nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
June 8, 2007
Family dysfunction, sexual competition, rivalry among friends: we Americans just can't stop examining our "relationships"—and then spinning them into zeitgeist gold for sweeps-month Nielsen ratings. A silken-haired heroine proffers the voiceovered Moral of the Week, and suddenly we're convinced that Pilates-abs and whiter teeth are all we'll need for interpersonal growth. What a relief, then, when in Nina Raine's Rabbit, dialogue is brandished like switchblades, and characters wrap themselves not in prime-time platitudes but emotional barbed wire:
... it felt – competitive. Competitive and angry. I thought, you're not going to treat me like shit. I'm going to treat you like shit. First. I ruined it when I tried not to care. And I ruined it when I did.
Toto ... I've a feeling we're not in Grey's Anatomy anymore.
And good riddance too—because Raine's prickly protagonist and her accompanying vicious circle provide a very bracing, British alternative.
In celebrating her 29th birthday, Bella, her two best friends and two ex-lovers swill copious amounts of alcohol and engage in intense, swaggering debates. ("Listen! Listen to me!" they all cry.) The men accuse the women of objectification; the women, when not graphically describing male anatomical features, respond by belittling the men's careers (a favor heartily returned to PR-exec Bella by her lawyer-ex, Richard) and positing that women are "genetically" insecure. These darkly humorous skirmishes, provoked by personal animosity and sexual history, are precisely, passionately articulated (with no reference to Mc-Anything), and encompass issues of love, identity, memory, independence, and loss. And throughout all the scathing declamations and corrosive revelations looms the specter (via flashback) of Bella's difficult, demanding father, who lies dying in a nearby hospital.
Raine's keenly crafted dialogue displays a deceptive ease, and her direction is lucid and tightly structured. As Bella, Charlotte Randle is sufficiently defensive/self-destructive to justify the fallout she generates—if perhaps cruel to the point where we question why her friends and ex-lovers remain so loyal. The rest of the cast is equally accomplished, with Ruth Everett particularly effective as best friend Emily, a compassionate physician who "actually know[s] what we all look like inside."
Unfortunately, the sum of these impressive parts doesn't always quite add up. For all the father's alleged transgressions, the flashback scenes are surprisingly tame—and far less revealing than Bella's behavior during her fraught birthday revels. One wishes for more substance there, if only to illuminate the ensuing emotional detritus.
By contrast, Bella's eventual acknowledgment, "I am losing someone," is a lovely, heartrending moment, shimmering with the anguish of grief and the concomitant potential for transformation. Is she losing a parent—or the dysfunctional daughter he ostensibly created? Can loss make room for empathy? Generosity? Capacity for love? As John Updike so succinctly put it (in a very different "Rabbit" saga), "The great thing about the dead, they make space." Space for redemption, space for hope: these might prove the real legacy left to Bella—if not by her intractable father, then by the exquisite promise of this remarkable play.