everything. Matcalf's Nora barrels through the play like a bull in a china shop, a lifetime of frustration radiating off her in righteous anger. Her exasperation is palpable, as is her intelligence and determination.

Metcalf makes it abundantly clear that Nora was born in the wrong time, a strong and independent woman in a world that has little use for her. And while Nora makes no apologies for her decision to leave her family, Matcalf beautifully communicates just how much the decision cost her, especially during a heartbreaking monologue in which she describes what it's been like to be cut off from her children. The role allows Metcalf to showcase her full range as an actress, from the comedy chops that won her 3 consecutive Emmys on TV's Roseanne to the deeply felt emotion which has made her a favorite of the New York theatre scene.

Equally exciting work is provided by Metcalf's costars, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad. Houdyshell initially seems like comic relief as the somewhat bumbling, soft-spoken maid Anne Marie, but as the play progresses you discover she has been as shaken by Nora's decision as anyone. Anne Marie's geniality hides a deep seated resentment for the scandal Nora caused, and Houdyshell plays both sides of her character to the hilt. Rashad is thrilling as Nora's now grown daughter Emmy, who was so small when her mother left she barely remembers her. Her opinions on Nora's actions are perhaps the most surprising, and Rashad's shimmering intelligence and carefully measured line delivery make her consistently fascinating to watch.

If there is one weak link in the cast, it is Chris Cooper's understated portrayal of Torvald. The Oscar winner isn't so much bad as he is underwhelming, delivering a characterization that is clearly calibrated for film while the rest of the cast is giving overtly theatrical performances. One wishes director Sam Gold had been able to bring Cooper up to the level of his costars, but otherwise the evening is flawlessly directed. Gold's subdued staging, combined with the low key but well executed costumes and lights, allows the focus to remain where it should, on the excellent writing and acting.

A Doll's House, Part 2 manages to accomplish just about everything you could want during its lean, brutally effective 90 minute runtime. An intelligent drama that tackles big ideas, Hnath's script allows ample opportunity for both comedy and drama, which the gifted ensemble seizes upon and fully exploits. Who would have imagined that a play which on paper sounds like an overly pretentious writing exercise would turn out to be one of the freshest, most engaging new works of the year? Those with even the slightest interest should make it a point to see A Doll's House, Part 2; you are guaranteed to leave the Helmer household much more satisfied than Nora ever was.

1 comment:

  1. Now Laurie Metcalf is halfway towards EGOT status.

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