Nothing is sadder than the death of a child - especially when, as in David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole," it's the result of a stupid accident.
With a top-flight cast, including Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daley, and Daniel Sullivan directing, "Rabbit Hole" ought to have been a powerhouse evening. I'm afraid I found it more like a TV Movie of the Week.
Nixon and John Slattery play Becca and Howie, the parents of a 4-year-old who darted into the street when a high school kid happened to be driving by. The play shows their attempts to cope with their grief.
Daley plays Becca's mother, Nat. No, that's not a typo - that's her nickname. All the names, including that of Nat's other daughter, Izzie (short for Isabelle), are odious. Only the luckless driver, Jason, has a conventional monicker.
Much of the first part of the play is a slow revelation of the details of the awful accident, an arty way of dealing with human tragedy that minimizes our emotional involvement.
The emotional component is further undercut by Nat and Izzie, who all too often seem little more than comic relief.
Nat, for example, constantly compares Becca's loss to her own loss of a 30-year-old son to drugs. Becca begs her to stop these ridiculous comparisons, but Nat can't, which becomes as annoying to us as it is to Becca.
As Nat, Daley gets the funniest lines. She punches them hard, but never gives us a sense of the character's inner life, which might make the one-liners seem more than one-liners.
But in fact we learn little about any of the characters, except Izzie, whose life is wilder than the others. The color she provides is welcome, but she seems like the eccentric neighbor in a sitcom. She is played with suitable boisterousness by Mary Catherine Garrison.
Nixon displays a fine restraint as Becca, which heightens those moments when she does finally let loose. Slattery always brings to the stage a sense of inner strength and reserve, which works well here.
Jason, the young driver, who wants to reach some sense of closure with the parents, is hard to like, partly because he's so whiny, though John Gallagher Jr. plays him ably.
The suburban home John Lee Beatty has designed is fascinating because of the unusual way it moves. Alas, it moves with such panache that it upstages one of the play's few emotional climaxes.
Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are simple and telling. Christopher Akerlind's lighting enhances the drama.
Ultimately, however, "Rabbit Hole" is thin gruel. Lindsay-Abaire's earlier plays, like "Fuddy Meers" and "Kimberly Akimbo," were extravagantly imaginative. By contrast, this one is tiresomely mundane.
There may be as many patterns of grieving as there are causes for grief. David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole," which the Manhattan Theatre Club opened last night at the Biltmore, is about grief, grieving and the stresses it places on a family.
It's also about Cynthia Nixon getting her Broadway groove back after her successful but potentially career-debilitating stint on "Sex and the City."
Rest assured: Cast as a traumatized Westchester housewife, she demonstrates once more that she's among the most rewardingly nuanced stage actresses of her generation.
Unfortunately, the play itself -which reveals bit by careful bit the tragedy that has engulfed a fairly commonplace suburban couple -soon develops into a dramatized agony column.
It would be unfair to specify what the tragedy is, for the best aspect of Lindsay-Abaire's writing is the manner in which he unveils his story.
But once that story is made clear, it's also clear he has no idea where to go with it. It's as though Dr. Phil had decided to write a feel-better play.
The dialogue is competent enough in a smart-edged TV fashion, but lacks the crackle of reality. Almost as bad, the couple's many-months-long journey into acceptance has no real resolution.
The characters - the wife, Becca (Nixon); her husband, Howie (John Siattery); her sister, lzzy (Mary Catherine Garrison); their mother, Nat (Tyne Daly); or, for that matter, Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), the teenager who unwittingly sets off disaster – seem pasteboard figures rather than flesh and blood.
They don't really change much from the start of the play to its end. When the couple reaches some level of decision to go on with their lives, you wonder quite how and quite why.
People do customarily pick up their own pieces. As Nat reminds Becca, "At some point it becomes bearable . . . and [you] carry [it] around like a brick in your pocket."
Did we really need a play just to tell us that?
You occasionally hear that acting on Broadway isn't what it used to be. Totally true - it's better, and getting better all the time. Movies and television have given audiences higher standards, and actors more opportunities.
Under Daniel Sullivan's direction, the acting is fine. Nixon's gently roiling distress is masterfully conveyed, while Slattery's more open pain is given with the right mix of decency, despair and worry.
