The highest praise you can give playwright Lucas Hnath is that he should now write a sequel to “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He’s up to the task, as evidenced by his arresting new comedy, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which opened Wednesday at the Golden Theatre.
An actress once asked Tennessee Williams what happened to Blanche du Bois. Williams replied that, after a brief stint in the sanitarium, she was doing fine and had opened a little shop. He didn’t specify if Blanche was selling hats or flowers.
Hnath isn’t Henrik Ibsen, so perhaps the Norwegian dramatist would disagree with what happens to Nora Helmer after she abruptly leaves her husband and three children to strike out on her own. According to this unauthorized Broadway sequel, Nora (Laurie Metcalf) is alone but doing better than fine. She’s quite commercially successful in a profession best not revealed here, and the only reason she has returned to her husband’s house after 15 years is that she needs a divorce, quite to her surprise.
Torvald (Chris Cooper) never got around to divorcing her. It’s a problem. She has her own money now. She has her own life. She has enjoyed a number of affairs with men, and not having a divorce makes much of what she’s done in the last 15 years illegal in the eyes of the state.
Hnath has definitely studied his Ibsen, and the complicated story he has concocted not only makes continual references to what happens in “A Doll’s House” but seems to have sprung organically from it. Hnath’s language is a shocking departure from Ibsen’s, including his use of the occasional f-bomb, as is how the actors behave with each other on stage.
They’re four very different actors, and a major miracle of Sam Gold’s direction is that each of them comes from his or her own individual space to do battle. And that conflict of styles galvanizes the play.
The maid Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell) isn’t exactly happy she got stuck raising the three kids Nora left behind. Nora must be wondering if her daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad), underwent a lobotomy. The young woman never reads and her ideas on marriage are primitive even by the standards of a pre-liberated Nora.
And Torvald makes a lot of sense for being such a dullard in the Ibsen play. Leaving, he says, is different from taking action, which involves staying and toughing it out. Nora, for her part, sees love and marriage as incompatible, and she’s at her best when she’s alone and not around people, thank you very much. The debates swirl as Nora ponders the few options she has (all bad) for getting Torvald to grant her a divorce.
Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” was last revived on Broadway 20 years ago, with Janet McTeer offering a kind of “I Love Lucy” approach to the role; it made sense, Nora using all sorts of feminine wiles and trickery to get what she wants. Metcalf pretty much picks up where McTeer left off. Again, it’s a big, physical approach to the role, although all the flightiness of the young Nora/Lucy has been worn away to expose the naked drive of her determination.
Metcalf’s Nora is confrontational, and Houdyshell’s Anne Marie isn’t afraid to pick a fight when the two characters meet again after 15 years. This first scene of Hnath’s play emerges as a very broad comedy about two women of very different economic stations who talk right past each other.
Hnath keeps defying our expectations, and his making the maid a force to be reckoned with is delicious. Having Torvald not recognize Nora is also a masterstroke. He never saw her when they were married, he doesn’t see her now that she has returned. Also, because Metcalf is playing the role so broadly, it infuriates this Nora that Cooper plays his Torvald so small. It’s as though he’s declared victory by forfeiting the fight.
Most unusual is their daughter Emmy. That Rashad is black is almost beside the point. Whatever quality you might expect Emmy to have toward her long-lost mother — resentment, anger, diffidence — it’s not there. Like Cooper, Rashad seemingly steps from another production to offer a dreamy, upbeat assessment of her life that has to be everything Nora did not want for her daughter.
These fine actors’ very different approaches to their roles are what Hnath’s script calls for. That they rub together to produce such humor and warmth is the achievement of a master director. With his “Glass Menagerie” revival and now “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Gold has delivered two great nights in the theater this season.