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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The capsule description used in the advertising come-ons for Rabbit Hole as a bittersweet drama about finding hope in the lowest moments of our lives and the paths we take to return to the light of day is accurate enough. However, this tends to evoke a whole genre of death in the family themed movies and TV dramas and there is nothing overly familiar or TV-ish about this play. It's probably not yet Mr. Lindsay-Abaire definitive achievement -- as it shouldn't be for one still so young and with many more plays to be written-- but it proves him adventurous enough to leave the comfort zone of the quirky characters and situations that have been the foundation stones fir his reputation as one of our most imaginative young playwrights.
Contrary to the title's suggestion of another departure into a fantastical Alice In Wonderland realm, Rabbit Hole is closer akin to Donald Margulies' well-crafted plays about ordinary people. Lindsay-Abaire is fortunate to have his shift out of the territory of surreal tragi-comedies to kitchen sink reality shepherded by that master of subtlety Daniel Sullivan, who has also brought out the best in such Margulies' works as Dinner With Friends, Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy.
To enact this intensely moving story without bathos, and let the humor blend with the characters rather than stand out as zingers interjected for comic relief also calls for a top of the line ensemble. This is exactly what we get.
Heading the truly stellar 5-member cast as the grieving Becca is the Cynthia Nixon, in recent years best known for Sex and the City. It's also wonderful to have Tyne Daly, another superb actress who has become a household name via the small screen (Judging Amy), back as Becca's mother Nat. Daly and Mary Catherine Garrison as Becca's younger sister Izzie (a nickname which rhymes with an adjective that would aptly describe her personality and life style) contribute towards this being as much a play about family dynamics and the struggle to maintain the most nurturing elements of that dynamic in the face of family trauma. They also handle most of the much needed humor as part of their characters.
John Slattery is also quite fine as the husband whose way of dealing with his son's death puts a strain on the relationship just when it should be closer than ever. (He still loves the dog that caused Danny to run into harm's way and replays a video of the boy on the living room TV as compulsively as Becca tries to remove every possible reminder). John Gallagher Jr. rounds out the splendid ensemble as the only family outsider, the teenaged driver of the car whose brief appearance leads to the ending that refuses to yield to the temptation to tie things up with a neat everything's going to be wonderful again ending.
Nixon is nothing short of amazing as a woman whose tightly controlled rage and despair simmers beneath an always ready to explode calm exterior. It takes just a few minutes for the audience to sense her tension and realize that the clothing being neatly folded into a laundry basket is part of a compulsive busyness directed towards removing the reminders of Danny, the four-year-old who was accidentally killed by a passing car when he ran out after the family dog eight months ago. Thus the boy's clothing is being readied for Good Will, the drawings still decorating the refrigerator will be wrapped in plastic and stored in the basement and, if Becca has her way, they'll sell the house and move to one that holds no memories.
The details of the tragedy and its lingering effect on the Corbetts play out through a series of quiet domestic scenes. No big, dramatic explosions, just the day to day interaction between people who can no longer speak to each other without the strain of possibly setting off a spark of disagreement or resentment. The mechanical clothes sorting that begins the play is accompanied by casual chatter between Becca and her visiting sister. Besides filling in bits and pieces about the events that have turned this lovely home into a modern day bleak house (Dickens' novel of the same name plays a minor part in Becca's efforts to bring some light back into her life), this seemingly easy banter points to the sisters' personality differences. The spark that serves as one of the play's small crises is Izzy's announcement that she is pregnant. While the prim and proper Becca would no doubt welcome her sister's determination to be a responsible adult at long last, it now lands as yet another nail into her wounded heart.
These small sparks go off in similarly muted but incisive, and often blessedly amusing, fashion throughout the two hours: Howie's attempt to follow a pleasant dinner with a rekindling of their physical closeness. . . his outrage when he discovers that Becca has accidentally (or on purpose?) erased the tape of Danny. . . a birthday party for Izzy at which the outspoken Nat's rant about the "Kennedy curse", one of the play's comic highlights, turns into an angry confrontation involving Becca's anger at Nat's likening her own long ago loss to Becca's.
The reserve of good will between mother and daughter is beautifully illustrated in a scene in which Becca finally opens up enough to ask her mother whether the empty, desolate feeling ever goes away. It's not until Becca allows young Jason to visit her to relieve his own guilt that the spark that allows Becca to move towards a more bearable permutation of unrelieved despair is ignited. Gallagher handles Jason's awkwardness with disarming authenticity. The story he wants to dedicate to Danny about holes in space leading to parallel universes, where existence continues in different forms explains the title and is a somewhat typically Abairian way of giving Becca the wherewithal to move out of her emotional isolation booth.
No discussion of this play would be complete without high praises for John Lee Beatty's turntable set, discreetly lit by Christopher Akerlind. With more magical stagecraft like Beatty's, there would be no need for the pyrotechnical wizardry used in The Woman in White. While Mr. Beattie knows how to blend real and abstract, as in Doubt, his stunningly furnished homes, especially his kitchens, make a good case for the continuing power of the often considered dead kitchen-sink drama -- especially any as beautifully written and acted as Rabbit Hole.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF PLAYS MENTIONED
Dinner With Friends
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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Go here for details and larger image.