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BWW Review: New Cast Members Add New Dynamics To A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2


When this reviewer first critiqued Lucas Hnath's clever and intriguing A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2, he envisioned much discussion being provoked over the fact that a new Broadway play that debates issues regarding a woman's fight against institutionalized sexism was written and directed by men.

A Doll's House, Part 2
Julie White and Stephen McKinley Henderson
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Especially since, while certainly not rallying against gender equality, the playwright uses characters from Ibsen's 1879 drama to point out criticisms that have been launched against the contemporary feminist movement.

If such discussion did take place, it most likely lingered under the radar, as A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 has been extremely well received and is the only one of last season's Tony Award Best Play nominees that remains running.

Much of the credit must go to the extraordinary work of the play's original cast, particularly the consistently excellent Laurie Metcalf, who took the season's Best Actress Tony. But now with Julie White, another Best Actress Tony winner, taking over the role of Nora, joined by Obie winner Stephen McKinley Henderson, Erin Wilhelmi and remaining original cast member Jayne Houdyshell (another Tony winner), the dynamics of the evening have shifted a bit, with the play, and director Sam Gold's production, remaining as fascinating as ever.

Rather than trying to view A DOLL'S HOUSE (Part 1?) through a contemporary lens, Hnath has Ibsen's characters rehash the events that led to the play's famous ending and introduces subsequent events of his own invention.

Though designer David Zinn dresses the four actors in period garb, the dialogue is contemporary American English and, as the audience enters, the pre-show music is of young women aggressively rocking out. Large letters hanging above the blank walls of designer Miriam Buether's barely furnished set spell out the name of the play, suggesting that for the next 90 minutes we'll be witnessing a gallery installation on display.

In Ibsen's original, Norwegian banker Torvald treats his wife Nora exactly the way his patriarchal society tells him women wish to be treated. While never physically abusive or verbally cruel, she is, nevertheless, to him a prized possession. As the title suggests, he treats her as a beloved plaything who cannot get along without his care, never considering the complex adult she is.

Ibsen ends his drama with Nora declaring that she cannot find out who she truly is within the confines of their marriage. She leaves him her keys and wedding ring and walks out the door, slamming it behind her.

Hnath takes us 15 years from where Ibsen left off. Under a pseudonym, Nora has become a wildly successful writer whose books denounce the concept of marriage. She sees vowing to commit to another person until death, not knowing what kind of person he or she may become in the future, as a foolish practice that constricts personal growth.

"20, 30 years from now," she declares, "marriage will be a thing of the past, and those in the future will look back on us, and they'll be in shock, in total -- just awe -- at how stupid we are, how backwards our thinking, how sad it is that we put ourselves through this completely unnecessary process of self-torture."

She envisions a world where everyone can take on multiple spouses for whatever amount of time they please, and there will be no jealousy.

She explains all this to her former housekeeper, Anne Marie (Houdyshell), when she returns to her former home to take care of an urgent matter. It seems she was under the impression that Torvald had divorced her 15 years ago. He never did. This means that, under the law, she illegally signed contracts and underwent business dealings without her husband's consent.

Nora's now facing the possibility of jail time because a judge, whose wife left him after reading one of her books, discovered her real name and marital status. While a man can obtain a divorce simply by signing the necessary papers, a wife cannot divorce her husband without proving him to be abusive.

Sympathy is certainly in Nora's favor until legitimate points about her actions are brought up. Anne Marie reminds Nora that when she left her husband, she also left their small children with no mother. In order to keep her employment, Anne Marie had no choice but to take on the responsibility of raising them, at the expense of being there to raise her own child.

When Nora is reunited with Torvald (Henderson), he points out that he had no idea she was dissatisfied with their marriage until she voiced her complaints to him and that he was willing to talk about their issues and try to work things out before she walked out on him. ("The moment you brought the problems to light, you walked out the door. That's shitty if you ask me.") Once he reads her debut book, and for the first time learns of her view of their marriage, he is perfectly willing to own up to his actions.

A conversation with her now adult daughter, Emmy (Wilhelmi), reveals why Torvald granting Nora a divorce would be a more complicated matter than she expected. Emmy also explains how she has no interest in reading her mother's books because, after a childhood of witnessing her father's loneliness, she is now engaged and looking forward to being a wife. ("I want to be held. I want to be possessed. I want to be somebody's something.")

A Doll's House, Part 2
Julie White and Jayne Houdyshell
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Emmy's further reasons for admonishing Nora brings to mind arguments that arise today when younger women declare that they don't need feminism, just as Anne Marie reflects the opinions of many low-income women who claim that fighting for equal rights is a luxury they can't afford.

Unlike her predecessor, White's Nora appears to be the kind of charmer whose flashy smile does as much to win support for her stances as her well-written arguments. With a flick of her hand, she merrily whips her skirt aside on occasion to make a flashy and flirtatious twirl.

But when faced with the damning truth about how her actions negatively affected others, her confusion surfaces with incredulous reactions.

Henderson certainly ranks among the most likable and empathic actors regularly gracing New York stages and it's difficult to see his Torvald as anything but a well-meaning gentleman who still doesn't understand what he did to deserve the emotional wounds that continue to pain him.

In the pivotal scene where Torvald blames Nora for having her epiphany and then walking out on him instead of being willing to toughen up and work together to fix their marriage, Henderson's convincing sincerity legitimizes the character's claim to victimhood.

While Condola Rashad's Emmy was cool and confident, the kind of strong, intelligent free-thinker Nora would hope her to be, despite fully rejecting her mother's beliefs, Wilhelmi plays the role as a young woman still feeling her way through making adult decisions, trying to stay calm while her mother's sudden appearance threatens to spoil the life she's about to achieve for herself.

Houdyshell, a stage treasure, remains the sardonic anchor of the piece; a dry and stoic presence that deflates Nora's pride in her accomplishments by pointing out the reality she never sees.

Lucas Hnath made his New York debut less than two years ago with THE CHRISTIANS, an excellent play that requires a gospel choir. His follow-up, the very interesting RED SPEEDO, requires a swimming pool. With a cast of four (including roles for three contrasting types of women) and just a single, uncomplicated set required, A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 is more likely to be a popular regional choice when its Broadway run is concluded, but this sharp production is well worth a second visit, and most definitely a first.

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