Regional Reviews: San Diego
The modernist perspective is provided by Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2, which is also currently in previews at the Golden Theatre in New York (South Coast Repertory commissioned this work and had the rights to the world premiere title). A "sequel" of sorts, it functions in many ways as a response to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House.
Mr. Hnath's play is divided into parts during its 90-minute run time, focusing on three characters from A Doll's House and one character who is referred to but who does not appear in the earlier play. It is fifteen years since the first play's dramatic door slam, as Nora Helmer walked away from her husband Torvald and their children.
Part 1 begins with Nora (Shannon Cochran) re-entering the house she left. The house (a spare design by Takeshi Kata and Se Hyun Oh) is a mere shadow of what it once was: all of Nora's furniture is gone, and only a few aging side chairs remain. The door, however, is larger than life and dominates the center of the frame.
Nora, resplendent in a long red dress covered by a cream-colored cape (the effective costumes were designed by Sara Ryung Clement) explains to Annie Marie (Lynn Milgrim), the woman who took over the household as nanny, why she has returned. She has become a successful writer (having taken a pen name), but she is limited by law in how she may conduct her business without her husband's consent. She assumed that Torvald (Bill Geisslinger) had divorced her (it was much easier for men to divorce women than vice versa), but she found that he had not done so. She's come to ask him to complete this task so she can move on.
In the other parts, Nora converses with each major character (Torvald, her daughter Annie Marie, Emmy, played by Virginia Vale, and Torvald a second time). During these conversations, Nora and the others achieve catharsis, and particularly in Ms. Cochran and Mr. Geisslinger hands that catharsis is itself worth the price of admission.
What makes Mr. Hnath's work so stunning is not so much its content but the emotional interplay of Nora's relationships with the other characters. This interplay is expressed in contemporary language (and it is a fitting device, given that Ibsen was famous for making his plays both eloquent and contemporary-sounding). It is so finely tuned (credit the actors, along with director Shelley Butler) that I compared the power of the ultimate catharsis to that of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The play opens in the home of Deborah (Amy Aquino) and Ron (Matthew Arkin). A young man named Ethan Siegel (Ben Feldman) has come to ask their permission to propose to their daughter Alice (Mamie Gummer). The problem is that Alice and Ethan have been broken up for two years, and Alice is living with Nelson (Dominique Worsley).
Ethan is charming, and Deborah and Ron have always liked him, so they discourage him, point out that he's not likely to succeed, but don't stand in his way. Alice also discourages him, mostly. Nelson is confused about what's going on. He wants to be a good guy, but he also doesn't want a rival. He's been putting off proposing marriage, but Ethan's arrival reminds him that he has already bought the ring he was going to use when he got around to it.
The relationship work that goes on occurs a fair amount on social media and in bars. It proceeds along the well-established lines of romantic comedy, except that there's a twist at the end (which I shall not spoil), involving a character played by Devon Sorvari, that turns the play on its ear. If you were unsure about the play's postmodernist credentials, the final scene will seal it for you.
Mr. Mitnick has written for HBO's "Vinyl" and it shows. The humor is intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny, and the characters are, mostly, light on their feet (Ms. Aquino and Mr. Arkin especially so). Mr. Worsley lumbers a bit, but it's the play's fault more than his. Ms. Gummer is conflicted enough to be charming, and Mr. Feldman takes a character that could easily be too over-the-top and rarely goes there. Casey Stangl's direction is well paced, and Michael B. Raiford's turntable-based scenic design keeps the timing of the frequent scene changes to a minimum.
The Siegel treats intimacy casually but marriage seriously, which is the polar opposite of Nora's position. The Siegel may have contemporary culture on its side, but A Doll's House, Part 2 is by far the greater play.
The Siegel performs through April 23, 2017. A Doll's House, Part 2 performs through April 30, 2017. Both productions play evenings Tuesday Sunday and matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at 714-708-5555, or by visiting the Box Office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
Additional credits for A Doll's House, Part 2 include Tom Ontiveros (lighting design) and Cricket S. Myers (sound design). Additional credit for The Siegel include David Kay Mickelsen (costume design), Elizabeth Harper (lighting design), and Ms. Meyers a second time (sound design).