Sequels are the all-too-frequent domain of the movies, but relatively rare in the theater except for Shakespeare and his history plays.
Still, Henrik Ibsen seemed to be expecting a follow-up to A Doll’s House, with its famous final door-slamming ending, one of modern drama’s most renowned cliffhangers. What did happen to Nora Helmer after she walked out on her husband Torvald and their children into the chilly anti-female air of 1879 Norway?
Ibsen remained mum on the subject, but contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath boldly entered that fray a few years ago with – what else? – A Doll’s House, Part 2. It reached and was acclaimed on Broadway in 2017, and now it arrives at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre for a brief, but heady run through Sunday, March 10.
As Hnath envisions matters, it is 15 years after Nora’s socially shocking exit and now she returns, tentatively then insistently knocking on that same door. The Helmers’ housekeeper Anne Marie opens it and is incredulous to find Nora who, she understandably assumed, had died in the intervening years.
On the contrary, Nora has prospered, having written a tell-all book about her suffocating marriage (under a pseudonym), encouraging its female readers to make similar liberating escapes. Her return, however, has been prompted by the discovery that Torvald never filed for divorce. So by Norwegian law, her contracts are null and void and her assets are Torvald’s property, just as she is.
What follows is Hnath’s wry send-up of the literary conceit as well as a serious exploration of the dynamics of marriage, from the late 19th century to today. Yes, women have come a long way, baby, but not that far that they cannot identify with Nora’s continued plight. What Hnath – and the first-rate Maltz cast – does so well is flesh out the characters from what initially seem to be caricatures to surprisingly thoughtful sides in the gender debate.
Take roly-poly Anne Marie (the inspired comic Mary Stout), who struggles with her former mistress’s liberation, while knowing that such progress will never reach her. Or Nora’s now-grown daughter Emmy (a blithely articulate Mikayla Bartholomew), herself engaged and eager to be ensnared in the trap of marriage. For Nora understands that the next generation is wary of the freedoms she worked so hard to achieve.
If these one-on-one skirmishes represent attitudes towards the roles society has dealt these characters, the main event is reserved for the surfacing resentments between Nora and Torvald (a simmering, then boiling over Paul Carlin). Understandably, they recall their marital squabbles from 15 years earlier differently and, with little effort, they are drawn back into their old arguments and verbal fisticuffs.
Hnath’s play floats between yesterday and today, as represented by Tracy Dorman’s rich period costumes, Marty Mets’ modern soundscape, Anne Mundell’s austere scenic design and the frequently profane dialogue. In what could easily have been a static rendering, director J. Barry Lewis – the Maltz’s go-to guy for cerebral drama – keeps his cast in motion, circling each other as in a boxing ring.
Oddly enough, some of the attitudes towards marriage are the same as in the Maltz’s previous production, Mamma Mia! In it, as you probably recall, the daughter is eager to embrace marriage while her mother finds the institution irrelevant for her needs.
Chances are that the Maltz audience would have preferred a musical sequel to A Doll’s House – there was one, a five-performance resounding Broadway flop called A Doll’s Life in 1982 – but the company deserves credit for challenging its audience, despite the audible resistance to such fare. Serving up A Doll’s House, Part 2 in between Mamma Mia! and West Side Story may seem a bit schizophrenic, but it is a necessary part of becoming a major regional theater.