That is indeed our Nora who was knocking so boldly for readmittance and is subsequently ushered in by the old Helmer family retainer, Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell, fabulous as usual). As embodied by Ms. Metcalf in a performance exquisitely poised between high comedy and visceral angst, Nora is looking nervous, yes, but also mighty prosperous and pleased with herself.
“Nora, Nora, Nora,” Anne Marie says, with that matter-of-fact way of marveling that Ms. Houdyshell (who won a Tony last year for “The Humans”) does so well. The audience laughs again. And then again, as Anne Marie asks the questions that have been burning in our minds, too: Just what has this runaway wife been doing all these years? Obviously, she’s not dead, as many had presumed.
“Keep guessing,” says Nora, basking in the curiosity. “This is fun.”
If the play ended right there, it might be a perfect multipanel New Yorker cartoon, the kind that appeals to people who pride themselves on remembering their introductory classes in world lit. While it’s a relief that this gloss on a masterpiece isn’t going to be deadly serious, you can’t help worrying that it’s just a bright quick-sketch concept, doomed to dim long before the end of its 90 minutes.
Yet Mr. Hnath approaches what might seem like a hubristic project with the humility and avidity of an engaged Everyreader. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” gives vibrant theatrical life to the conversations that many of us had after first reading or seeing its prototype, conducted in our own minds or perhaps over blunts and beers in dorm rooms.
Ibsen left his unlikely maverick of a heroine on the threshold of a dark and undefined future. Haven’t you found yourself pondering not only Nora’s fate but also that of her abandoned husband and children?
You probably haven’t worried so much about the servants, but shame on you, you class-blinkered snob. In any case, Mr. Hnath has. And he makes sure that Anne Marie is allowed her say about the consequences of one woman’s liberation, along with the understandably grumpy Torvald (Chris Cooper) and Nora’s now grown-up daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad).
This “Doll’s House,” in other words, has many rooms, of roughly equal dimensions. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Miriam Buether has designed only a single set, lighted by Jennifer Tipton, and it’s not so unlike the big, empty rooms in which ideas are hashed out in this season’s two other best new plays: J. T. Rogers’s “Oslo” (about Middle East peace negotiations) and Annie Baker’s “The Antipodes” (about a brainstorming story conference).
There are a few chairs, a tall potted plant and — delightfully — a small table with an anachronistic box of tissues, such as therapists usually keep around for emotional patients. Here we have a room ready-made for both debating and tear shedding.
While David Zinn’s impeccable costumes are of the period of the original “Doll’s House,” there’s 21st-century, illuminated signage above the stage that defines the play’s different parts, named for each of its characters. And, by the way, Nora and company talk just like us, right down to the punctuative obscenities.
This may sound too wise guy for words. But Mr. Hnath — whose earlier works, seen Off Broadway, include “Red Speedo” and “The Christians” — has a deft hand for combining incongruous elements to illuminating ends. The contemporary speech of his characters puts their conversation more completely in our heads.
As it should. It’s our conversation, too, and it’s been going on since Nora gave back her wedding ring more than a century ago. Mr. Hnath is assessing the reverberations of a highly dramatic action — Nora’s exit from the doll’s house — to remind us that what follows such momentous, clear-cut gestures is never simple.
Nora, for example, has become a successful “women’s novelist” and has discovered contentment in living alone. But she now finds herself with grave legal problems, as it turns out Torvald never officially divorced her. She has returned to see him, reluctantly, in hopes of rectifying that omission.
As for Torvald, a stoic time bomb in Mr. Cooper’s excellent interpretation, he was effectively paralyzed by Nora’s departure. And he’s still wondering why he was never allowed to have that conversation with her that she so seemed to long for in their last moments together 15 years earlier.
Though it was Anne Marie who encouraged her former mistress to visit, it emerges that she’s resentful about having had to sacrifice much of her own life to the Helmers. And Emmy, now a preternaturally poised young woman, just wants the stable domestic life that her mother’s departure denied her.
As portrayed by Ms. Rashad in a stunningly subtle and controlled performance, Emmy isn’t above using traditionally “feminine” wiles to get what she wants. She’s the image of Nora as she was before Mom found enlightenment. It’s a déjà vu reflection that alarms Nora to no end.
You’ll notice I haven’t used the “f” word. No, not the four-letter one, though it crops up frequently. I mean feminism. That’s because Mr. Hnath hasn’t written a feminist play. Or an anti-feminist play.
He has written instead an endlessly open debate. Which for the record never feels like a debate, such is the emotional commitment of the cast and the immediacy of Mr. Gold’s fine, sensitive production. This unexpectedly rich sequel reminds us that houses tremble and sometimes fall when doors slam, and that there are living people within, who may be wounded or lost.
And every character in “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is very much a living individual — a solipsist, as we all are, with his or her own firm and self-serving view of things. They’re all right; they’re all wrong. But at least they’re talking, which is what it takes to build a world that everybody can inhabit.