The other three actors, including Daly - who handles her moment of consoling truth most beautifully - fall more easily into the rabbit holes of conventional writing offered by the script, but do well enough.
Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's costumes are convincing, and the adaptable setting by John Lee Beatty looked like a house I would be perfectly happy to live in.
As for that intriguing title: "Rabbit Hole" is a reference to scientists who, accepting the concept of an infinite universe, posit that somewhere there must be a parallel cosmos to our own, that we might be able to reach that cosmos through a rabbit hole of time.
This is meant to be comforting to the heroine. Huh!
The Biltmore Theater had better be paid up on its flood insurance. "Rabbit Hole," the wrenching new play by David Lindsay-Abaire that opened there last night, inspires such copious weeping among its audience that you wonder early on if you should have taken a life jacket. Do your best, though, to keep your eyes clear. Otherwise, you might miss some of the most revealingly nuanced acting to be seen on a stage or screen this year.
Thanks to a certain former American president, it has become almost impossible to say that you feel someone else's pain without its sounding like a punch line. Yet the sad, sweet release of "Rabbit Hole" lies precisely in the access it allows to the pain of others, in its meticulously mapped empathy. With an exceptional, emotionally transparent five-member cast led by Cynthia Nixon and directed by Daniel Sullivan, this anatomy of grief doesn't so much jerk tears as tap them, from a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the landscape-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family.
The plot of "Rabbit Hole," centered on the impact of the accidental killing of a small child, is one used regularly on television channels that specialize in domestic tales of redemption. You could even say that this play's shape is determined, as such television fare often is, by the steps of mourning commonly described in self-help manuals and support groups.
Yet with "Rabbit Hole," a Manhattan Theater Club production, you never feel as if you have been mauled by a sentimental brute who keeps telling you to go ahead and cry, Honey. There's too much honesty, accuracy and humor in the details provided by the play and by the ensemble, which also includes Tyne Daly in an invigorating return to Broadway.
With works like "Fuddy Meers" and "Kimberly Akimbo," Mr. Lindsay-Abaire established himself as a lyrical and understanding chronicler of people who somehow become displaced within their own lives. Like his peer in poetic empathy, Craig Lucas, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire has also shown a special affinity for female characters suddenly forced to re-evaluate the roles by which they define themselves.
In this sense, "Rabbit Hole" runs true to form. But the drama also marks a significant departure for Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, which may leave his fans wondering if they have come to the right theater. A sprawling sense of whimsy and the grotesque has hitherto been Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's most conspicuous hallmark, with characters who suffer from extreme and exotic medical conditions, like amnesia or premature aging.
"Rabbit Hole" dispenses with the flashy metaphors. It is as if Mr. Lindsay-Abaire had set for himself the task of holding up a mirror to life that for once didn't come from a fun house. The resulting work belongs squarely to the school of what were once called kitchen-sink dramas. But the sink, in this instance, has been polished to a high, reflective sheen. The dialogue is blessed with Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's customary grace and wit. But it never sounds less than organic, at least not from the mouths of these superlative performers.
Ms. Nixon — in her first Broadway appearance since the end of her hit television series, "Sex and the City" — portrays Becca, a onetime Sotheby's employee turned stay-at-home mom in a gleaming beige-toned residence in Larchmont, N.Y. (John Lee Beatty's revolving set and Christopher Akerland's lighting are subtly infused with an aura of fractured solidity.)
That Becca's very reason to be has vanished registers by affecting degrees in the first scene, which finds her sorting laundry from a basket as she chats with her younger, all-too-lively sister, Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison). But a loud silence pervades the room. And while the talk is inflected with the ritualistic familial rhythms of fondness and annoyance, the strain of something unspoken pulses. It takes you perhaps five minutes to realize that the child-size clothes Ms. Nixon is folding with such mechanical efficiency belonged to Becca's son, a 4-year-old boy named Danny who was struck and killed by a car eight months earlier.
Every action, big and small, and every word that follows are informed by our awareness of the characters' awareness of Danny's death. Grief has obviously not brought the members of Becca's family — including her husband, Howie (John Slattery), and her mother, Nat (Ms. Daly) — closer together. Sorrow isolates them. Anything that anyone says is almost guaranteed to be the wrong thing.
