Intermission Talk

 

Don’t Use “A Doll’s

House – Part Two”

as a “Bandstand.”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

 

Choose idols with great care and consideration.

 

In dramatic literature, such status finds itself attached almost casually these days . . . ‘a masterpiece!’ . . . ‘sure to become a classic!’ . . . ‘among this century’s most significant works.  MUST be seen!’  Myself never went in for any degree of hyperbole.  A playwright may be thought of as worthy of high praise, [Lillian Hellman], even placement among a very elite grouping of the best of the best [Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson].

To find him/herself among those dramatists who will always be relevant, who combine the most elusive twin accomplishments [universality and specificity, timely and timeless] and yet withstand adaptations – well, that’s who you should idolize.  You have your Shakespeare, you have your Chekhov and you also have your Ibsen.

There is now Lucas Hnath, a young, audacious and seemingly humble  playwright who appears to have hewed to that stated-above formula.  He undertook a writing challenge that sounds like the nightmare thesis assignment metered out to a graduate student – – take a widely-recognized theatrical classic and write a sequel, kinda like penning a moving picture franchise screenplay  meant to get backsides into dem dere seats, regardless of how successful the end product may be.

In this case . . . hold on to your hats: “A Doll’s House – Part II” is a MUST-SEE piece of stagecraft!  One of the most inspired productions to light up Broadway, and the English-speaking theatre, in the last century-plus!  What great theatre is  supposed to be!

Okay.  Let’s settle down here.  As you may recall, in the final moments of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” written in 1879 Norway, the central female character, Nora Helmer bustles in to the great expanse of living room in the well-appointed home she shares with her banker husband Torvald, and their three young children.   We come to realize that the relationship we witness between the couple is fairly typical of their life together: she flits and flirts, until she gets him to accept again that today’s spending spree is for his own good.  Should he have a chance at moving up at the bank, his wife’s appearance may play an unspoken role.   And however thrifty and careful he may be with his work at work, her point is well-taken.

Her selflessness comes with a price – far from a marriage of equals, it is one that mirrors many of their contemporaries, not between two people, but more like between one, and a half – she has sacrificed large portions of her ‘self,’ her identity, to keep this charade going.  What’s different about the Helmer household?  Unlike most other women, she is well aware of these deceptions.   And when she finally comes to terms with herself, and how this societal construct has robbed her of so much, she acts.  Rather, she reacts.  At the close of the original piece, she leaves husband, children, household – the works – to strike out on her own, destination unknown.

Part Two?  Fifteen years later, a knock at the door.  Nanny, nurse, housekeeper Ann Marie, who has stayed to raise Nora’s children, to supervise the running of the home, to keep the demands of the bank, which Torvald now heads,  from interfering with his ability to pay attention to his offspring, opens it in near disbelief.  And now Part Two begins.

What follows is a rapid-fire delivery of ideas, charges, countercharges, accusations, recriminations,  admissions, denials between the couple, laced with as many earned laughs it can possibly sustain.  Yup – laughs!

This is not to diminish the power of Nora’s rationales, which at first held her back, and then sparked a stand-and-fight reaction: Nora has become a successful, popular novelist for and about women, weaving  personal discoveries into her books, speaking female truth to male power, circa 1870s, some still visible today.

Hnath has divided the action into four sections, one for each principal, introduced by large titles projected briefly against the walls.  It’s an unobtrusive device.  He has invented an unsigned divorce decree by Torvald, that stands to prevent Nora from collecting her royalties, and building her independent career, since no Norwegian divorce can be considered final without the full participation of the husband.  Thus begins the volley, with Nora and Torvald attempting to best the other.  And just outside the room is fifteen-year-old Emmy, who has never met her mother.  When she does come into the dynamic, her life choices terrify Nora, because this daughter of this liberated mother is seeking to be part of a conventional marriage.

What Hnath’s Broadway premiere production also benefits from is the richness and depth of the collective experiences of his team.  Director Sam Gold, ably aided by designers David Zinn [costumes], Jennifer Tipton [lighting] and Miriam Buether [sets],  among others, have kept the overall stage picture spare and minimalistic, with a few anachronistic touches [a Kleenex box, a water bottle] to spark a smile or two.

Casting could hardly be better.   Chris Cooper’s Torvald holds in his restraint admirably.  Condola Rashad fairly shines as the ‘wayward’ daughter.  And the ever-cherished Jayne Houdyshell matches Nora’s defiance toe to toe, calling her out on some behavior that turned the nanny into an un-consulted accomplice.

This is Nora’s story, Nora’s plea for Torvald to help her re-gain her independence, Nora’s ‘unpacking’ of her bag of emotional tools and resources to get what she wants and needs, and finally, Nora’s revenge.  Known most widely for her role as the flighty sister Jackie on the “Roseanne” sitcom, Laurie Metcalf has been marking time, waiting for the perfect role that would permit her to put into practice all the skills and training, and all  the seemingly natural instincts she possesses as an actor.  Hnath has delivered that role to her, and they are both the better off that he has.  And lucky us!  We get to witness this truly gifted theatrical artist at the peak of her abilities.  She MUST be seen!!

