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Rabbit Hole

Cynthia Nixon shines in David Lindsay-Abaire's intelligent if surprisingly conventional domestic drama.

By New York City
Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly in Rabbit Hole
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly in Rabbit Hole
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
David Lindsay-Abaire's triumph with Fuddy Meers was that he found a fresh approach to a staple subject of American playwriting: The dysfunctional family. By creating a character whose stroke affected her speech so that phrases like "funny mirrors" were distorted into "fuddy meers," he approached the oft-covered family intramural communications problem from an offbeat angle.

In his new play, Rabbit Hole, the title of which suggests that he's expanding into Lewis Carroll fantasy, Lindsay-Abaire does the opposite. This is a much more conventional depiction of a family verging on terminal dysfunction. It's as if the author had accepted the criticism of whimsy-overload in his plays and now agrees with his detractors about the importance of being earnest. The result, about a couple trying to come to terms with the death of their young son, is a work of intelligence, sensitivity, and frequent insight. But it is also is too often reminiscent of television drama and the solid, stolid novels that women like Anita Shreve turn out.

There's nothing inherently wrong with writing in this vein, but audience members who are aware of Lindsay-Abaire's earlier pieces may get the feeling that his creative urges are being suppressed. It's also possible that the playwright, whose output since Fuddy Meers hasn't been as critically well received as that establishing work, figured that since he's taking up grief as a topic, it would be indecorous of him to treat it capriciously. But, in actuality, his sort of left-handed manipulation might have proved far more rewarding.

Becca (Cynthia Nixon) and Howie (John Slattery) are attempting to find equilibrium in their marriage eight months after their four-year-old son Danny was killed in an accident. Woefully for them, the processes through which they maneuver their shocked feelings clash. Nor is their situation alleviated to any meaningful extent by Becca's plain-talking mom, Nat (Tyne Daly) or Izzy, her unwed and pregnant sister (Mary Catherine Garrison). The late-in-the-play appearance of Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), the gangly adolescent who was driving down the wrong street at the wrong time, gives Becca momentary solace.

Because Lindsay-Abaire's powers of observation and his ear for honest -- and therefore often amusing -- dialogue has not deserted him, he draws his characters with unerring accuracy, particularly through the first of the two acts. A sequence in which the ill-fated Massachusetts Kennedy clan is discussed will have audiences smiling. And Lindsay-Abaire is at his best in a scene involving a videotape of Danny at play that Becca and Howie have been holding onto as their most potent memory of him. But by the time the playwright reaches his second act, he hasn't much notion of where to take his characters (though the introduction of the awkwardly contrite Jason is effective). And while parents mourning a lost child inevitably command sympathy -- especially a couple as truthfully presented as this one -- it's too easy to count on that reflexive response to carry an entire play. It's also too easy to end the drama in such a familiar fashion as Lindsay-Abaire does.

Once again, however, the playwright has been lucky as a lottery winner with his cast and with director Dan Sullivan, who can guide this brand of play with one hand tied behind his back. Nixon, on stage for the first time since Sex and the City went off the air, gives one of those natural performances that has you thinking she couldn't be so on-target without having gone through something like this in real life. Her face is a veil ruffled endlessly by the winds of emotion.

Slattery, whose Howie seems initially to be handling his plight admirably, scores as a man facing the impossible task of holding himself together. Daly plays Nat as an older version of her marvelous alter ego in TV's Cagney and Lacey, and remains as wonderful as she was in that admired series. Garrison is as nubile as can be and lovably whiny while also seizing the opportunity to stingingly utter some of Lindsay-Abaire's wisest comments. Gallagher plays his touching and touchy scene with Becca commendably, although perhaps with a bit too much clichéd teenage gawkiness.

Also commendable are Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes, Christopher Akerlind's lighting, and John Gromada's sound design. (On the other hand, Gromada's original music does little to undercut the enterprise's television-drama aura.) And then there's John Lee Beatty, who designed the house in which Becca and Howie. For those who follow such things, Beatty adds another great-looking kitchen to those he designed earlier this season for Absurd Person Singular and A Naked Girl on the Appian Way. Is he single-handedly trying to upgrade the meaning of "kitchen-sink drama?"


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