A good theatrical argument

Playwright Lucas Hnath likes an argument and, even better, he likes the argument to begin before you’ve even taken your seat in the theater.

LA’s theater audience may know Mr. Hnath’s work from “The Christians” that transformed the Mark Taper Forum into a terribly believable mega-church or they may have been lucky enough to just catch his latest play “A Doll’s House Part Two” that just closed at South Coast Repertory (and in a bit of unfortunate timing, at least for South Coast, opened to strong reviews on Broadway).

In “The Christians” the argument is about the church. Or more precisely, the existence of hell. As the play opens, Pastor Paul has had something of a revelation on this day that the church’s debts are finally paid off. What if you didn’t have to come to church and you didn’t have to tithe in order to be saved? What if the hell of the bible were really just an ancient garbage dump rather than a Dante-ian inferno? What if everyone went to heaven? Everyone. The play is about the division in the congregation as this revelation plays out between opposing factions.

In some ways, Mr. Hnath’s latest,”A Doll’s House Part Two,” is a very similar play about a very different hell, at least according to its protagonist Nora, marriage.

If in “The Christians” the play questioned the institution of the church and redemption, in “A Doll’s House Part Two” the institution under scrutiny is marriage. The setup is clever.  Using Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” as a prologue of sorts, Mr. Hnath imagines what it would be like for Nora to return through that same door she stormed out of 15 years before.  Remember Ibsen’s proto-feminist heroine Nora who leaves her husband and three children because she finds her whole marriage to be a sham?

Again, Mr. Hnath imagines the consequences. What became of the left husband Torvald?  What of the abandoned daughter Emmy? Amidst arguments against marriage and for a real union, the playwright lets the audience imagine how it all played out.

To me, it’s not the similarities of the two plays that’s most striking, it’s what I heard in the lobby after each of them – some version of an audience saying “I wonder which side the playwright comes down on?”

In our polarized, partisan world it’s rare to leave a play wondering about what the playwright thinks. Too often, everyone but the protagonist is simply expendable cannon fodder for the argument of the playwright: ‘this is wrong’ or ‘isn’t this tragic’ or the worst ‘I told you so.’  

While work like this is necessary, and at times revolutionary, I can’t help but wonder if it hasn’t become too much of our theatrical diet, a hollow version of preaching to the choir. (An image and metaphor, not lost on Mr. Hnath who includes a choir on stage in “The Christians”).

What if we had to wonder more about what our playwrights thought and believed, because they shared with us arguments that have no easy answer no tidy resolution that can play out in 90 minutes and have us home in time for bed. Would our theater be more useful and our audiences more engaged if theater left us with more questions than answers?

I think Mr. Hnath thinks so… and I do too.