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It’s the most famous door slam in theatrical history and a symbolic touchstone of the women’s rights movement. At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer declares her freedom and walks out on her banker husband, Torvald, and their three young children, in order to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life. In his book From Ibsen’s Workshop: Notes, Scenarios, and Drafts of the Modern Plays, Ibsen wrote of A Doll’s House: “A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.” Playwright Lucas Hnath delves deeper into those rules of conduct between men and women in his audacious, decidedly contemporary follow-up, A Doll’s House, Part 2. It’s also extremely intelligent and very, very funny, more than worthy of its title. Hnath and director Sam Gold attack the story with relish, beginning with Miriam Beuther’s set, a large room with two high walls that meet at the back, while the front corner angles into the first few added rows; the feet of the audience members in the first row can actually reach under the stage. To the left is the door, big and brown and austere; a few chairs and a table are arranged around the room sparsely but neatly. A glowing yellow neon sign hangs from the ceiling, boldly announcing the name of the play, rising up and out of view shortly after the show starts, with a knock on the door; Nora (Laurie Metcalf) has returned. “Nora, I can’t believe it’s you!” proclaims an excited Ann Marie (Jane Houdyshell), the nanny who first raised Nora, then Nora’s children. “It’s good to see you,” Nora responds calmly, but she can’t wait to tell Ann Marie what she’s been up to these last fifteen years, during which she has had no contact whatsoever with anyone in the house. She proudly informs Ann Marie that she’s become a successful writer, using a pseudonym, publishing controversial books that argue against the institution of marriage and monogamy, which she calls “self-torture.” When Torvald (Chris Cooper) unexpectedly arrives, he doesn’t even recognize Nora. “Who’s your friend?” he asks Ann Marie before looking a little closer. “Are you . . . You aren’t . . . You are,” he says. “I am,” Nora responds. “I have to go to the bathroom,” Torvald declares, and leaves the room. It’s a scintillating exchange, 15 years in the making in the play itself, but 138 years since Ibsen first wrote Nora’s exit.
The reason why Nora has returned is brilliant; she has not come back to explain herself to Torvald or to see how her children are doing. Avoiding all sentimentality, Nora explains that Torvald never filed the divorce papers, so she desperately needs him to finally sign them, which will at last legally set her free of all attachments, allow her to sign contracts on her own behalf, and save her reputation as an anti-marriage crusader — all the dilemmas that ensue from women’s lack of the rights that men enjoy. “I think it’s to be expected that a person would think that after I left this house and my husband and my children that I’d have a very difficult time,” she tells Ann Marie, who says, “The world is a hard place.” Nora adds, “So we’re trained to think. I mean, I think there’s something in our time and place and culture that teaches us to expect and even want for women who leave their families to be punished.” It’s a statement that wittily comments on the audience’s own expectations, displaying how inequality remains very much in force today; Nora might be flaunting her independence and her career triumphs, but she has not yet broken free of society’s rules, many of which have continued into the twenty-first century. Over the course of the swiftly moving ninety-minute play, Nora goes one-on-one with each character, the next bout announced by a projection of that character’s name on the wall in huge sans-serif block letters by Peter Nigrini. The interactions are superbly staged, as Ann Marie gives Nora a piece of her mind, Torvald is not keen on granting her the divorce, and Emmy shows she has matured into a fine, albeit traditional, young woman. The dialogue in each scene is razor-sharp and unpredictable, as Hnath (Red Speedo, The Christians) explores the age-old battle of the sexes with surprisingly modern language. In researching the project, Hnath sought advice from numerous feminist scholars, including Carol Gilligan, Elaine Showalter, Toril Moi, Susan Brantly, and Caroline Light, resulting in a play that never is condescending or didactic and instead is illuminating and wholly believable.
The cast is divinely exquisite, all four earning Tony nods. Four-time Tony nominee Metcalf (The Other Place, Domesticated) is sensational as Nora, following in the door-slamming footsteps of Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Jane Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, and Joan Crawford. Wearing a gorgeous art nouveau shirtwaist and ladies’ suit by costume designer David Zinn, she’s utterly magnetic as she moves around the stage, completely unafraid to face the realities of Nora’s situation, many of which she did not expect. Oscar winner and Tony and Emmy nominee Cooper (My House in Umbria, Adaptation.), last seen on Broadway in the short-lived 1980 drama Of the Fields, Lately, is gentle and understated as Torvald, who is not sure how to react when he abruptly has to confront something he has tried to put past him. Three-time Tony nominee Rashad (The Trip to Bountiful, Stick Fly) is adorably charming as Emmy, a confident woman who holds no grudges and has an infectiously positive view of life. And Tony and Obie winner Houdyshell (The Humans, Follies), who played the nurse to Rashad’s Juliet in David Leveaux’s 2013 Broadway version of Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom, is, as always, a marvelous delight, holding nothing back as Ann Marie defends the choices she made and delivers the funniest, most direct, and totally un-Ibsen-like line of the play. Tony winner Gold (Fun Home, John) again proves he is one of the theater’s most inventive directors, allowing Hnath’s sparkling words to shine on a sparse but powerful set. One door closes; one door opens. Entrances and exits are the way of life, and the way of theater, and they come together beautifully in this electrifying and masterful production.