NEW YORK — Now, about that door, the towering black one that dominates the set of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Lucas Hnath’s sizzling postfeminist sequel to the 1879 Ibsen drama that revealed to the world that bourgeois married women needed to be freed from the pedestals they were lashed to by their controlling husbands.
When Laurie Metcalf appears at that momentous threshold, in the stomach-clenching new Broadway play that opened Thursday night at the Golden Theatre, you’re instantly taken back to the climactic moment of the earlier work, when Nora Helmer, walking out that same door, figuratively casts off the collar that has tethered her to a marriage and the subordination she can no longer abide.
Well, Nora’s back after all, looking wealthy and confident and, in Metcalf’s captivating turn, still bristling with righteous anger over the plight of the women of her time. (Her nimbly conceived backstory won’t be disclosed here.) What she hasn’t counted on, though, are the profound and surprising effects her 15-year absence have had on those she abandoned: her husband, Torvald (Chris Cooper); her daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad) and the nanny, Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), who was left to raise Emmy and her brothers.
For Hnath — in the breakthrough play that the theater world has been waiting for from him, after the thoughtful but rather static “Red Speedo” and “The Christians” — the door is placed authentically at the precipice of a wholly satisfying part two. This fast-moving play could so easily have lapsed into superficial theater games. This never occurs. The playwright works out with uncanny antennae an aftermath for each of the characters that one comes to see as solidly plausible. This is due in part to a playwright’s provocative, funny and, ultimately, generous consideration of the implications of Nora’s actions and to a director, Sam Gold, who has helped each of the actors home in with psychological marksmanship on the core motivations of their characters.
At times, the indignation directed at Nora does seem to weight “A Doll’s House, Part 2″ against her. In a series of sequences — introduced by Peter Nigrini’s projections, emblazoning a character’s name on Miriam Buether’s spare set of Torvald Helmer’s foyer — Nora is repeatedly forced into a defensive crouch. (A posture adorned beautifully, by the way, in a dress by costume designer David Zinn.) A decade and a half have passed without a single word to the family from Nora: “Better for silence,” she declares. “A wound has to be allowed to heal.” No one else sees it that way, and the cruelty of her desertion invites harsh condemnations by the others, especially by Torvald and Anne Marie. Cooper and Houdyshell are exceptional in the confrontation scenes with Nora, Cooper persuasively embodying a Torvald who has been rocked but also humbled by Nora’s abandonment. Houdyshell is just as good, forcefully dismissing Nora’s rationalizations with a bitter account of the surrogate maternal role Nora’s disappearance forced her into.
The evening’s most remarkable scene, though, reunites Nora with Rashad’s grown-up, self-assured Emmy — who has no memory of her mother and, to Nora’s shock, holds a philosophy about marriage that’s anathema to her mother. You hear in their fascinating, plain-spoken exchange, beautifully conveyed by both actresses, permutations of a contemporary conversation, about the ramifications of feminism and what the sacrifices of an older generation have meant, and not meant, to a younger one. The incidental anachronisms, in props and language, bolster the connection to circumstances today.
Hnath ultimately allows us to believe that even an iconoclast as single-minded as Nora is capable of learning from what she has lost. In Metcalf, one of the great stage actresses of our time, he and Gold have found an ideal vessel for conveying Nora’s capacity for growth and fearlessness. “A Doll’s House, Part 2″ demonstrates just how imposing is that big doorway Nora walked through once upon a time, and the guts it takes to keep walking through it, again and again.
A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Sam Gold. Set, Miriam Buether; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Leon Rothenberg; projections, Peter Nigrini; production stage manager, J. Jason Daunter. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $39-$147. At Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St, New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.