Despite being saddled with one of the least effective musical theatre titles in quite a while, “Bandstand” [book & lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, music by Oberacker] socks us with lean-forward musical numbers and a welcoming story line.  Set in Cleveland and New York City from August through December, 1945, it traces the troubled yet hopeful journey endured by returning G.I. Donny, whose last moments of the war were spent cradling his best friend as he lay dying in his arms.  A promise was made to let the friend’s fiance hear about his thoughts for her.

Donny, an accomplished drummer, singer and composer, can’t locate a place for his talents until one remark by another veteran/musician leads to a chain of events that result in a true kick-ass swing band, whose make-up includes the remaining guys who used to play with Donny’s deceased friend, also a drummer.  And when Donny visits Julia, the bereft young widow, [kept unsentimental yet moving by Laura Osnes], they share warm recollections about their departed loved one.

Despite that patronizing attitude that you’re sure you can predict every plot point from opening to fade out, the creators have managed to seed their story with not-so-fast moments and pay-off switches that keep it fresh.  This team has done its homework, dropping in real period references, such as the Judy Garland – Robert Walker picture “The Clock,” and the name of one of era’s most widely-known radio musical program announcers, Andre Baruch – good work!  And two style choices lift the production out of any been-there, done-that path.  The first presents Donny’s tortured bouts with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, barely relieved by alcohol, played out amidst ‘recollections’ of other veterans, staged with gritty movement/dance.  These vivid sequences, likely one of the many creative contributions from director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler [late of directing  “Hamilton”], and his associate Mark Stuart.  Lighting designer Jeff Croiter enhances and helps to dramatize the emotional punch of these recollections.

The second?  This is the story about the make-up, break-up, make-up of a band – a real, live band.  And the creatives grabbed at the chance to take full advantage of casting actor/musicians who play their instruments themselves.  This gives the whole undertaking a grand high level of brightness, hearing the right-there muted, sassy brass and the insistent syncopation delivered spot-on by piano, bass and drums.  Deserving kudos to music supervisor Greg Anthony Rassen and his co-orchestrator Bill Elliott for seeing that this assembled band gets it right every time.

There are lotsa parts floating around here – major story lines, secondary story lines [including great moments from Beth Leavel as Julia’s mom], punch-your-heart-out numbers that fill the stage, and the solitary coming-to-terms with the secret that could torpedo everyone’s dream.  The big big task of holding all this together rests on the character Donny’s shoulders.  And Corey Cott can out-shoulder any young man on Broadway.  He first came to everyone’s attention during a two-year stint in Disney’s “Newsies,” followed by his performance in “Gigi.”  This time he has landed a role that provides outlets for every facet of his talents – musical and dramatic.  The number that intros who he is and what he was and wants to be – “Donny Novitski” – blows out the walls of the Jacobs Theatre.   His performance alone makes you thankful  you chose to attend.

AfterPlay

Never enough Ibsen.  From now until June 24th, the Wheelhouse Theatre Company is presenting the great man’s great drama on the conflict between personal integrity and short-term interests, in “An Enemy of the People,” a stirring drama.  Jeff Wise directs, at the Gene Frankel Theatre . . . Janeane Garofalo has placed herself in [a] good company, for her Broadway debut, starring along with Lilli Taylor and Celia Weston, in Scott W. McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room.”  It had an acclaimed run off-Broadway in 1991.  Anne Kaufman directs this current production, at the American Airlines Theatre. . . . and if you are one of Amanda Priestly’s ‘everybody who wants to be us,’ you’ll have another shot at getting up close and impersonal with the fashion fashionista in “The Devil Wears Prada.”  Mentioned as collaborating on the project are Paul Rudnick and Elton John.

On Book

And if you’d like to get some idea of Ibsen’s powerful impact on theatre, you need look no further than another esteemed practitioner of the pen, August Strindberg.  A biography of his life and extensive work, by Sue Prideaux, “Strindberg – A Life,”  from Yale University Press, explores how much impact Ibsen had on the then-emerging Strindberg’s work . . . what was going on, on Broadway, when the boys were coming home after WWII?  The Laurel Drama Series entry for that time period, “Famous American Plays of the 1940s,” edited by Henry Hewes, selects several, including two by newcomer Arthurs, Miller and Laurents [“All My Sons,” and “Home of the Brave”], each with its own take on the aftermath of the war.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre ‘Character Studies.’  His Best Play Award-winning work “Admission,”, at the New York International Fringe Festival, was published by Playscripts.  He’s written several other plays and musicals, and “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has covered theatre and the performing arts since 1968, his articles appearing in dozens of publications including Parade, Reader’s Digest, US  Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and The Christian Science Monitor.  He has taught theatre-related courses at several institutions including HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, and colleges & universities, such as Columbia University Teachers College.

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