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In A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 at the Kavinoky the acting is stellar as “do-it-yourself” family therapy is played out before our eyes.

THE BASICS:  A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2, a play by Lucas Hnath directed by Robert Waterhouse, starring Kristen Tripp Kelley, David Oliver, Anne Gayley, and Leah Berst opened November 2 and runs through November 25, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3:30 & 7:30, Sunday at 2 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue on the D’Youville College Campus (829-7668). Upgraded facilities and the Kavinoky Lounge is “now serving a full cocktail menu including spirits, wine & beer.” Runtime: Under two hours including one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The Kavinoky Theatre publicity stated: “The story follows Nora who, in the final scene of Ibsen’s classic A DOLL’S HOUSE, makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and children. A door slams. The curtain falls on a stunned audience. Playwright Lucas Hnath continues Nora’s story in this intriguing play with a decidedly modern perspective. Fifteen years have passed when there’s a knock on that same door. Why is Nora back—and what will her return mean to those she left behind?

In this surprisingly funny play, Lucas Hnath’s take is not about the construct of marriage in the way of Ibsen’s classic play. It looks instead at the fallout and the choices of all four characters. He takes the burden off Nora and extends the conversation about the rules of society and constructs of gender.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First off, to allay confusion, if you’re looking for a “Part I,” that would be Henrik Ibsen’s play A DOLL’S HOUSE which shocked audiences back in 1879. The Kavinoky program cleverly addresses this question with a 600-word “Summary of a Doll’s House (Part One)” which one should really read (the summary, not the whole play necessarily) before the PART 2 starts. But, to summarize, at the end of the Ibsen play, Nora, in a moment of existential and feminist crisis, walks out on her husband, Torvald, and her three children, including the baby of the family, Emmy, slamming the door behind her. Back in 1879 hide-bound Norway, audiences were “shocked” (the word that every writer on this topic has used).

And now, in A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2, that door is back, and it’s big, and it’s centered on a rather stark, spare monochromatic gray set with a few pieces of gray furniture (which, I gather, is not unlike last season’s Broadway production starring Laurie Metcalf as Nora). It’s so important, that door, almost a fifth character, that we’ll give it the name “David” after set designer David King.

Photo by Diane Almeter Jones

Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE is replete with lies, and schemes, and blackmail and Lucas Hnath’s sequel continues the tradition, except that the 1879 play was overwhelmingly patriarchal, leaving Nora few options except to submit or leave. Now, society hasn’t changed all that much in the past 15 years, but on stage there is only one man (and he seems to have softened a bit in the past 15 years) while the three women who appear are each much stronger than they were back then. So, the modern play is much more like a string quartet, a musical form described by the German playwright Goethe as “a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.”

These conversations, though, happen in duets. First, Nora (Kristen Tripp -Kelley) and family retainer/nanny Anne Marie (Anne Gayley) must square things up, as Anne Marie is filled with resentment at having had to pick up the pieces and raise Nora’s kids all these years. Nora points out that just as she had a choice, Anne Marie had a choice. This existential truth that Nora and Anne Marie are not so different is not well received. And, even though the costumes are from the 1890s, the language used to express those feelings are decidedly modern. I had no idea Anne Gayley knew those words!

Yes, this play, for all its angst-ridden, dark Norwegian soul, has many comic moments and the opening night audience was very appreciative.

Following that opening scene, Nora and Torvald (David Oliver) begin a conversation, strained at best. And then Nora and her youngest daughter Emmy (Leah Berst), a stranger to her, must come to an understanding as well. One thing Nora understands is that her daughter thinks just as she did years ago. Nora sees a train wreck in Emmy’s future, but is powerless to prevent it. And then Torvald returns for the conclusion of the play for which the French have an expression: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same).

Yes, this play, for all its angst-ridden, dark Norwegian soul, has many comic moments and the opening night audience was very appreciative.

One thing that remains the same is the exceptionally high quality of Kavinoky productions which began here with Director Robert Waterhouse’s casting. Kristen Tripp Kelley is simply superb as Nora and I would love to see a time-lapse film of her myriad facial expressions, which, portraying a well-dressed, corseted, upper class lady in the 1890s is all she’s allowed to work with to express emotion. And she’s workin’ it. Kelley has been knocking them dead in recent productions at Irish Classical and Road Less Traveled, and it’s so nice to see her back at the Kavinoky.

David Oliver is usually the director of whatever he’s involved with, and so it’s a rare treat to see him on stage. He looks the part, but he’s not the Ibsen Torvald, he’s the Hnath Torvald, which is not an easy role to navigate.

Is there anything Anne Gayley can’t do? This four-time Artie Award winner (and Career Achievement Award winner) was last seen as the dotty inn keeper in the Kavinoky’s THE FOREIGNER last season and is memorable as the emotionally fragile widow in SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS at O’Connell and Company. Her performance here as Anne Marie is measured and steady and completely in line with what I think playwright Hnath was going for.

Leah Berst has burst on the local theater scene in the last couple of years in starring roles, from playing Liza Doolittle as a senior at UB, to Wendla in SPRING AWAKENING, Stellaluna in STELLALUNA at Theatre of Youth, and Johanna in SWEENEY TODD and as a variety of supporting characters. I can report that her acting chops in a straight play are the equal of her singing skills in musicals.

Loraine O’Donnell did double duty as both the Executive Director of the Kavinoky (and kudos on the remodeling) as well as costume designer and these costumes really were designed with the actors in mind, right down to the red buckle shoes worn by Nora. Nice touch.

Summary? Despite all the hype following last year’s Broadway production, and despite the high level of the actors on stage at the Kavinoky, this one didn’t really work for me. I found Hnath’s THE CHRISTIANS last season at Road Less Traveled to be far more engaging. However, this is an important play by an important contemporary playwright, so you ought to consider it.

END OF REVIEW, START OF PERSONAL RANT: Going to the theater is a social event, not a reading assignment, I get that, but I’m dismayed at how the hard work of some ink-stained wretch/publicist in the program is often ignored before curtain when there is good content to be had that could greatly inform an understanding of the play. Without a doubt, the greatest programs are produced by both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, with multiple authors, great photographs, and deep background with the entire house programs available online weeks prior to the shows. Locally Shakespeare in Delaware Park does a really fine job, even including trivia quizzes and a puzzle and Road Less Traveled Productions always includes a folded 11”x17” insert with all sorts of intersecting, interesting background. And, here at the Kavinoky, there’s that summary of “the first Doll’s House.” Now, full disclosure, I’m married to an “infomaniac,” so pre-show reading is not only de rigueur, but I’m often treated to synopses and tips of the “did you read this?” variety. Your results may vary. But, seriously, before the show, unwrap your candy and lozenges, do whatever you have to do to your cell phones before the house goes to black, and budget time to RTFP (read the program). END OF PERSONAL RANT.

UP NEXT: SPAMALOT (January 11th-February 3rd, 2019) by Eric Idle and John Du Prez who have adapted the cult film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” into a musical. Then Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD adapted for the stage (March 8th-31st).  Then EQUIVOCATION (April 26th-May 19th) by Bill Cain in which William Shakespeare is commissioned to write the true history of the Gunpowder Plot — a failed attempt to kill King James I – while beginning to suspect the government’s version might be a product of “alternative facts.”

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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