Berkeley Rep’s 'A Doll's House Part 2' Misperceives Marriage

Somewhere along the way someone with some time and a NEH grant will have to write a book on creativity and the American theater. It might start out with the line: “Of which there was little.” Lots of action, lots of personalities, lots of plays going up and down, but not a great deal of actual artistic inspiration, or as the French post-structuralist François Lyotard might intone through a Gauloise haze, “Just the simulacrum of.”

And in this history of so little sprinkled over so much activity, our future cultural archeologist will have to find a place for the talented, slippery, and often concept-driven playwright Lucas Hnath. His unexpected Broadway hit A Doll’s House Part 2 is receiving its Bay Area premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre under Les Water’s assured and middle-of-the-road direction.

Those familiar with Hnath’s work know that it’s a real possibility that his Part 2 could challenge or even surpass Ibsen’s original. Both playwrights share a moral complexity and outrage that might come down to a simple equation: when it comes to people anything can happen.

And that’s also true in how Hnath goes about his work. You have the feeling that he’s recreating theatrical forms right in front of you and doing it with as little fanfare as possible. His plays don’t have the feel of the artistic, or at least how our theatrical cultural has come to understand it; instead, it’s almost as if he’s conjuring up low key stunts, sly and genuine experiments in what constitutes a play.

When Part 2 opens we are fifteen years past Nora’s famous exit into a new life and uncertain prospects. Rather than a door slamming, we get a knock, polite at first and then more urgent. Someone needs to enter this strangely barren—two chairs and a side table—household.

Anne Marie, a minor figure in Ibsen’s original, answers the door and greets Nora; apparently they’ve exchanged some letters. Their initial conversation, hesitant yet strangely intimate, might be the most arresting moment in the entire play. And it’s a question that Hnath has confronted in his work over and over again: Who am I at this moment, at this time, and at this place.

During this initial encounter, any worries we might have about high-concept sequels shift and fade. This isn’t what Tom Stoppard does in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, hitching his star to a far greater work and sucking a little blood out of it in order to survive. Hnath’s hijacking of A Doll’s House is an actual attempt to rip Ibsen’s characters and concerns into an entirely different orbit, to make what is Ibsen’s his, and by implication ours.

As the Hippies used to say—and there’s many an aging rich one in the Berkeley Rep’s audience—you gotta dig that. And in digging that, in admiring the playwright’s off-kilter creativity, we expect a different set of qualities from the drama on stage.

In spite of the meta-theatrical hijinks, Hnath’s work isn’t clever and almost always follows the most forceful desires of his characters, which makes Part Two especially disappointing as the play progresses. It’s as if he can’t resist the concept and loses his sense of the stakes of the drama before him.

The problems of ‘A Doll’s House 2’ are slight, but fundamental and revealing.

The old Nanny Anne Marie swears. At first a few outbursts of “Oh well shit” and “I’m pissed” and then reaching full on into Mamet territory—“Fuck you, Nora. Fuck you.” There’s nothing wrong with an old woman letting loose in Ibsen’s supposedly haute bourgeois milieu, though more often than not the Norwegian dramatist’s drawing rooms are already cesspools of depravity.

Compared to Ghosts or Hedda Gabler swearing seems a dainty exercise in upper class refinement. What diminishes Hnath’s writing is how he uses the easy contrast for easy laughs. No wonder Part Two was a Broadway hit. And sure enough, both nights I saw the play the audience lapped it up. Yes, it’s a slight criticism, yet it signals that something’s not quite right here, that the concept is running roughshod over the art.

The more central issue is the relationship at the core of the drama: why Nora and Torvald divorced and what Hnath has in store for them now. In the intervening years Nora has become a national feminist icon (under an assumed name), writing an anti-marriage novel that has scores of women leaving their husbands. Torvald has remained a taciturn and bitter family man.

And it’s here that Hnath misreads the original for the worse, even as he seeks to break from and extend its scope. His Nora and Torvald are equals in the failure of their marriage and Hnath keeps circling around to some version of these lines of Torvald’s near the end of the play:

I think maybe the same way I made assumptions about you, you made assumptions about me. And maybe I would like what you really are, and maybe I didn’t like the things you thought I liked, and kind of found some of them pretty annoying.

That vague equation of fault is antithetical to the vicious core of Ibsen’s vision. In A Doll’s House Nora commits fraud and lies about it, but is more than willing to destroy herself for Torvald’s survival—which, of course, is the reason she commits fraud in the first place. Conversely, Torvald is all about his survival and only truly accepts Nora back into his loving arms when there’s nothing on the line for him.

Hnath turns Nora’s feminism into an anti-marriage tract, whereas what disillusions Nora is Torvald’s lack of commitment to the most basic tenant of any marriage—the vow to be there for the worst. This gives Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a nasty kick. With only a vague notion of feminist zeal—as if Hnath hired a steering committee to make sure he was up to date on the latest trends—the drama never gains any traction.

Still, despite my real reservations about this 21st century A Doll’s House, I think you should go. Hnath’s a major talent, the Berkeley Rep production is decent enough, and we all need something to do at night. Go.

If you think I’m wrong, write in and educate me.

‘A Doll’s House Part 2’ runs through October 21 at the Roda Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.