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New York City Theater

"A Doll’s House, Part 2"
Golden Theatre

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Nora. Nora who? Nora Helmer, of course.

Henrik Ibsen’s heroine, having famously slammed the door on her marriage in “A Doll’s House,” returns in the cheeky, stunning “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Managing to be both wry and confrontational at once, Lucas Hnath’s smashingly acted and cleverly directed new play is a banquet for the mind.

Having become a successful writer of books about women in the 15 years since she walked out on her husband, Torvald, and her children, Nora has discovered that Torvald never actually divorced her. Living independently, gathering lovers and earning money by writing books, she’s faced with a problem. As a still-married woman, she cannot sign contracts or, basically, have a life of her own. A judge whose wife has left him after reading Nora’s book about how “marriage is cruel and destroys women’s lives,” threatens Nora with prison.

This being 19th-century Norway, only a husband can grant a divorce. “The way they have the laws, the man can get a divorce for no reason at all, but a woman has to prove the man did something horrible to her,” claims Nora. Though she could file under those circumstances, it would surely create a scandal for respected banker Torvald. After all, as far as the town believes, Nora had been ill and confined to a sanitarium, then that she had died.

Playwright Hnath has written not a scholarly treatise but a series of personal showdowns in mostly two-character scenes between Nora and Anne Marie, the children’s nanny; between Nora and Torvald; between Nora and her sensible daughter Emmy. Modern tones and attitudes come through via language (“It’s a really big turn off,” plus obscenities), props (Kleenex, water bottles) and characters’ directly engaging the audience.

The actors, all of whom are nominated for Tony Awards, are a sterling bunch under Sam Gold’s astute, witty, richly detailed staging. Laurie Metcalf is Nora, mocking and dry, confused, self-righteous and a bit daffy. When frustrated, she would just as soon hug the wall of Miriam Buether’s pristine set or slouch in a chair or lie on the floor.

Jayne Houdyshell’s Anne Marie is resentful at the same time she knows that her station in, and devotion to, the household has strangled her. Chris Cooper’s Torvald is a decent man who prefers reconciliation to confrontation.

The most explosive scene is the one between Nora and Emmy, portrayed by a terrific Condola Rashad who makes Emmy whole enough to rise above feelings of anger, disappointment and abandonment. Or almost. Refusing to be “swallowed up,” she declares her independence by thrillingly turning the tables on her mother.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” is and is not a “feminist” play. True, it’s about the continuing subjugation of women, but also about the price of freedom, about the marital conflict between the individual (the marriage partners) and society (the marriage itself). “Love is different from marriage,” says Nora. “Love needs to be free and it is free, until the moment you marry and then something changes.” Ambiguous questions; irreconcilable answers.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 22, 2017

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