Charlotte Randie and Adam James in Rabbit
(© Robert Workman)
Charlotte Randie and Adam James in Rabbit
(© Robert Workman)
In Nina Raine's debut play Rabbit, being presented as part of the Brits Off-Broadway festival, Bella (Charlotte Randle) has invited four friends -- not all of whom have met each other -- to celebrate her 29th birthday. Her thoughts sometimes wander, however, to her hospitalized and dying father (Hilton McRae), who frequently shows up on stage in flashbacks of varying moods. Intermittently, mates Emily (Ruth Everett) and Sandy (Susannah Wise) and one-time boyfriends Richard (Adam James) and Tom (Alan Westaway) advise her on whether or not she should quit their company and see her father through what could be his final hours.

When they are not discussing Bella's ailing dad, the occasionally rancorous quintet converses with wit and candor about any number of issues -- including sex -- likely to cross the minds of today's well-salaried young professionals. The pitch-perfect dialogue goes a long way in keeping the audience from noticing that ultimately there's less here than meets the ear. For instance, an exchange between Bella and Emily on a penis shaped like "a traffic cone" is hilarious, and a diatribe from Richard about woman as worse than men in degrading the opposite sex is also bluntly humorous.

But more is called for in a play than top-notch dialogue; and while Raine aims for more, she doesn't completely succeed. To some extent, she's got two plays going on -- or at least a play and a half. At its core Rabbit is an intriguing spin on the Elektra complex, with Bella coming to terms with her father in his last days. In flashbacks that report on Bella and her father from her childhood on, the man is alternately shown being affectionate towards and critical of his daughter, and this familial conflict may have caused her later ambivalence about men. Yet, the sightings of Bella's dad only sketchily fill him in. If Raine wants the daughter-father relationship to have meaningful resonance, she needs to depict more of it.

The other play is the one where acquaintances convene and the complications of their relationships are parsed with theatrical flair. But once again, Raine needs to reveal more about the participants. Why is the seemingly affable Tom (the one with the traffic-cone member) so relatively quiet? Aside from her fascination with memory, who is Emily? And what irks Sandy, who for some reason sports a very 1940s coiffeur and who looks to have it in for Richard?

In an interview she gave to an English newspaper, Raine defended directing her own play. But the evidence here is that hasn't completely worked. She definitely gets high marks for the suave manner with which she's guided the good-looking actors -- every one of them as stimulating as the fine wine they ostensibly consume. When required, each hints at the depths of free-floating angst by which they navigate their lives. On the other hand, as a director, she hasn't fulfilled her obligation to bring her own play to full fruition. And that's a loss.

Raine bookends her play with scenes in which Bella and her father talk about visions that are troubling them. The tactic, in which Raine's title is explained, captures the human phenomenon by which parents and children eventually swap roles. It's clever, but it's also somehow pat -- not unlike much of Rabbit itself.