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Rabbit Hole: Buried Emotions

Sometimes it's a luxury to be able to deal with grief in your own personal way. Imagine how comforting it would be, after a horrible loss, to know you could just keep to yourself or stay busy with work or angrily scream at the walls every night for however long it takes, and nothing you do will have any effect on those around you.



But then there are those creatures called loved ones, and sometimes they just have to butt in because they're concerned about your emotional state. Or maybe they're grieving too and they need you to be there doing it with them. In Rabbit Hole, a marriage is endangered by a husband and wife having polar opposite emotional reactions to a mutual tragedy.



Fans of David Lindsay-Abaire, finally making his Broadway playwriting debut thanks to Manhattan Theatre Club's presence at the Biltmore Theatre, will immediately notice the lack of whimsy and the unusual presence (for him) of normalcy in Rabbit Hole, where characters and emotions are easily recognizable and plot points move in the exact direction you expect. But predictability is a down blanket here. With director Daniel Sullivan providing a pitch-perfect cast who eschew all traces of subtext, the play feels like the realism that creates clichés. And if the characters do on occasion express their feelings in words that sound lifted from a self-help book or a television drama, well maybe that's what people grasping for words to describe what they're going through really do.



It's impossible to describe the play without giving away something that is best discovered as it's revealed by the author. Lindsay-Abaire feeds us exposition in tiny morsels until you're suddenly raising your hand to your mouth in realization of the significance of something you saw or heard ten minutes ago.



Becca and Howie (Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery) were happily living a textbook successful suburban couple life until the day eight months ago when their four-year-old son was killed in an auto accident. And though nobody was at fault, there are numerous "If only I didn't…" scenarios that force their way into their thoughts.



Howie needs talk. He needs cherished reminders of the happy times with his boy. He needs emotional and physical bonding with his wife. Becca needs to be left alone. She can distract herself with amusing small talk from her newly pregnant party girl sister, Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison), but their straight-shooting, opinionated mother's (Tyne Daly) attempt to show her understanding by comparing the incident with the death of her own son, under very different circumstances, only angers Becca.


When the teenage boy (John Gallagher, Jr.) who was driving the car that struck their son (he was not at fault and no charges were made) attempts to contact the couple to help him deal with his own emotions, it strangely becomes exactly what Becca needs.



Despite the subject, this is not a heavy drama. It's very funny at times and there's always a somewhat optimistic feel. Instead of being witnesses to a tragedy, Sullivan and Lindsay-Abaire have set the audience up as cheerleaders, pushing for the characters to find a way through their differences. In one of the final scenes, when Becca does something so positively normal, it's an optimistic sign that at some point things are going to be all right.



The ensemble work is perfect. Nixon is detached, but never cold, suffering in a subtle, seemingly unflappable manner. Slattery is as loving as possible while trying to keep himself and his marriage together under circumstances he's not prepared for. The funnier moments, though grounded in realism, belong to Daly and Garrison, playing types they've done so well in the past. Gallagher is heartbreaking as the shy and geeky high school senior wanting to get on with his life despite a heavy burden.


Set designer John Lee Beatty once again creates an interesting and well detailed home, lit by Christopher Akerlind in a manner that gracefully emphasizes the division between Howie and Becca. In one summarizing image, Howie is in the living room being comforted by home videos of their son while Becca's shadow is seen observing him from atop the stairs.



Though plays that approach difficult subjects with inventive productions are always welcome, Rabbit Hole sticks to the basics of good, eloquent writing and straightforward, honest acting. It's meat and potatoes drama and very satisfying.



Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: John Slattery, Cynthia Nixon, Mary Catherine Garrison and Tyne Daly

Center: Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery

Bottom: Tyne Daly and Cynthia Nixon

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