As we enter a presidential campaign in which gender dynamics are likely to play a prominent role, and as the wider culture continues to grapple with double standards and the differing expectations for women and men, “A Doll’s House, Part 2’’ could not be more timely.
What it could be, however, is a better play.
Lucas Hnath’s sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic imagines what might transpire if Nora Helmer walked back through the door she so famously slammed at the end of “A Doll’s House,’’ leaving behind her husband, Torvald, and a life she had begun to find suffocating.
That’s a promising setup, so you may feel a tingle of anticipation when the Huntington Theatre Company production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,’’ directed by Les Waters, begins with a series of increasingly emphatic knocks on a well-lit door, while the rest of the stage is shrouded in shadow.
But ultimately, Hnath’s play proves to be a disappointment, more glib than insightful. A sense of emotional engagement remains elusive as Nora (Mary Beth Fisher) engages in a series of largely predictable showdowns with those she left behind 15 years earlier: Torvald (John Judd); scathingly judgmental daughter Emmy (Nikki Massoud), now grown to adulthood; and nursemaid Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), who raised Emmy and the other two Helmer children in Nora’s absence.
As created by Ibsen, Nora is one of the most intriguing protagonists in all of dramatic literature, enlisting our empathy as her eyes open, bit by bit, to the hollowness of her marriage and the narrowness of her existence, and she decides to do something radical about it. “A Doll’s House, Part 2,’’ however, has the effect of flattening Nora, diminishing the meaning of her quest for independence and her momentous journey of self-discovery.
On the plus side, it should be noted that Hnath does not stint when it comes to plot mechanics. He has conceived a set of conundrums in “A Doll’s House, Part 2’’ that help to illustrate how the man-favoring machinery of the law might prevent Nora, once again, from achieving the full freedom she seeks.
When she returns to the home she had shared with Torvald and their three children, Nora does not have reconciliation in mind. After forging a successful career as an author of books that argue fervently against marriage, Nora was stunned to learn that Torvald never filed for divorce. That means they are still married, and she unwittingly has been violating legal prohibitions against married women signing contracts and conducting business. That leaves Nora wide open to charges of fraud; meanwhile, a hostile judge is threatening to expose her unless she retracts all of her writings.
So Nora has come home to insist that Torvald finally grant her the divorce. There’s a further complication, though: Because of steps Torvald took — or failed to take — in the aftermath of Nora’s departure 15 years earlier, granting a divorce would expose him to possible ruin. What will he do?
For Nora, a lot is riding on the answer. If only Hnath gave us as many reasons as Ibsen did to care.
The cast is attired in period costumes (by Annie Smart) but speak in deliberately anachronistic vernacular. Fine, but couldn’t they have more interesting things to say? There are times when “A Doll’s House, Part 2’’ does strike some sparks, but principally the play relies upon each of the four characters taking turns delivering what amount to talking points, laced with too many refrains like “Don’t make my wants about your wants,’’ “You make everything about you,’’ and “Love needs to be free.’’
Nora gets an earful from the other three about the impact of her actions; at different times, both Torvald and Anne Marie say “[Expletive] you’’ to her, which seems more than a bit on the nose. Nora gives as good as she gets, defending her choices and her anti-marriage views, but too often her words have the generic ring of tropes from a self-actualization manual.
I thought the play’s superficiality also marred the 2017 Broadway production, despite the presence of Laurie Metcalf as Nora and Chris Cooper as Torvald. In the Huntington production, Fisher ably captures Nora’s sardonic confidence, her self-absorption, and her growing frustration as she becomes aware that she might once again confront a stacked societal deck. Judd renders a portrait of Torvald that is sympathetic without being cloying, and longtime Boston favorite Carroll endows Anne Marie with the right combination of comic bite and staunch conviction. I especially enjoyed the web-weaving slyness Massoud brought to her exchanges with Fisher’s Nora.
But none of it is enough to overcome the central problem with “A Doll’s House, Part 2,’’ which is simply that it is much more interesting to think about than to watch.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2
Play by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Les Waters. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Feb. 3. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin