The Audacity of Lucas Hnath
FEB 2, 2017
“The first thing that came to me was the title,” says playwright Lucas Hnath with a hint of mischief, referring to A Doll’s House, Part 2. “I got interested in writing it because it sounded so crazy.”
Others might say gutsy. Writing a sequel to one of the greatest works of Western literature, especially by a writer in his mid-thirties? When Henrik Ibsen’s Nora abandoned her family and left her bourgeois existence behind in Victorian Norway, the slam of the door was a report heard round the world. Now, more than a century later, Hnath has resurrected the characters, returning the heroine home to husband and child after several years. In A Doll’s House, Part 2, Nora has since become an independent and successful author. But her books encouraging women to fight against an oppressive patriarchy run afoul of a judge whose vendetta leaves Nora once again at the mercy of her husband, Torvald.
“Lucas is doing an ingenious thing in putting Nora back into an Ibsen-esque situation,” says Tony winner Sam Gold (Fun Home), who directs the production starring an award-winning ensemble including Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, and Condola Rashad. “He’s done a brilliant job of creating a blackmail plot in a nod to Ibsen’s dramaturgical style in order to further explore character and ideas. [It’s] a very bold and audacious thing to do.”
Audacity is a characteristic of Hnath’s work, which has never shied away from musing over sacred cows. The Christians looked at a spiritual crisis within an evangelical congregation. Red Speedo dove into a fraternal relationship fractured by a doping scandal. And then there was the provocative A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.
Hnath says that what has always drawn him to the work of the Norwegian master is that his plays are “great arenas for argument.” Given the Victorian era in which Ibsen was writing, his characters are frequently bottled-up and repressed, the relationships distorted by lies as well as the unequal power dynamic between the sexes. A Doll’s House, Part 2 attempts to uncork those emotions by leveling the playing field and ripping the bandages off the wounds. In this iteration, the confrontations between Nora and Torvald are more direct, more honest, and more equal than in the original.
“That’s the fun of it!” says Hnath. “Nora’s independence comes from what she has discovered about herself and a sense of what she wants to accomplish in the world. Torvald is thrown by this new independence. But now they can have a real boxing match.”
The combatants are not only well armed but well cast. Metcalf is best known for her Emmy-winning performance on TV’s Roseanne. But she has earned rave reviews for her stage work, with Tony Award nods for November, The Other Place, and, most recently, Misery. Says Hnath, “Laurie is incredibly precise, has an extraordinary sense of rhythm, and she is hilarious. It’s exhilarating and a lot of fun to see the shifts in her train of thought, to watch her have new ideas and change tactics on the spot as she negotiates with other characters.”
Metcalf says that she was struck by the “push-pull” of the unique mix of Victorian costumes with language that is very contemporary and accessible. “I wear a corset, but I can slouch — and I do,” she says with a laugh. “Lucas’ play is inspired by a classic but it’s not a classic, so that gives us a free pass to be riskier, to be a little less delicate. When I’m in the room with Chris, it’s fun right off the bat, because even though Nora and Torvald are tense with each other, there’s such a history between them that it’s kind of funny to see them back together. They’re both still so mad!”
The actress has a worthy sparring partner in Cooper, who is returning to the Broadway stage after an absence of more than three decades, during which time he built a distinguished film career and picked up an Oscar for Adaptation. “To pull off Torvald,” says Hnath, “you have to be really good at being silent for long stretches of time, and Chris is the master of silences. But when he does speak, he can be heartbreaking at the same time. You can see the struggle for this guy, living in this new world that he can’t quite understand.”
Houdyshell, fresh off her Tony Award win for The Humans, is also drawn into the ring as Anne Marie, the nanny who has been left to care for the family after Nora’s abandonment. Gold says that what he recognized in the veteran actress is also what drew him to Rashad, a two-time Tony nominee (Stick Fly, The Trip to Bountiful), who plays Nora’s daughter, Emmy, who proves to be as smart and conniving as the mother she has never known. “They are both so natural, so grounded, and so powerful,” says Gold. “I think what I was looking for in casting this play is effortlessness. Jayne and Condola exemplify that.”
Houdyshell says she’s struck by the contemporary resonances in the play. “The issues of social and gender inequality that were instigated with Nora’s door slam nearly a century ago are still with us, perhaps more now than ever before. But Lucas is such a witty writer that there’s nothing grim about the way he explores these things even though he does it with such passion and such intelligence,” says the actress. “It’s an exciting room to be in, I’ll tell you.”
The tumult and earthiness of Hnath’s play would demand an ensemble as daring and unerringly honest as the cast that Gold has assembled. But the playwright says that there are ephemeral considerations as well. “When you look at Ibsen’s plays, they push past the concrete into the spiritual, and that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in writing this play,” he says. “I knew it had to transcend the concrete stakes of what the characters are trying to make happen and into something more mysterious. With me, there’s a constant search for something that is very hard to put your hands on.”
Metcalf says that amid the loaded fireworks there is a tenderness, even a melancholy, in the play derived from characters doing their best to understand each other and not quite being able to do so. “Lucas is working very hard to not make anybody totally right or totally wrong, and it’s slippery with Nora,” she says, noting that she did after all abandon husband and children. “But I think you understand how hard it was and why she had to do it. I think Lucas has cracked it.”
Photography by Rebecca Martinez.