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Theatre Reviews Review: A Doll’s House, Part 2 needs to take a wrecking ball to its fourth wall

Deborah Hay and Bahareh Yaraghi in A Dolls House, Part 2.

LEIF NORMAN/other

  • Title: A Doll’s House, Part 2
  • Written by: Lucas Hnath
  • Director: Krista Jackson
  • Actors: Deborah Hay, Kate Hennig, Paul Essiembre, Bahareh Yaraghi
  • Company: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: CAA Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 14, 2019

rating

You can tell A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a cheeky piece of theatre right from its title.

Who is this young American playwright Lucas Hnath who not only dares to write a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s classic play – but to cockily suggest that the original was unfinished, and that he’s just writing the next chapter?

At the start of this 2017, Tony-nominated comedy – now on as part of the Off-Mirvish season – Nora (Deborah Hay, star of the Shaw and Stratford festivals) knocks on the door that she controversially walked out of at the end of Ibsen’s original 1879 drama, leaving her bank-manager husband Torvald and their three children behind.

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It’s been 15 years since she left – and, when the maid Anne Marie (Kate Hennig) answers the door and lets Nora in, it’s clear from her appearance that she’s doing all right for herself.

Nora teases both Anne Marie and the audience by not initially saying what a single woman such as her has been doing to make money in 19th-century Norway. Something involving clothes? Prostitution?

“Come on, keep guessing – this is fun,” Nora says, swaggering around the stage in Hay’s wonderful man-spread of a performance.

Spoiler alert: Nora has been writing books about the oppressive nature of marriage that have become quite a sensation with female readers and have also made her a fair amount of money.

Whether Anne Marie wants to hear it or not, she launches into her Ted Talk about how marriage is an outdated societal construct that makes even two people who love each other start to take each other for granted.

So, why has Nora walked back through the door then? As in Ibsen’s play, her troubles involve blackmail in a society lacking in legal rights for women.

Over the course of this 90-minute play, she faces Anne Marie, Torvald (Paul Essiembre) and her grown-up daughter Emmy (Bahareh Yaraghi) – and tries to get them to help her, but also convince them that what she did 15 years earlier was right.

“We’re allies – you and I,” Nora tells Anne Marie.

“Allies? That sounds like war,” Anne Marie says in response.

Teresa Przybylski beautiful set stifles laughs with its artful black clouds hovering overhead.

LEIF NORMAN/other

As you can tell from that deliciously anachronistic exchange, A Doll’s House, Part 2 isn’t really about gender politics in the time of Ibsen – but about examining those of today, using the now entrenched idea that Nora (created by a man; and now recreated by another) is a feminist heroine as the jumping-off point.

Torvald – played with sweetness and sensitivity by Essiembre – makes a fair point when he asks Nora why she didn’t try to work it out with him before running away. “At the very moment that you realized the problem with our marriage … brought the problems to light, you walked out the door,” he says.

Here, Torvald is performing both the role of critic of 19th-century “realistic” social drama – and critic of more modern ideas of empowerment, of the ethos of personal freedom championed since the sixties, and today’s culture of call-outs rather than reconciliation between the sexes.

It’s a funny, provocative piece of writing – and, when I originally saw A Doll’s House, Part 2 in its Broadway production, I laughed a ton and was also electrified by the neo-Shavian debate.

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So, it was strange to find the audience at director Krista Jackson’s production, which has come to Toronto from the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, remain mostly silent, as if they were watching a dramatic follow-up to Ibsen’s play rather than a self-aware sequel and semi-spoof. All the early metatheatrical jokes fell flat – despite Hay handing all the rage and rhetoric of this ideological Nora perfectly.

My guess as to what’s missing: The original production was staged on a makeshift thrust stage and the actors seemed to argue to the audience as much as with each other.

While the performers in Jackson’s proscenium production do direct a lot of speeches out in the direction of the audience, their eyes are focused on the middle distance and their heads are tilted slightly upwards. From my seat in the sixth row, I spent a lot of time contemplating chins and feeling spoken over rather than to.

Then there’s also scenographer Teresa Przybylski’s set – which is beautiful to behold, a drawing room with just a few piece of furniture and a set of doors that rises up several storeys. But it’s also cold and imposing and stifles laughs with its artful black clouds hovering overhead.

It’s a shame to see an entertaining play with fine performances that connects only about a third of the time it should because of a couple of insufficiently cheeky directorial and design decisions. Maybe it’s not too late to take a wrecking ball to that fourth wall to help the audience take the play a little less seriously?

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