Jokes and cute anecdotes only wound; kindly advice is received as if it were a slap in the face. Family conversations are shaped by a spastic pattern of recrimination and apology, of irritation and misdirected comfort. This rueful awkwardness is only enhanced by the unexpected appearance of the high school student, Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), who was driving the car that killed Danny.
This may sound like the stuff of blistering confrontations. Yet "Rabbit Hole" is, by and large, a quiet play. Mr. Sullivan's masterly, cadenced production is filled with the silent ceremonial bustle and surface numbness that Emily Dickinson describes in her poems about houses where someone has recently died. Yet the internal despair of each character is always, unmistakably visible. It's as if every ensemble member were made of a glass that magnifies all thoughts and sensations within.
Ms. Nixon, always an actress of rare integrity, astonishes here with the pure eloquence of her restraint. You never feel that you're watching an actress strategically working the brakes; instead, you believe that it's the control-craving Becca who is keeping her emotions on such a tight rein. This is achieved without the usual signals of folded lips and clenched hands. Ms. Nixon is too good to signal. Like all first-class magicians, she achieves her artistry invisibly.
The same can be said of the rest of the cast. Note the stunning resourcefulness and economy of Mr. Slattery's two scenes in front of a television set, on which Howie watches videotapes of Danny. Consider the forms of discomfort Mr. Gallagher conveys without moving from the corner of a sofa. Or the way Ms. Garrison's effervescent Izzy is so clearly waging an unending battle with her desire to be the center of attention.
Whether in television ("Judging Amy") or theater ("Gypsy"), Ms. Daly is one of the finest American actresses working. She enfolds the vulgar, overbearing Nat in a compassionate embrace that avoids condescension and exaggeration. Mr. Lindsay-Abaire has given Nat the play's most beguilingly off-center dialogue. (Her monologue on "the Kennedy curse" is priceless.) But Ms. Daly never simply plays the comedy instead of the character.
Such turns of plot as there are in "Rabbit Hole" are, in description, clichés, involving sibling jealousy, conjugal estrangement, the rivalry of grief and the urge to blame. And while the play probably ends the only way it could, given Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's obvious love for his characters, its conclusion doesn't take you anywhere that you haven't anticipated. As beautifully observed as "Rabbit Hole" is, it never rises to the shock of greatness.
But as embodied by Ms. Nixon, the self-contained, order-obsessed Becca may offer more immediate catharsis to contemporary theatergoers than more grandly bereaved mothers like Medea and Mary Tyrone. At one point, Nat, helping Becca clear out Danny's room, picks up a tiny sneaker and freezes. "Don't," says Becca, without looking up. "Quick and clean, like a Band-Aid. Otherwise, we'd never get through it."
Anyone who has ever gone through the possessions of a deceased family member or close friend understands instantly the crispness of Becca's tone. But without even flinching, Ms. Nixon makes it clear that the wound beneath the Band-Aid never really stops hurting. Nat, who lost a son of her own, says as much later in the scene. But the cast has already let us know this with an expressiveness that — like great sorrow — is beyond words.
Cynthia Nixon's face is a magnetized oasis of contradictory expectations - pastel and delicate at one angle, chiseled and formal at another. She can look fragile as a girl, almost at the same time she withdraws into a distant forbidding beauty. She is both swan and matron, everybody's sweetheart and nobody's fool.
It is easy to imagine why this subtle actress might have been drawn to "Rabbit Hole" for her return to the stage after so many image-defining seasons in "Sex and the City." As Becca, the mourning mother of a dead 4-year-old son, Nixon is challenged to compress all her emotional plumage into the limited space between soul-dead and merely inconsolable.
She does so with great intelligence and no-nonsense grace in David Lindsay-Abaire's new drama, which opened last night on Broadway. When Becca finally cries, the sobs come in raw, jagged breaths that sound as ugly as they are meant to feel. With Tyne Daly as Becca's coarse but not vulgar mother, and director Daniel Sullivan's tastefully understated production, "Rabbit Hole" should be killing us softly with the brutality of bottomless sorrow.
Instead, this is a glum little play, a predictable domestic melodrama that adds nothing but fine acting to the cumulated understanding of inexplicable loss.
Theatergoers may be stunned to recognize this as the same author whose jokey and original comic nightmares have been a staple at Manhattan Theatre Club since "Fuddy Meers" introduced him in 1999. That one was an American-gothic outlaw-absurdist farce about an elderly stroke victim, an amnesiac who has only a few hours every day to understand her plight before forgetting it all again.
