BWW Review: A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 Goes Round in Circles at Pittsburgh Public
It's not for nothing that Pittsburgh Public Theatre has such a strong reputation- their shows have a unique flavor to them. Part of it is the fact that they always use fantastic creative teams, the best local and national actors, exciting shows new and old; another part is surely the unique architectural opportunities that their space gives them. But another part is surely the longtime presence of former director in residence Ted Pappas, who has returned as a guest director to helm A Doll's House, Part 2. Pappas's unique touch, as well as at least one trusted member of his recurring actors of choice, gives this production of Lucas Hnath's semi-anachronistic dramedy an oddly welcome feeling of "same old, same old:" in the best possible way, it's like he never left at all.
Everyone who took high school honors English probably remembers A Doll's House part one, Henrik Ibsen's nineteeth-century melodrama of feminist awakening contrasted with societal and familial duties and expectations. Here's all you need to know: after years of being condescended to and coddled by her somewhat older husband Torvald, Nora Helmer decides to walk out of the marriage, abandoning her husband and her children with the slam of a door. (There's also something about blackmail, and something about an emotional affair, and something about Christmas, but none of those are relevant to the sequel.) Which brings us to the beginning of Hnath's play: a decade later, Nora returns home without warning to Torvald's house. It turns out that the divorce she believed Torvald had filed for her never actually got filed, and things can be VERY difficult for an illegally-separated woman in the late 1800s. As the characters interact and attempt to suss out their unexpected legal snafu, much is revealed about what happened in the interim, how much has changed, and how much has stayed exactly the same.
Besides the inherent cheekiness of writing a sequel to an established masterpiece, Hnath's other irreverent tweak of the nose is in his use of dialogue. Ibsen's original was written in an artfully stuffy, highly mannered style, typical of nineteenth-century upper-class drama. Hnath, on the other hand, writes his sequel not only in a modern, informal vernacular, but in the specific dialogue stylings of the modern "mumblecore" movement. A darling of indie films and HBO original programming, mumblecore is defined by dialogue that may not be improvised but is written to sound as though it is: false starts, overlap, frequent profanity and very little in the way of obvious wordplay or punchlines. It's funny the way your friends are funny, not the way F*R*I*E*N*D*S is funny. (Is F*R*I*E*N*D*S funny? I've never seen it.)
Under Pappas's direction, these characters feel both of their time and of ours, just as Hnath intended. Lisa Velten Smith, as prodigal ex-wife Nora, gives the kind of performance that would demand rewatching and subscribing if this were a TV pilot instead of a single play. Her shining moment comes early on, when feminist novelist Nora explains why she has written a series of anti-marriage screeds; the monologue that follows blurs the line between play and "spoken word," taking on aspects of the post-stand-up-comedy genre that took off in the past few years, most famously in Hannah Gadsby's Nanette. As her counterpart Torvald, who has also sworn off marriage (but for reasons of personal trauma, not sociopolitical ideology), Pittsburgh Public regular Daniel Krell deconstructs the imperious masculinity and patriarchy of Ibsen's version of Torvald. Instead, what Krell and Pappas create for us is a somewhat lost, broken man, who was never quite as strong as he thought he was. Caught in a lonely life, a web of lies, and a codependent faux-familial relationship with his housemaid and former nanny Anne-Marie (Helena Ruoti, a delight as always), Torvald and Nora have swapped power positions. He is the child now, and she the demanding parent/lover.
This sounds like the setup to a rather drearily predictable romantic comedy of exes getting back together, doesn't it? Well, rest assured, this is not that. When Smith and Krell begin to spar back and forth in the play's second half, it isn't hard to see why their relationship famously collapsed, even as the shades of grey become muddier: Krell's Torvald, utterly devoid of machismo, is world's removed from the emotionally controlling tyrant Nora (depicted in the play as a stand-in for Ibsen himself to some extent) depicts in her autobiographical wrting; Smith's Nora may have made a choice that was hers to make, but the play's direction and writing clearly expect us to judge her a little harshly, not laud her. Let's be vulgar for a moment, and indulge in a bit of somewhat outdated and sexist punning: Hnath suggests that both Torvald and Nora can be described with the phrase "kind of a bitch," in the different pejorative way the term is used to describe both men and women. (Given the way this play deals with deconstructing the archetypes of both modern and classic feminist writing, I think you'd be hard pressed to find the above statement too offensive even in 2019.)
The question looming large over the play is not that of whether a woman can and should leave an unhappy marriage, or even if she has the right to. It's the parenthood thing: do parents owe something to their children? If a woman decides she doesn't want to be a mother anymore, can she just stop, and abandon the children cold-turkey? When Nora's daughter Emmy (played with charming coldness and surface-level affection by Marielle Young) appears, she believes herself to be well-adjusted and a peer of her mother, but something is clearly off. Young crafts an immensely likeable character out of her cheerful but emotionally distant Emmy, who sees no real need for a parent she never had and looks on major government fraud with the same casual nonchalance with which she discusses dating. If Nora is detrimentally all strength, and Torvald detrimentally all weakness, Emmy has become a child of ambivalence.
Purists might scoff, and if blue-hairs still existed, they'd clutch pearls when Torvald screams "FUCK YOU NORA" and collapses on the floor in an exhausted, hyperventilating mess. In fact, as I left the theatre I heard people discussing the play heatedly: some loved it, some hated it, some questioned the need for its existence- at least one group decided they liked the play but would have liked it more as an independent entity, not a pointedly unnecessary sequel. This, to me, means that Hnath did his job and Pappas his: they've rekindled the century-old debate over Ibsen's characters and their actions. This show does not end any neater or tidier than the first one did. In fact, to a certain extent they play out the exact same way. This is again the point: the circularity of the arguments and dysfunction of this couple are meant to serve as a microcosm of all relationships. If Ibsen's original characters were archetypes, designed to be THE wife, THE husband in a morality play of sorts, Hnath's characters today are repainted versions of those initial blanks, giving a modern sense of specificity and shades of grey where Ibsen's play would have suffered for their inclusion. Yes, sexism and patriarchy are still very real and very dangerous today, but Hnath's text suggests that correlation is not causation: just because Nora and Torvald's marriage was broken, that doesn't mean capital-M Marriage itself is broken. Maybe the real broken thing was them all along.