Nora Helmer damaged a lot of people when she left home at the end of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Roughly a century and a half later, playwright Lucas Hnath is mining that pain for comic gold in a star-studded sequel (of sorts), “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” now open at the Golden Theatre.
Told in modern vernacular, the play takes up Nora’s life 15 years after the events of “A Doll’s House,” which earned its distinction for questioning traditional gender roles in a 19th century marriage. Laurie Metcalf, as Nora, has parlayed her experience as an unfulfilled wife into financial success. Back home, Torvald (Chris Cooper) still runs the bank.
While time has marched on, Hnath (“The Christians”) suggests quickly that things haven’t evolved as much as they seem, and he uses Ibsen’s own plot mechanisms to tell the story.
Now, as then, there’s a money-related problem that could be solved by forgery; the possibility that the household’s reputation will be ruined if certain deceptions are found out; and a climactic tearing up of a document of great significance. Everything new is old again, except for this: Nora has come back needing something specific, and she faces a hostile reception.
Hnath’s dialogue is full of sudden eruptions of profanity, with the biggest potty-mouth belonging to Jayne Houdyshell as Anne Marie, the nanny who was left to raise Nora’s kids. The final, fourth character is one of those children, Emmy (Condola Rashad).
Metcalfe has the flat, impassioned tone of someone who has grown accustomed to not pleasing anyone but herself. She’s marvelous as a woman naturally good at wheedling and manipulating, but forced to interact with three others who know her tricks.
Houdyshell (“The Humans”) is the voice of workaday reality, coming across with a self-awareness and dignity that wickedly offsets Nora’s elitist problems.
Academy Award-winner Cooper is very good as the abstracted man who just wanted to be the provider for his household. It’s a tricky role, because we may be primed to hate the suffocating, anti-feminist husband. But Cooper exudes a rueful, self-aware depth that keeps us sympathizing with him.
And then there’s Emmy, who meets her mother for the first time and promises she carries no “animosity” toward her. As if! Rashad makes the most of a crucial passage in which she explains how giving Nora what she wants will destroy the lives of everyone in the family. Nora's daughter is resentful, resigned and anxious.
Director Sam Gold’s staging is minimal and trendy, much like his revival this season of “The Glass Menagerie.” As the house opens, “Gold Lion” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s is playing, followed by a series of modern rock songs sung by women.
A sign of daffodil-yellow lights screaming out the title of the play looms over the stage, calling to mind some modern Scandinavian McDonald’s. It clashes dramatically with the pinafores and sterile, one-room set, which are meant to situate the action in 19th-century Norway.
This isn’t the first time someone has tried to imagine Nora’s world after leaving home. In 1982, Harold Prince directed “A Doll’s Life,” a musical; it was a flop.
We can only imagine what fun Hnath had cooking up a story about how Nora reaped what he, at least, thinks she sowed. It felt to me an awful lot like a testimony in favor of commitment, but it’s possible he’s just stating that no matter which route you choose, singledom or marriage, you’re going to get bruised.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” through July 23 at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: $39-$147. Call 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn