Theater Review: Return to “A Doll’s House”? — You Can’t Go Home Again

By Bill Marx

A Doll’s House, Part 2 comes off as a return to the barn — after the door has fallen off its hinges.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Les Waters. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, through February 3.

John Judd and Mary Beth Fisher in the Huntington Theatre Company presentation of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Photo: Kevin Berne.

Did we really need a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s once shocking 1879 play? Have all that many people been wondering what happened to Nora once she slammed the door on her kids and her marriage? Apparently so because, according to the Huntington Theatre Company’s publicity release, this is “America’s most produced play of the season.” As an Ibsenite, I should be glad that there is so much curiosity, though I suspect that it might be because of name recognition. The script itself — talky, earnest, and not all that funny — wouldn’t justify much attention if it stood on its own, without its mildly exploitative connection with Ibsen’s masterpiece. We are far from a Godfather II level of improvement. A Doll’s House, Part 2 comes off as a return to the barn — after the door has fallen off its hinges.

Dramaturgically speaking, the irony is that Lucas Hnath’s script brings George Bernard Shaw rather than Ibsen to mind. During an interview in the HTC program, the dramatist mentions reading GBS’s preface to his wonderful 1908 talkathon Getting Married. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen dramatized a woman’s transformation, her decision to break free of inner and outer restrictions. Shaw’s debates on sex, marriage, etc take place among characters who are attempting to persuade each other (and theatergoers) of the rightness of their views. (For GBS, sexual relationships are deeply mysterious; marriage is the best choice among the many terrible alternatives.) Persuasion is essentially what Hnath is up to here — a free-thinking Nora needs to change the minds (at least a little) of those she left behind. The catch is that Hnath’s dialogue isn’t nearly lively enough — via paradox, wit, and brio  — to make the exchanges fanciful, invigorating, or dramatically playful. They come off as dutiful and flat, a game of verbal checkers. A sure sign of the writer’s limitations: when he needs to generate comedy he brings in a character to tell Nora to Fuck Off. As Helen Epstein wondered in her astute Arts Fuse review of the Barrington Stage Company production of the script, is the play’s drawing room located in the nineteenth or twentieth century?

15 years after she slammed the door, why has Nora, a successful novelist who specializes in women’s issues, come back? A pissed-off judge (could it be Judge Brack?) is placing her in serious legal jeopardy. Because the country’s divorce laws favor males, she needs to convince Torvald to do what she had always assumed he had — file for divorce. Torvald, a consistent coward in the name of saving face, told everyone in town that Nora had died and he isn’t about to change his story now. So Nora, seeking allies and cooperation, moves from her conventional daughter Emma and long time servant Anne Marie to Torvald. This gives them opportunities to proclaim their emotional damage, argue with Nora’s liberated views on sex and marriage, and so forth. Will Nora end up in the slammer? Will Torvald admit that Nora is alive? After he reads Nora’s hash-settling novel, which is based on her struggle to leave him?

Nora is the only character with something at stake, so Emma and Anne Maria come off as flat mouthpieces, essentially there to give the smugly liberated woman a hard time. Nikki Massoud unnecessarily heightens Emma’s severity, while Nancy E. Carroll manages to give some, but not nearly enough, mischievousness to the cursing Annie Marie. As for Nora and Torvald, John Judd and Mary Beth Fisher make for a banal odd couple — he’s petulant and defensive, she’s peppy and self-righteous. Les Waters’ direction doesn’t do much to add dramatic zip to all of the talk, talk, talk.

At around 90 minutes (with no intermission) and a cast of four, the production meets what have become the depressingly meager requirements for straight dramas on the American stage. Attenuated attention spans and budgets (for plays, not musicals, of course) leads to a loss of  imaginative reach and depth. Sometimes, more is more: additional characters and/plot development (such as interactions among Torvald and company, as they try to make sense of Nora) would have added theatrical heft.

As it is, The Doll’s House, Part 2 boils down to Nora receiving a psychic pick-me-up. She learns that going home again is a sign of retreat. Hnath’s message is safe (and conservative) enough for Broadway consumption — women, keep on moving forward, don’t look back. But this is pretty damned tepid encouragement. (Shaw’s 1908 views on society, freedom, and sexuality are much more radical — and compelling.) My all-time favorite production of A Doll’s House was Mabou Mines’ fabulous 2003 deconstruction, an excursion into the transgressive. After she slammed the door, Nora whipped off her wig and clothes: she’s bald and naked, ready to change from top to bottom, including gender. It was a post-modern homage to Ibsen’s allegiance to anarchistic individualism. And it told the truth about this courageous play; once Nora slammed the door there was never ever a question of her going back.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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