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We’re in a fallow moment for sequels to aging-or-aged cultural properties: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dark Phoenix, Men in Black: International, and Shaft all tanked at the box office this month on merit. While the failure of those follow-ups could’ve been predicted based on who made them, the underwhelming creative returns delivered by Round House Theatre’s area-premiere production of an even later-to-arrive sequel—Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, which followed Henrik Ibsen’s landmark proto-feminist drama by 138 years—are a genuine, and genuinely disappointing, surprise.
The comparison is fair, because this show, despite the muted vibe of Nicole A. Watson’s staging and the reverent silence of the crowd I saw it with, is supposed to be a comedy. For Hnath to stick a vulgar, Hollywood-style “Part 2” onto the end of one of the theater’s towering classics is meant, I think, as a joke.
It might be the only one Watson hasn’t managed to bury. If I hadn’t witnessed it beneath my own drooping eyelids (despite the show’s 90 minute runtime), I would not have believed it possible for an evening of theater that marshals the sterling interpretive talents of Holly Twyford, Craig Wallace, and Nancy Robinette in the service of a Lucas Hnath script to be this inert. What a bummer! And not in a profound, Ibsenesque way!
Part 2 has itself become a blockbuster. Two years after it gave Hnath his Broadway debut, it has become the current theater season’s most-produced show nationwide. One can understand why the celebrated, still-under-40 playwright of The Red Speedo and The Christians (which got memorable productions at Studio Theatre and Theater J, respectively) might feel emboldened to look in on Ibsen’s awakening heroine, Nora Helmer, 15 years after she walked out on her husband and three children to find herself. The denouement was so shocking in 1879—exactly a century before Kramer vs. Kramer, a wildly popular movie, explored similar themes—that Ibsen had to supply a family-preserving alternate ending for the theaters that considered his preferred one too hot to handle.
In Hnath’s imagining, Nora (Twyford) has blossomed in her time away from her family, becoming wealthy by writing books that rail against the oppressive institution of marriage. But as in Ibsen’s story, some small man is trying to blackmail her, and she’s at risk of losing all she’s earned if her jilted ex Torvald (Wallace) doesn’t file the papers formalizing their divorce. (He has chosen to let the couple’s acquaintances believe that Nora died rather than admit she left him.)
Nora also finds herself compelled to make peace with Anne Marie (Robinette), the maid who reared the children Nora abandoned, and Emmy (Kathryn Tkel), the now-grown daughter who was an infant the last time Nora saw her. Emmy is due to be married herself, a circumstance that invites Nora to opine at length on the custom’s obsolescence. “Twenty or 30 years from now, marriage will be a thing of the past,” she declares, speaking from the mid-1890s.
Hnath has chosen to use contemporary language, so we do get the sporadic comic seasoning of hearing Anne Marie exclaim “What the fuck!” But the fact that we need those little hits of anachronistic cussing just calls out how little snap there is in most of the dialogue.
More damning, the relationship between Nora and Torvald is all but absent. Twyford and Wallace, despite their deep reserves of talent and experience, are as ill-matched as performers as Nora and Torvald were as partners. Even if the whole premise is that Torvald never tried to understand the spouse he hasn’t seen in a decade and a half, they shouldn’t seem like cordial strangers. Their meeting feels like a reunion of former spouses who parted amicably, not the aftermath of a fracture that wounded Torvald so deeply he’s never recovered. Paige Hathaway’s skeletal set, with incongruous and incomplete bits of furniture ringing a mostly empty stage, does more work to convey the privation of the Helmer household than the performances do. Emmy, for example, seems to have grown up just fine.
I didn’t see the Broadway production that won Laurie Metcalf a Tony Award for her performance as Nora, so it’s difficult to form a picture of what the play (which also earned Hnath a Tony nomination) should look like. I can only tell you that this Doll’s House is a fixer-upper.
To June 30 at 450 7th St. NW. $48–$65. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.