The last show to open on Broadway this season turns out to be the funniest, and the sharpest play of the year, which is a pleasure to report. A Doll’s House, Part 2, which opened tonight at the Golden Theatre, is not so much a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist groundbreaker of 1879 as it is a heartfelt meditation on how far we’ve come in the century and a quarter since. If that sounds more like a master’s thesis than a comedy, you need only know that Lucas Hnath’s 90-minute quartet contains five S-bombs, four F-bombs and the return of Laurie Metcalf (after the futility of Misery) in full blossom as Ibsen’s Nora Helmer, last seen making the most famous stage exit in the canon not involving a bear.
Familiarity with Part 1 helps, though it’s not essential. Nora walked out on her husband, Torvald, and three children after he discovered she’d secretly borrowed money to pay for his recovery from illness. He’d accused her of deceit and disgracing him, and when it turned out they were in the clear, he’d been condescendingly beneficent. But the damage has been done and she was outta there.
Ibsen’s genius lay in part in not following Nora out the door, leaving us to imagine how her life would go. Until now, I thought that was a pretty good argument against a Doll’s House sequel; in 1982 A Doll’s Life – an earnest musical written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and directed by Hal Prince – was the most expensive flop in Broadway history, shuttering after five performances.
Happily, A Doll’s House, Part 2 proves me wrong . It takes place 15 years later, when Nora (Metcalf) returns to settle unfinished business with Torvald. She’s become a celebrated, and wealthy, author of books “about the things women do and want and don’t want and don’t do,” she tells Anne-Marie (Jayne Houdyshell, a Tony winner last year for The Humans), the stout servant who raised the Helmer children and still looks after Papa. “And the way the world is towards women,” Nora adds, “and the ways in which the world is wrong.“
Nora’s discovered that Torvald failed to file their divorce papers, putting her in jeopardy because married women are still prohibited from executing contracts. Her radical sentiments have evolved and hardened; she tries, unsuccessfully, to convince Anne-Marie of the hopelessness of marriage. When Torvald (Oscar winner Chris Cooper, absent from Broadway since his short-lived 1980 debut) appears, he turns the tables on Nora. “I should have left you long before you left me,” he says, unspooling his own grievances while making it clear he’s still in love with her.
And when her now-grown daughter Emmy (Condola Rashad, Billions) shows up, the stakes for Nora get even higher. The abandoned child proclaims that she’s not in a forgiving vein, especially when the talk turns to love, both parental and romantic. One of the finest young actresses on the boards today, Rashad is devastating as Emmy speaks with a near-blank expression about love, unmasking her mother as if abandonment has carved the very heart out of her. (Q: Does an African-American actress playing the daughter of Norwegian parents register as implausible? A: No.)
You may be wondering, so where’s the comedy? It comes out of two things: First, Hnath’s inspired writing, which endows each character with an arsenal of fastballs, curveballs and spitballs, keeping us disarmingly off-balance. He’s an uncommonly gifted parodist. For all its seriousness, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is suffused with a contagious bemusement. If you love the picaresque novels of Thomas Berger (Little Big Man, Arthur Rex) and John Barth (The Sotweed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy), this is the playwright for you.
Secondly, director Sam Gold’s smashing production renders action, such as it is, and the dialogue slightly off-kilter as these once intimate people tip-toe through a dream in which everyone gets even and nobody wins. Miriam Buether’s spare ante-room setting and Jennifer Tipton’s pale lighting contribute to the jaunty surreality. Long before the end, we can intuit that Part 2 will conclude much the way Ibsen’s play did. There’s a key difference that I won’t divulge, but it’s unexpected, and unexpectedly moving. For all its whimsy, this is a serious show, and one for savoring.