Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Cast: Tyne Daly, John Gallagher Jr., Mary Catherine Garrison, Cynthia Nixon, John Slattery.
David Lindsay-Abaire has spent the last six years populating Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway spaces with quirky, candy-coated plays depicting unusual women in even more unusual crises. Whether coping with recurring memory loss, a sexually depraved husband, or hyper-advanced aging, his heroines have always tilted against dangerously off-kilter worlds.
Now he's done a remarkable about-face: With the MTC production of Rabbit Hole, which just opened at the Biltmore, Lindsay-Abaire is trying to shake things up from within rather than from without by realistically tackling real problems. He hasn't, however, yet learned how to write real people to experience them.
Rabbit Hole is full of the kind of uniquely theatrical souls who populate Lindsay-Abaire's other plays, albeit ones viewed through a less-severely cracked lens. True, there's no one as zany as the lisping, limping burn victim or the stroke-stricken mother from Fuddy Meers. But there's also no one complex or specifically enough drawn to make the tragedy uniting them all - the death of a four-year-old boy named Danny - feel like more than a hoary vehicle for contemporary kitchen-sink drama.
Danny's mother, Becca (Cynthia Nixon), has lost interest in her house, her husband, and her friends, and copes by erasing all traces of Danny from her life. Her husband, Howie (John Slattery), can't persuade her to return to the world of the living and is finding perhaps too much solace in his group therapy. Becca feels that her newly pregnant sister, Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison), is throwing her own life away. And Becca's mother, Nat (Tyne Daly), can't stop comparing Danny's death eight months ago to the death of her son Arthur from a heroin overdose 11 years earlier.
With the death still fresh in their minds, no one is yet able to talk to each other instead of at each other, let alone do anything else. They wring their hands, dance around the issue, argue (Becca wants to sell the house, Howie insists she's overreacting), and house comedian Nat is always on hand to spout her beer-bar quips ("Look up 'kitschy,' see if it means 'crap'"). But it's not until Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), the teenage driver who accidentally hit Danny, establishes communication with the family that everyone is forced to at last face their grief.
It's the most difficult voyage most of them can imagine, so their unease is on some level correct. And as Lindsay-Abaire's previous plays have revolved on similar journeys - if to more specific physical destinations than emotional clarity and acceptance - his dramatic temperament would seem ideal for charting the slow but steady movement from darkness into the redemptive, if not always rejuvenating, light of day.
But neither he nor the usually reliable director Daniel Sullivan can make their motion anything but circular, as unsatisfying for them as for us. The only pulsing sense of movement is provided by John Lee Beatty's predictably spectacular set, which makes ingenious use of two revolves to create every room in the family's home and allow split-scenes and instantaneous transitions. Feelings, however, don't move with commensurate freedom.
Lines like "Things just aren't nice anymore" and "You're not in a better place than I am, you're just in a different place," do especially little to alleviate the shallowness of the proceedings, and they're what the dialogue mostly thrives on. True, more important scenes are more carefully written: Becca's tense second-act confrontation with Jason comes close to capturing their respective states of mind. But there's a strong enough disconnect between the words, the actors, and reality to make you question whether Lindsay-Abaire and Sullivan are investing any of themselves or are simply working from dictionary definitions of "loss" and "anguish."
This unavoidably spills down to the actors, most of whom portray the emotions as little more than skin-deep brittleness. This is particularly a problem for Nixon, who makes Becca so Ming-vase fragile that you can't understand how she survived an hour without Danny, let alone months. Daly's braying performance grates far more often than it amuses, and her metamorphosis from common-sense dispenser into a caring shoulder for Becca to cry on occurs too abruptly to ring true.
At least Slattery jumps in feet first and delivers a committed performance that almost enables him to escape the clichés from which his role is constructed (he's caught meeting another woman at a restaurant, a misunderstanding leads Nixon to erase their most recent videotape of Danny, and so on). Garrison, alas, has no character to play - Izzy's there only to incite Becca at crucial moments - but she soldiers on with her usual spunky flair.
Gallagher doesn't fare much better; Jason spends too much time up Subtext Creek without a paddle, and he seems to approach life with the vacant stare of a recovering videogame addict. But one's tempted not to fault the actor: Gallagher's great at playing the Gawky Teenager With A Secret type that Lindsay-Abaire loves including in his shows, as he demonstrated three years ago in Kimberly Akimbo (that advanced-aging comedy), and this performance is essentially that one, if anchored slightly closer to the real world.
Not that he would ever be confused with most real high-school seniors: The glazed eyes, tentative vocal delivery, and lumbering, dreamlike physicality aren't exactly representative, and his ramblings about alternate universes (which give the play its title) would probably be more succinctly explained by someone who truly believed it. But the character's discomfort is understandable: He must live up to the responsibility of causing a child's death, and that would cripple most adults.
Unfortunately, it always seems as though Gallagher is inside, frantically scratching to get loose and show the real feelings beneath the outward appearance that's been forced on him. Everyone else, sad to say, looks much the same. One must admire Lindsay-Abaire's willingness to plumb uncertain and unfamiliar depths, but he's trapped there, away from his element and without access to the tools he apparently requires to give his plays both bite and point. The problem with Rabbit Hole is that he, like his characters, is too visibly struggling to find the way back to the surface.