nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 4, 2006
David Lindsay-Abaire's new play Rabbit Hole is very sad, but not for the reason you might expect.
It's about a husband and wife grieving for their son, who died when just two years old—he ran into the road after the family dog and was hit by a car. What's sad about the story is not that the little boy died, but that his parents, Becca and Howie, seem so utterly lacking in resources to cope with his death. Particularly, they have failed each other; and even though the final scene of the play suggests rapprochement and an effort at moving forward together, it didn't feel at all certain to me that these two were going to get over the unhappiness and guilt that, though shared, had served only to pull them apart.
They are, as played by Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery, very cold people. When we first meet Becca, she's in the kitchen of their spacious Westchester County home, folding laundry that we learn very quickly belonged to her now deceased son. She's listening detachedly to her sister Izzy's account of a dispute in a bar with another woman that ended with Izzy punching that lady in the face—Becca disapproves—and then Izzy gets to what appears to be her real point: she is pregnant, and among other things, she's worried that Becca will be angry because of having lost her own child eight months ago.
Eight months!: Becca is washing clothes that have, presumably, been laying around the house for eight months. I wondered: what has Becca been doing all this time? Because Lindsay-Abaire never tells us, she is very difficult to understand or empathize with.
The dynamic of the play is that Becca slowly comes out of herself (though never as completely as it seems she needs to) while Howie retreats. At the beginning he wants her to go back to group therapy, but she rejects the idea because she doesn't like the other grieving parents—says she has nothing in common with them. Eventually, the young man who was driving the car that killed their son, a high school senior named Jason, turns up at their house, wanting to meet them and perhaps get a little relief from the guilt he has been living with. But it is Howie who cruelly rejects him, and Becca who later agrees to talk, in a scene that's supposed to be climactic but feels both unconvincing and unearned: given what I knew about Becca, I didn't believe that she'd find the resolve to see Jason, let alone sort-of reach out to him.
Jason, by the way, is well-played by John Gallagher, Jr.; his performance feels central in the piece because he imbues his character with warmth and dimension that's utterly missing from Nixon's and Slattery's. Jason gives the play its odd title, from a story he has written after the accident and dedicated to the dead little boy, about the theory of alternate universes. He explains to Becca that in some alternate universe, all of them live, but they're happy. She seems to like this idea, though, again, little in the play's spare exposition helps us understand precisely why.
What little fire and energy exists in Rabbit Hole comes from Tyne Daly, who plays Becca and Izzy's mother, Nat. Unlike her daughter, she is a compassionate woman who reaches out to others and tries to help them as best she can; I found her instantly likable, especially in contrast to Becca and Howie, who are both so incapable of offering support and love to one another. Mary Catherine Garrison offers a nice turn as Izzy, a character who we barely know except as foil to her sister. The whole affair is directed starchily and competently by Daniel Sullivan, on an attractive set by John Lee Beatty (whose hydraulics failed at one point at the show reviewed), with matching costumes by Jennifer Von Mayhrhauser, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and somber score by John Gromada.
By the end of the play, I understood that Lindsay-Abaire had written a thoroughly workmanlike play about people I didn't like or care about. I didn't detect much emotion or engagement on the part of those around me in the audience, either.