Two Sundays ago, a dear theatergoing friend and I set out for a matinee. While we typically go for the more epic, glamorous productions in the musical genre, even daring to take in a notorious flop now and again (we notably saw Doctor Zhivago together), our meager budget would not allocate us tickets to the blockbuster Hello, Dolly! or even Dear Evan Hansen. Agreeing that paying rent was more important than seeing Bette Midler, we agreed to see A Doll’s House: Part II.
This very specific choice of matinee indicates a daring break in the trend of our theatrical taste. Both of us attended conservatory together, where we trained heavily in musical theatre. Although we studied Ibsen’s watershed play A Doll’s House in a modern drama class way back in the day, we are definitely more apt to delight in a revival of 42nd Street than an evening of Shaw or Strindberg. But I digress.
[Side note: we were scared sh*tless by Laurie Metcalf’s psychopathic performance in last season’s Misery, and were wowed by the bone chilling mastery of her full bodied acting. This obviously weighed heavily in our decision to see Doll’s House].
I was immediately struck by the genius of playwright Lucas Hnath’s concept: to take a 19th century play and tailor a sequel to it with the dramatic action taking place 15 years subsequent to the conclusion of the primary source material. Indeed Hnath’s Nora returns home 15 years after that infamous “door slam heard around the world.”
Upon its 1879 premiere at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, A Doll’s House scandalized audiences with its blatantly critical attitude towards 19th century marriage norms. That its protagonist Nora should up and leave her husband and children at the end of the play was a highly controversial plot point within the patriarchal social order of Ibsen’s era.
When Laurie Metcalf knocks on the front door of the Helmer household in Part II, she is greeted by the housekeeper with the same Victorian formality that Ibsen’s Nora would have received, wearing an elegant blue period day dress and hat and toting a Mary Poppins-esque carpet bag. But the voices of the characters that inhabit Nora’s world echo with the distinction of modern day 2017 candor.
“F*ck you, Nora!” exclaims Anne Marie, the maid, who has been saddled with the duty of raising the children in Nora’s absence. The audience roars with delight at the sight of these exasperated Victorian archetypes shouting obscenities at one another. Their Victorian sensibilities are in stark contrast to their Trump-era vernacular, as though the characters in Nora’s world were squabbling about the ramifications of a Republican healthcare bill or immigration reform in a red hot Facebook thread.
The set reinforces this idea of a post-apocalyptic Victorian household with a sparsely decorated interior of Nora’s former home, the graceful crown molding contrasting 21st century illuminated signage indicating the point of view of each member of the household. A few chairs, a potted plant, and a side table with a box of tissues decorate the stage, begging the intimation of a therapist’s office, as if to the suggest that 150 years of discord have landed Nora and her husband in a family counseling session.
Mr. Hnath’s audacity in scripting a sequel to A Doll’s House in a contemporary voice is the most successful at situating 19th century marriage and familial conflict in such a way that we can fully grasp it in 2017. The double standard that is challenged here in which a woman abandoning her husband and family is perceived as more severe than if her husband walked out is one that reverberates with sexist hypocrisy still today. The notion that a woman might set out and become a successful career woman without the burden of traditional gender norms burns bright in a 21st century neo-feminist culture.
I was struck by the idea that these intricacies of tone and theme are scarce in the musical theatre canon to which I’ve devoted years of fidelity. In fact, I can’t really think of a successful sequel to a musical – the few that come to mind at all are the flop Bring Back Birdie or else March of the Falsettos, a sequel to William Finn’s In Trousers that, when merged as a dual act musical, become simply Falsettos.
So many plays end with a protagonist standing on the threshold of a new destiny. As children, we are trained to believe wholeheartedly that Cinderella lives happily ever after. But in 2017, when over 50% of marriages result in divorce and with a president in the White House that has been criticized ad nauseum for being an opportunist and a misogynist - shouldn’t we know better than to trust in fairy tales?
Stephen Petrovich grew up in Newtown, CT and saw his first Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast, at the Palace Theatre at age seven. Needless to say, he instantly became smitten with Broadway. As an actor, he has toured the country [ironically] in Beauty and the Beast, and has played regionally in Spamalot, La Cage Aux Folles, 42nd Street, Annie, Hairspray (3x), as well as a handful of productions of the Wizard of Oz, playing both the Scarecrow and Tin Man. As a theatregoer, he has seen some 300 Broadway shows over the course of the past 22 years. He holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from the Boston Conservatory and resides in Jersey City with his husband, classical musician Harry Inglis.