In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the ac­tors take off the gloves.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS THE­ATER peter.marks@wash­

new york — Now, about that box of tis­sues. It sits on a ta­ble through all 85 min­utes of Broad­way’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” An or­di­nary card­board con­tainer of Kleenex, the kind you find on any night­stand or bath­room van­ity in Amer­ica in 2017.

Ex­cept “A Doll’s House, Part 2” takes place around the turn of the 20th cen­tury in Nor­way — decades be­fore one would find the prod­uct on a store shelf. The four ac­tors in the ac­claimed play, hand­somely at­tired in the Vic­to­rian fash­ion of a by­gone era, come and go. But the tis­sue box is al­ways there, an ob­ject au­da­ciously out of time, in a play about the price of chal­leng­ing es­tab­lished cus­toms, in our age as much as the one in which the play’s char­ac­ters live.

Who knew a dis­pos­able item could be so in­deli­ble?

“I love that peo­ple re­mark about the tis­sue box,” says Sam Gold, di­rec­tor of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a drama that has been nom­i­nated for eight Tony Awards, in­clud­ing best play — more nom­i­na­tions than any non­mu­si­cal this sea­son. “It’s such a small de­tail, but it re­ally nails what I felt read­ing the play. Which was that it was like be­ing in cou­ple’s ther­apy. So you need it to be a very smart-look­ing room, where there isn’t a lot of stuff to dis­tract. But you need a tis­sue box, in case things go south.”

The play, which marks the Broad­way de­but for its au­thor, Lu­cas Hnath — whose ear­lier works, “Red Speedo” and “The Chris­tians,” have been seen, re­spec­tively, at Wash­ing­ton’s Stu­dio The­atre and The­ater J — bot­tles the in­ten­sity of a meet­ing place for hos­tile ad­ver­saries. “The de­sign of the set that Sam [and scenic de­signer Miriam Buether] came up with is like a box­ing ring,” Jayne Houdyshell, who plays the house­keeper Anne Marie, says of the sparsely fur­nished set, a room pitched at an odd an­gle with one sharp cor­ner jut­ting out into the au­di­ence.

“It was bril­liant to con­cep­tu­al­ize the play that way,” she adds, “be­cause even though it’s a very for­mal play in some ways, the au­di­ence is re­spond­ing like it’s a spec­ta­tor sport.”

Through­out the as­sorted con­fronta­tions of Hnath’s drama, a post-fem­i­nist se­quel to the pi­o­neer­ing 1879 play by Hen­rik Ib­sen, about a bour­geois woman suf­fo­cat­ing in mar­riage, you hear au­di­ences mur­mur­ing, gasp­ing, guf­faw­ing. In this fol­low-up story, Hnath imag­ines what it would be like if Nora Helmer — who walked out on her hus­band, Tor­vald, and three young chil­dren — re­turned to the house she left 15 years ear­lier. In ad­di­tion to learn­ing the sur­pris­ing things Nora, played by Lau­rie Met­calf, has been up to for a decade and a half, play­go­ers hear about the ar­ray of ef­fects Nora’s dis­ap­pear­ance has had on Anne Marie, who’s raised her chil­dren; on Tor­vald (Chris Cooper), forced to deal with an aban­don­ment he couldn’t be­gin to com­pre­hend; and Emmy (Con­dola Rashad), a daugh­ter too young when Nora left to re­mem­ber her.

Met­calf, who, like ev­ery one of her co-stars, has been nom­i­nated for a Tony, is amazed by the ve­he­mence with which some au­di­ence mem­bers re­act. Among the things we find out is that Nora hasn’t re­turned to clear the air but to fur­ther dis­en­cum­ber her­self from her fam­ily. “I think that ev­ery blow I take in the mo­ment is jus­ti­fied,” she says. “But I mean, does it hurt my feel­ings when the au­di­ence cheers on the line, ‘F--you, Nora!’? Um, oh yeah! And boy, do they cheer!”

It would be wrong to imag­ine the re­mark­ably even­handed “A Doll’s House, Part 2” was con­ceived as a dra­matic cud­gel with which to pun­ish Nora for her stun­ning act of de­fi­ance in “A Doll’s House,” just as it would be in­cor­rect to as­sume that you need to know much at all about the orig­i­nal to thor­oughly en­joy “Part 2.” One of the plea­sures of Hnath’s writ­ing is that he built a se­quel that stands en­tirely on its own. That at­tribute might not be get­ting through to prospec­tive the­ater­go­ers, who might hes­i­tate over a ti­tle sug­gest­ing a fa­mil­iar­ity with Ib­sen’s play is a pre­req­ui­site. And con­se­quently, why in the early go­ing, the box of­fice has been slug­gish.

