Normally efforts to extend a classic with an imagined follow-up stir my skepticism, but it quickly becomes evident that “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the musing of playwright Lucas Hnath, is refreshingly creative. What happened to Nora after she left her husband and children at the end of Ibsen’s famous 1879 play? Smith conceives of her return 15 years later, and what occurs is packed with energy and crackling dialogue.
The playwright with his language and Sam Gold with his direction do not attempt to re-create the sounds of Ibsen. The dialogue is very much in contemporary vernacular, including used of the F word, and that is a wise choice, avoiding making the play seem like faux Ibsen. A further plus is a superb cast and clever plotting.
Laurie Metcalf presents a tightly wound Nora, who since leaving her husband Torvald and her children has become a noted woman writer under a pseudonym with a particular reputation for a novel that frowns upon the accepted role of women, and accordingly this has stirred hostility.
Nora has a legal problem. She has not revealed that she is married, which would give her husband power over her earnings, and she has broken the law. She is threatened with being exposed and sent to prison unless she renounces her books and ahead-of-her-time beliefs about marriages being restrictive. She must now get her husband to divorce her to resolve the legal matter. Metcalf is superb in etching the portrait of an upset Nora at this stage of her life.
Before she meets Torvald, she encounters the long-time family housekeeper Anne Marie, played by Jayne Houdyshell in one of her best performances. Anne Marie, who has lovingly raised Nora’s children, has been loyal to Torvald at the expense of pursuing her own life and desires. She had initiated Nora’s return, but now sees it as nothing but trouble, and she is blunt in saying so. This is no typical housekeeper role. Houdyshell becomes a major player and has some of the play’s saltiest lines.
We soon meet Torvald, played in stately fashion by the excellent Chris Cooper, who at first displays his lingering bitterness toward Nora as well as regrets. He has allowed people to assume Nora was dead, is angered by her divorce request, asks her to leave and then storms off. Will he have a change of heart? Ultimately there is a moment of tenderness between them.
One of the best sequences is the meeting between Nora and her grown daughter Emmy, played to perfection by Condola Rashad. Emmy immediately sees through her mother’s desire for her to help persuade Torvald on the divorce issue as a selfish one. She resents being used by her mother, instead of her mother showing compassion and excitement at meeting her daughter whom she has not seen since Emmy’s childhood. The dialogue is blistering as Emmy reveals herself to be resentful as well as one who could use motherly love.
The author springs a surprise as to how this all works out. But the play leaves me with uneasy questions about the take on Nora and her burst toward liberation from an unhappy, confining marriage in the original. It would seem that her break led to character problems as well as success, and that in the final analysis Nora would seem to have become a very self-absorbed person, not an ideal model of character advancement apart from her literary gain. On the other hand the play hands her a gesture that is a boon to the astonished Torvald, indicating a level of consideration and responsibility in her after all. Her trajectory is interesting to ponder, which makes the play all the more fascinating. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 6, 2017.