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Lucas Hnath stirs debate on Broadway

The man who wants to change your mind

Aspiring playwrights are two a penny in New York. Emily Bobrow discovers why smart producers are betting on Lucas Hnath

Aspiring playwrights are two a penny in New York. Emily Bobrow discovers why smart producers are betting on Lucas Hnath

Emily Bobrow | April/May 2017

New plays rarely make it to Broadway. Those that do typically boast a renowned script, a marquee star or a sellout run off-Broadway. “A Doll’s House Part Two”, which opens at the John Golden Theatre on April 27th, has none of these. It has never been staged and is a sequel to a classic that most ticket-buyers will never have seen or only vaguely remember. But Scott Rudin, one of the most powerful producers on Broadway, is not easily daunted. As one of the few people to have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, he knows what flies. In 2016 he was the only producer to mount two profitable shows, including “The Humans”, a new play from a young playwright that scooped up several Tonys. Now, he is ready to gamble on another relatively unknown playwright: the thrillingly talented 37-year-old Lucas Hnath.

Messing with Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece is an audacious way to make a Broadway debut, but Hnath enjoys toying with taboos. “That gets me going, the feeling that I’m not supposed to do something,” he says when we meet in Manhattan. His irreverence has earned him a loyal following off-Broadway. Many of his early plays transformed historical figures into contemporary antiheroes. His Walt Disney (“A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney”, 2013) is a profane and pathological narcissist fixated on immortality, while his Isaac Newton (“Isaac’s Eye”, 2014) is an overambitious commitment-phobe who sounds awfully like a programmer in Silicon Valley.

Hnath’s more recent works are more sophisticated and morally ambiguous. “The Christians” (2015) uses a series of sermons at a megachurch to dramatise a doctrinal dispute over the existence of hell. The play poses earnest questions about salvation and damnation, justice and righteousness, making it one of the few to seriously address matters of faith. In “Red Speedo” (2016), about a swimmer’s Olympic trial, every character rationalises dishonourable choices, from taking performance-enhancing drugs to betraying a brother. “Racine said that all his characters are equal parts lawyer and animal. I’ve always kind of thought this about my own plays,” Hnath says with a smile. “They all kind of behave like dogs.”

Broadway heresy 

“The Christians” (2015) wrestled with the big questions

This is not to say that Hnath’s work feels cynical. Although his plays have no clear heroes, his characters often seem like real people faced with hard choices, and Hnath never quite lets on where his sympathies lie – not even in interviews. Instead, he confounds audiences with competing arguments. “As long as your brain is searching for the answer, you’re awake. Once you have the answer, you go to sleep,” he says. His spare dialogue evokes the rat-tat-tat rhythms of David Mamet or Caryl Churchill, but includes pauses long enough to suggest shifts in climate. It is the job of audiences to fill in the gaps.

“He makes language alive in a way that only a dramatist can, but he doesn’t sacrifice the poetry, the musicality, the rhythm of language,” says James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, which staged a stellar production of “Red Speedo” in 2016. “Playwrights like that are very rare.”

So it makes sense that Hnath feels drawn to Ibsen, who is known for his flawed characters and unresolved arguments. “A Doll’s House” shocked early audiences; the play ends with the heroine, Nora, leaving her husband and young children. The crash of the door slamming behind her, wrote fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, “is more momentous than the cannon of Waterloo”.

What fascinated Hnath was that the ending is almost as shocking today, nearly 140 years on. When he discussed the possibility of a sequel in workshops, he found that many people assumed Nora would struggle on her own and then return to her husband with her tail between her legs. After all, Ibsen was writing at a time when women’s rights were still restricted. Yet Hnath has defied expectations and made his Nora triumphant. When she returns 15 years later, with a knock on the same door, she is the wildly successful author of a series of popular books (written under a pen name) that encourage women to live their own lives. “Nora is bold in this play,” says Hnath. “She is fun to watch.”

Broadway plays need to be loud enough to reach the balconies, which makes subtlety hard to achieve. “The smaller the audience, the easier it is for me to deliver the kind of performance that interests me,” admits Sam Gold, the Tony-winning director who is bringing “A Doll’s House Part Two” to the stage. Yet Hnath has noticed some perks. Because going to a Broadway show feels like more of an event, “there’s a different kind of listening,” he says. “The audience is hotter.” Debates work particularly well in these spaces, and he tweaks the rhythms of his dialogue accordingly.

The show plays out as a series of rapid-fire confrontations, like a virtuoso boxing contest between well-matched rivals. Is Nora enlightened or selfish? Is her husband a tyrant or a victim? Hnath leaves audiences with far more questions than answers. “I want their opinions to constantly be changing.” Given that most people come to Broadway to have their beliefs confirmed rather than challenged, it is rare (and exciting) for a playwright to leave so much room for interpretation.

Raised near Disneyworld, with no neighbours but a gun range across the street, Hnath says his “surreal” childhood prepared him for the stage. “Disneyworld was my first theatrical experience. It sort of informs everything that I write. I like it when plays feel like a ride.” Hnath attended an evangelical megachurch with his mother, an ordained minister, and once considered becoming a pastor himself. He enjoyed writing and performing sermons, and earned a modest following. But part of the appeal was also the theatricality of church. “There’s that feeling that you put on a show. I don’t mean in a disparaging way.” He moved to New York, planning to enter medical school, but exposure to the work of Churchill, Richard Foreman and the downtown Wooster Group inspired him to study writing at New York University, where he now teaches.

There are many reasons to hope Rudin’s gamble on Hnath pays off. At a time when Americans are arguing past each other, certain of the strength of their own positions and the foolishness of their rivals, a playwright who coaxes empathy for competing views feels especially valuable. There is nothing as dramatic as having one’s presumptions bent out of shape.

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