Sales for the pro­duc­tion, in a lim­ited run through July 23, have been inch­ing up week by week. But it still faces stiff com­pe­ti­tion, both from plays off-Broad­way and dra­mas such as Lynn Not­tage’s “Sweat,” J.T. Rogers’s “Oslo” and Paula Vo­gel’s “In­de­cent,” which are vy­ing with Hnath’s work for the cov­eted best-play Tony that will be awarded at Ra­dio City Mu­sic Hall on June 11.

What’s made “Part 2” an es­pe­cially in­trigu­ing gam­bit was the un­ortho­dox de­ci­sion by pro­ducer Scott Rudin to bring it to Broad­way with­out it hav­ing been mounted be­fore. The play was com­mis­sioned by South Coast Reper­tory, a non­profit the­ater in Orange County, Calif., which pro­duced its own run of the play in April. But Hnath and oth­ers say it was in the work­shops sev­eral months ago for the Broad­way pro­duc­tion, with the cur­rent cast, that the play took shape.

“The im­pulse was sim­ple,” says Rudin, who read the play and fell in love with it. “If there is such a thing as a Broad­way play, it’s this one.” He took his cue from the prac­tices of ti­tans of yore, such as the late pro­ducer Robert White­head — for whom Rudin once worked — whose be­lief in a play was enough to get a Broad­way ball rolling. That was what Rudin wanted to have hap­pen with “A Doll’s House, Part 2”: “I just wanted to see the play on Broad­way.”

For the play­wright, whose sur­name is pro­nounced “NAYTH,” Broad­way was nowhere in his sights. A se­quel to “A Doll’s House” was one of dozens of ideas for plays he kept on his com­puter, and when South Coast Rep gave him a com­mis­sion, he says, the idea of a riff on a clas­sic brought that par­tic­u­lar idea to the top of his list.

“It seemed like an op­por­tu­nity to think about mar­riage and di­vorce,” says the 37-year-old na­tive of Long­wood, Fla. “That was some­thing I was al­ways in­ter­ested in: How do you deal with a breakup, and can things be re­paired?”

The work­shops were con­cerned with hon­ing the finely cal­i­brated ar­gu­ments in which Nora en­gages with each mem­ber of the house­hold. In Hnath’s way of work­ing, the ac­tors say, it was a highly ec­cen­tric process. Each day, they say, the play­wright would ar­rive with a few ideas he would call “scraps.”

“So he would bring in maybe five scraps that day, and they would be ti­tled, you know, ‘Why I don’t want this’ that maybe would end up get­ting folded into a scene,” Met­calf says. “It was so open to feed­back — which is a dan­ger­ous thing for a writer, I would think. That could spin out of con­trol so eas­ily. But Sam kept us all mov­ing for­ward. It was al­ways for the good of the play, not for any in­di­vid­ual say­ing, ‘I miss my line here.’ ”

Cooper, an Os­car win­ner for his role in “Adap­ta­tion,” couldn’t be­lieve that his opin­ion was be­ing sought on his char­ac­ter. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done stage work,” he says, “and I didn’t know: Is this the way things are done? I was stunned that he would so in­clude the ac­tors’ take.”

For Rashad, too, the ex­pe­ri­ence was daunt­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing. The chal­lenge was in­fus­ing what sounded to her like a “heady” play with heart. In the end, though, en­sur­ing that, in that box­ing ring, the play re­mained a fair fight for all four was es­sen­tial. “It was all about bal­ance for us,” she says. “And what ex­cited me was that I felt that no mat­ter who or at what stage of life or from what back­ground you were, this play would hit some kind of nerve.”

The de­gree to which “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a team ef­fort is ap­par­ent ev­ery night in the Golden. Just as that point was also driven home on open­ing night, when, Met­calf re­ports, Hnath gave each of the ac­tors an apt and mem­o­rable gift: He gave them their own scraps. He took lines that each ac­tor pitched for their char­ac­ters that didn’t make it into the play, and framed them.


Lau­rie Met­calf, left, and Con­dola Rashad in a scene from “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” now on Broad­way. The se­quel to Hen­rik Ib­sen’s clas­sic drama is nom­i­nated for eight Tony Awards.

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