Two years later came "Wonder of the World," which enticed Nixon's "Sex and the City" co-star Sarah Jessica Parker into a perkily tiresome misadventure about a runaway wife. Two years more and we got "Kimberly Akimbo," a zany annoyance about a teen with a rapid-aging disease.
If Lindsay-Abaire hit the wall on whimsy - and who could blame him? - he appears also to have snuffed out his voice and any hint of wit in the crash. Despite its similar subject, "Rabbit Hole" has little of the chilling power of "Ordinary People," Robert Redford's 1980 movie in which Mary Tyler Moore, cast against type, embodied a grief beyond feeling.
We first meet Becca as she folds a child's clothing in the kitchen of her well-appointed, once loving suburban home (designed with careful detail and nifty turntables by John Lee Beatty). She is preparing to clear the house of every reminder of her dead son, who, eight months earlier, chased the dog she never liked into the street and was hit by a car driven by a teenager.
Despite Nixon's intrinsic sympathy, we suspect Becca was never such a nice woman. She's a priss when her wilder young sister uses curse words. She's a snob about the distinction between custard and creme brulee. When her grieving husband - played with crushingly increasing bitterness by John Slattery - tries finally to reconnect their intimacy, we find it hard to imagine that she ever was much fun.
Daly, a genuine stage actress in a rare appearance, delivers her lines with more layers than they have on the page. She takes a standard-issue, salt-of-the-earth character with a tabloid interest in the Kennedy curse and makes her wisdom seem more than an author's contrivance. Mary Catherine Garrison pouts with an enjoyable overripe quality as the pregnant unwed sister who never had a chance against her superior sister. John Gallagher Jr. has a wary, touching awkwardness as the teenage driver whose life was derailed as profoundly as anybody's.
The characters go from grief to unbearable sorrow to sadness. The drama, alas, goes nowhere.
It isn't often that I'm tempted to leave a performance at intermission, then end up raving about the production.
In truth, the second act of David Lindsay-Abaire's new play, Rabbit Hole (* * * out of four), is even more excruciating than the first, though not in the sense I would apply that term to some other Broadway shows. What makes Hole, which opened Thursday at the Biltmore Theatre, almost unbearable to watch at times is its insistence on presenting a tragedy and its consequences with utter candor, and without sentimentality.
That tragedy involves a 4-year-old boy whom we never meet, and a car that swerves in the wrong direction at the wrong time. The focus is on the fallout, not only for the boy's family but for the seemingly well-meaning teenager behind the wheel. The playwright duly affords special attention to the parents, an elegant former career woman and an amiable broker who grapple with their grief in different and often conflicting ways.
Lindsay-Abaire has tackled uncomfortable subject matter before; his last play, Kimberly Akimbo, dealt with a teenage girl suffering from a rare aging disease. But for all his comic imagination, his writing has sometimes struck me as self-consciously clever. There is nothing winking or waggish about Hole, though; the dialogue is most impressive for capturing the awkwardness and pain of thinking people faced with an unthinkable situation – and eventually, their capacity for survival, and even hope.
Daniel Sullivan's direction of this Manhattan Theatre Club production is similarly thoughtful, and he has a sterling cast, led by Cynthia Nixon as the boy's mother, Becca. Where her Sex and the City co-star Sarah Jessica Parker has entered her 40s still clinging to the cutesy persona that started becoming unseemly years ago, Nixon continues to display a range and a lack of vanity that portend a long and varied career. Here, she makes Becca's struggle to maintain her composure, and her sanity, wrenchingiy real.
John Slattery is a supple foil as Becca's husband, Howie, who is at once more superficially easygoing and more openly emotional. The excellent Tyne Daly lends both levity and poignancy as Becca's mother, and Mary Catherine Garrison is pertly engaging as Becca's less responsible kid sister. John Gallagher Jr. has a smaller but key role as the teenager, and he brings the right blend of adolescent goofiness and gentle pathos.
Notwithstanding a few corny flourishes - among them John Gromada's made-for-TV incidental music - these performances add to Hole's authenticity. I don't frequently advise people to pay good money to have their hearts broken, but trust me on this one.