The sub-text rises. Lucas Hnath's replay of Ibsen's A Doll's House at the John Golden Theatre takes a familiar interpretation of that iconic 19th-century play and dramatizes it, providing an entertaining if not especially revelatory evening in the theater.
Hnath's premise in A Doll's House, Part 2 is that fifteen years after Nora walks out, slamming the door it behind her (called the most famous sound effect in modern drama), she walks back in.
The set (designed by Miriam Buether) jokily features an enormous door. The austerity of the room, which is placed at an odd, pointed angle to the audience, is offset by the beauty and opulence of the costumes (designed by David Zinn).
A few years ago I wrote a book called Replay:Classic Modern Drama Reimagined. In it, I discuss 14 versions of A Doll's House — both radical productions and rewritings of the script — so Hnath's idea is not so very original. Torvald, I suggested, may be the most frequently dumped husband in the history of drama.
Directed with uncharacteristic obviousness by the usually understated Sam Gold (The Flick, John, Othello), the starry cast — Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad — spends most of the time facing us, delivering set pieces. (And what's up with the giant names written on the walls in lights?)
Especially surprising in this blatantness is Laurie Metcalf — an actor whose subtlety and attention to detail I have long admired — hamming it up in her liberated Nora; she sits with knees apart, saying "fuck" (to the audience's inexplicable delight) and explaining her dilemma.
To wit: She has just discovered that Torvald never officially divorced her, making her a criminal for having done what women were not legally allowed to do, such as sign contracts (she has become a famous author, writing under a pseudonym). We've been here before, friends.
Chris Cooper's Torvald is the clever surprise: unlike the stuffy, smug stiff he usually seems, filled with patriarchal entitlement, here he is elegant and graceful, a passionate man who feels he has been misunderstood (apparently for the past 150 years). He blames Nora, not for being wrong about their failed marriage (he acknowledges the rightness of her judgment) but for running away and not staying and "toughing it out together."
The always fine Jayne Houdyshell is the children's former nanny, now kept on out of Torvald's kindness. One of the children, Emmy (Condola Rashad), now grown up and herself about to marry, is an amusing know-it-all; her mother is merely another misguided adult. The cynical joke here seems to be that the younger generation is more old-fashioned than their elders. Wait: What wave feminism are we up to now?
The show is fun in its wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to the original play and the gaps among various verbal styles, the formality represented by the conventions of 19th-century realism and the informality represented by 21st-century conventions of realism. When Nora arrives, she says she's there (after 15 years of silence) just to "say hi to the kids."
Finally, there is a great marital battle, a showdown worthy of George and Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, their far more articulate and passionate predecessors who are, ironically, the theatrical descendants of the original Nora and Torvald.
A Doll's House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Through July 23 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York.