“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which is receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, had its Broadway opening on Thursday at the Golden Theatre in a separate production confirming that Lucas Hnath has written one of the year’s best plays.
Sam Gold’s production resembles in its tasteful austerity Shelley Butler’s slightly more posh West Coast staging. There’s the same looming door that Nora slammed at the end of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” leaving behind her husband and three small children. There’s the same vacated sitting room, equipped with just a few elegant chairs that can be shuffled around in the unlikely event anyone pays a social call to what looks like a domestic crime scene of a very cold case.
The surface of the New York production may be strikingly similar, but the tone is drastically different. What in Costa Mesa plays like a thought-provoking drama has become most emphatically on Broadway a comedy of ideas.
The change is by turns energizing and slightly irritating, clarifying and a touch diminishing. What was somewhat awkward about the play in California — the contrived setup, the smattering of anachronistic cursing, the fuzziness of Nora’s emotional truth — now seems less problematic in the more explicitly comic context. But some dramatic strength is sacrificed in the quest to wring as many laughs from Broadway theatergoers as possible.
Gold’s direction isn’t always precisely calibrated, but Laurie Metcalf redeems the production with her sorcery. She deserves a Tony Award not just for her nimble performance as Nora in this millennial sequel to Ibsen’s classic but for her longstanding service to the American theater.
A versatile stage veteran best known for her Emmy-winning performance as Jackie on “Roseanne,” Metcalf has the ability to fully inhabit a comic universe without effacing more difficult human truth. No actress makes exasperation funnier. Her fuse is as hilariously short as Nathan Lane’s. She has the quickest slow burn in the business. But she can also devastate you with the way her face collapses in disappointment like a smashed birthday cake. Her pratfalls reveal her wounds.
Gold lets his star do what she does best — infuse every line with rasping intensity. The first scene between Metcalf’s Nora and Jayne Houdyshell’s Anne Marie (oddly costumed like a servant sight gag) could use some reining in. The conversation between literature’s most famous spousal deserter and the nanny who was a mother both to her and to the children she abandoned 15 years ago, takes on the rhythm of sitcom repartee.
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” isn’t typical Broadway fare, and perhaps Gold wants to ensure that theatergoers are contentedly strapped in for the unconventional ride. The movement back to seriousness, however, requires some finessing after the audience has been turned into a live laugh track.