NEW YORK — Now, about that box of tissues. It sits on a table through all 85 minutes of Broadway’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” An ordinary cardboard container of Kleenex, the kind you find on any nightstand or bathroom vanity in America in 2017.
Except “A Doll’s House, Part 2” takes place around the turn of the 20th century in Norway — decades before one would find the product on a store shelf. The four actors in the acclaimed play, handsomely attired in the Victorian fashion of a bygone era, come and go. But the tissue box is always there, an object audaciously out of time, in a play about the price of challenging established customs, in our age as much as the one in which the play’s characters live.
Who knew a disposable item could be so indelible?
“I love that people remark about the tissue box,” says Sam Gold, director of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a drama that has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best play — more nominations than any nonmusical this season. “It’s such a small detail, but it really nails what I felt reading the play. Which was that it was like being in couple’s therapy. So you need it to be a very smart-looking room, where there isn’t a lot of stuff to distract. But you need a tissue box, in case things go south.”
The play, which marks the Broadway debut for its author, Lucas Hnath — whose earlier works, “Red Speedo” and “The Christians,” have been seen, respectively, at Washington’s Studio Theatre and Theater J — bottles the intensity of a meeting place for hostile adversaries. “The design of the set that Sam [and scenic designer Miriam Buether] came up with is like a boxing ring,” Jayne Houdyshell, who plays the housekeeper Anne Marie, says of the sparsely furnished set, a room pitched at an odd angle with one sharp corner jutting out into the audience.
“It was brilliant to conceptualize the play that way,” she adds, “because even though it’s a very formal play in some ways, the audience is responding like it’s a spectator sport.”
Throughout the assorted confrontations of Hnath’s drama, a post-feminist sequel to the pioneering 1879 play by Henrik Ibsen, about a bourgeois woman suffocating in marriage, you hear audiences murmuring, gasping, guffawing. In this follow-up story, Hnath imagines what it would be like if Nora Helmer — who walked out on her husband, Torvald, and three young children — returned to the house she left 15 years earlier. In addition to learning the surprising things Nora, played by Laurie Metcalf, has been up to for a decade and a half, playgoers hear about the array of effects Nora’s disappearance has had on Anne Marie, who’s raised her children; on Torvald (Chris Cooper), forced to deal with an abandonment he couldn’t begin to comprehend; and Emmy (Condola Rashad), a daughter too young when Nora left to remember her.
Metcalf, who, like every one of her co-stars, has been nominated for a Tony, is amazed by the vehemence with which some audience members react. Among the things we find out is that Nora hasn’t returned to clear the air but to further disencumber herself from her family. “I think that every blow I take in the moment is justified,” she says. “But I mean, does it hurt my feelings when the audience cheers on the line, ‘F--- you, Nora!’? Um, oh yeah! And boy, do they cheer!”
It would be wrong to imagine the remarkably evenhanded “A Doll’s House, Part 2” was conceived as a dramatic cudgel with which to punish Nora for her stunning act of defiance in “A Doll’s House,” just as it would be incorrect to assume that you need to know much at all about the original to thoroughly enjoy “Part 2.” One of the pleasures of Hnath’s writing is that he built a sequel that stands entirely on its own. That attribute might not be getting through to prospective theatergoers, who might hesitate over a title suggesting a familiarity with Ibsen’s play is a prerequisite. And consequently, why in the early going, the box office has been sluggish.
Sales for the production, in a limited run through July 23, have been inching up week by week. But it still faces stiff competition, both from plays off-Broadway and dramas such as Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” J.T. Rogers’s “Oslo” and Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” which are vying with Hnath’s work for the coveted best-play Tony that will be awarded at Radio City Music Hall on June 11.
What’s made “Part 2” an especially intriguing gambit was the unorthodox decision by producer Scott Rudin to bring it to Broadway without it having been mounted before. The play was commissioned by South Coast Repertory, a nonprofit theater in Orange County, Calif., which produced its own run of the play in April. But Hnath and others say it was in the workshops several months ago for the Broadway production, with the current cast, that the play took shape.
“The impulse was simple,” says Rudin, who read the play and fell in love with it. “If there is such a thing as a Broadway play, it’s this one.” He took his cue from the practices of titans of yore, such as the late producer Robert Whitehead — for whom Rudin once worked — whose belief in a play was enough to get a Broadway ball rolling. That was what Rudin wanted to have happen with “A Doll’s House, Part 2”: “I just wanted to see the play on Broadway.”
For the playwright, whose surname is pronounced “NAYTH,” Broadway was nowhere in his sights. A sequel to “A Doll’s House” was one of dozens of ideas for plays he kept on his computer, and when South Coast Rep gave him a commission, he says, the idea of a riff on a classic brought that particular idea to the top of his list.
“It seemed like an opportunity to think about marriage and divorce,” says the 37-year-old native of Longwood, Fla. “That was something I was always interested in: How do you deal with a breakup, and can things be repaired?”
The workshops were concerned with honing the finely calibrated arguments in which Nora engages with each member of the household. In Hnath’s way of working, the actors say, it was a highly eccentric process. Each day, they say, the playwright would arrive with a few ideas he would call “scraps.”
“So he would bring in maybe five scraps that day, and they would be titled, you know, ‘Why I don’t want this’ that maybe would end up getting folded into a scene,” Metcalf says. “It was so open to feedback — which is a dangerous thing for a writer, I would think. That could spin out of control so easily. But Sam kept us all moving forward. It was always for the good of the play, not for any individual saying, ‘I miss my line here.’ ”
Cooper, an Oscar winner for his role in “Adaptation,” couldn’t believe that his opinion was being sought on his character. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done stage work,” he says, “and I didn’t know: Is this the way things are done? I was stunned that he would so include the actors’ take.”
For Rashad, too, the experience was daunting and exhilarating. The challenge was infusing what sounded to her like a “heady” play with heart. In the end, though, ensuring that, in that boxing ring, the play remained a fair fight for all four was essential. “It was all about balance for us,” she says. “And what excited me was that I felt that no matter who or at what stage of life or from what background you were, this play would hit some kind of nerve.”
The degree to which “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is a team effort is apparent every night in the Golden. Just as that point was also driven home on opening night, when, Metcalf reports, Hnath gave each of the actors an apt and memorable gift: He gave them their own scraps. He took lines that each actor pitched for their characters that didn’t make it into the play, and framed them.