A 'House' haunted by Henrik Ibsen
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Berkeley Rep's new season blew in on a chilly Norwegian breeze with last Thursday night's opening of "A Doll's House, Part 2." Acclaimed young playwright Lucas Hnath ("Red Speedo," "The Christians") has thrown down a gauntlet for himself in crafting a sequel-of-sorts to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 classic. Why exactly he did so is unclear.
While Hnath's clever, empathetic script is polished to an impressive sheen by director Les Waters and a top-notch cast of four, there's a persistent air of intellectual gamesmanship to the endeavor. Like much of Tom Stoppard's strenuously academic period work, it's all a bit too cool for this critic's comfort.
In its own era, the plot of "A Doll's House" was a source of heated controversy. The play ends with its central character, upper-middle-class Nora Helmer, walking out on her banker husband Torvald and their three young children. Here was a woman opting for personal independence rather than her socially circumscribed role.
Hnath picks up the Helmer family's story with Nora (Mary Beth Fisher), now a successful feminist writer, banging on the very same door she disappeared through 15 years prior. But the scenes that follow aren't really about any social changes that transpired during Nora's decade-and-a-half absence (precious few). They're about what's happened between the late 19th century and today.
Again, one can argue that things have not changed as much as contemporary theater audiences might wish for. A woman leaving spouse and spawn still generates more severe opprobrium than a man doing the same. What has surely changed, though, is the willingness - even the ability, in light of prevailing mores - to hash out such matters with psychological nuance and expression of one's feelings. While the social standards of Ibsen's time mandated emotional repression over articulation, today's bourgeoisie has been quadruple-steeped in Freud, Steinem, Oprah and Zuckerberg.
Combining modern language with historical settings can yield great success (see: "Hamilton"). But Hnath's hitching of contemporary conversation to another writer's indelible characters makes for a strained marriage. The cast, kitted out in designer Annie Smart's gorgeously detailed period costumes, speaks dialogue spiked with today's vernacular.
"I'm really pissed at you," hisses justly resentful Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), the elderly nanny who raised both Nora and the Helmer children.
"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" sputters a frustrated Nora - now a successful but pseudonymous feminist writer - momentarily recognizing that inflexible self-determination may be served with a side of loneliness.
The visual and verbal asynchrony gets laughs, as intended. But Hnath's overall intent is fuzzy. It's not just the words spoken by his iteration of Ibsen's characters that feel at odds with the 19th century, it's their fully voiced perspectives.
It's hard to imagine Nora's grown daughter Emmy (a beguiling Nikki Massoud) sassily remarking, in 1879, that being abandoned by her mother may have actually helped her become a stronger, more independent-minded young woman.
And while a woman of Ibsen's time might subconsciously (or at least subverbally) feel such a thing, Nora's loud proclamation that she longs for a world without the institution of marriage seems flung in through a time warp.
Though Ibsen aficionados will appreciate a few referential Easter eggs that Hnath rolls their way, "A Doll's House, Part 2" is completely accessible for audiences unfamiliar with its inspiration. Relevant plot points are quickly recapped in exposition, and the period's pre-existing conditions of gender inequality and sexism are instantly cued by the costuming and Andrew Boyce's high-ceilinged, pearl-gray drawing-room set, an arena for debate as much as a livable space.
Some of those debates are beautifully rendered by Hnath. When Nora and Torvald (John Judd, whose facial expressions convey a complex blend of contempt, acceptance and adoration) compare notes on trysts they've had since separating, their talk evolves into a consideration of depth versus breadth in human relationships, the relative values of contemplation and reinvention.
But this discussion, like all of the most substantive conversations in the play, is an utterly modern one. Why did Hnath, with all of his inventiveness and verbal dexterity, opt to manipulate Ibsen's characters, rather than populating the stage with his own? Too often this production felt like "A Ventriloquist Doll's House." I was fascinated by much of what Hnath had to say, but had trouble connecting his voice to his puppets.
"A Doll's House, Part 2" plays Berkeley Rep through Oct. 21. Tickets ($45-$97): www.berkeleyrep.org