What is arguably the most heartbreakingly resonant moment in David Lindsay-Abaire’s deeply moving family drama, “Rabbit Hole,” takes place on a nearly empty stage, with the shadow of a woman projected on a stairway wall as a man sits in grief, watching and listening to a videotape of a joyous vacation moment which can never be replicated.
Lindsay-Abaire’s skillfully crafted, direct and unembellished new work, under the powerful and clean-limbed direction of Daniel Sullivan, in the playwright’s fourth outing with the Manhattan Theatre Club, the others having been “Fuddy Meers,” “Kimberly Akimbo,” both decidedly quirky comedies, and the more conventional “Wonder of the World.”
Nothing in that admirable trio of basically humorous, albeit odd and singular plays indicated that a work as powerful and as hard-hitting as “Rabbit Hole” might be expected from their author.
At rise, with a pair of youngish, blonde suburbanites, one of them, obviously something of a space cadet, chattering away while the other folds a load of laundry, all of it child-sized, in John Lee Beatty’s elegantly efficient kitchen setting, “Rabbit Hole” could easily be mistaken for a well-produced contemporary domestic comedy.
It is nothing of the kind, as is slowly and meticulously revealed as one domestic scene follows another, each one deeper and more painfully truthful than the one that went before.
Four of the play’s five characters are related either by blood or by marriage, and the fifth has, by chance, exerted a devastating and irreversible impact on the lives of the others.
The young women who open Lindsay-Abaire’s play with such deceptive casualness are sisters, Becca, the elder (Cynthia Nixon), the homemaker, and Izzy, the younger, (Mary Catherine Garrison), blessed or cursed, depending on your point of view, with a fully functioning wild streak.
Howie, (John Slattery), is a Wall Street risk assessor, and, as Becca’s husband, a partner in the tragedy which has torn at the deepest roots of their existence.
The outspoken, opinionated Nat, (Tyne Daly), is the sisters’ mother and a frequent, casual visitor in Becca’s and Howie’s large, comfortable Westchester domicile.
The fifth participant in the action, Jason, (John Gallagher, Jr.), in a memorable and moving Broadway debut, a neighbor boy of 17 or so who has, inadvertently, put into action the act which has so severely damaged, and which threatens actually to destroy the very foundation on which the marriage and the household have been built.
Although the family name, Corbett, is never mentioned until late in the play, and even then only once, the people feel like Irish Americans who have moved up the social ladder and into their lush suburban dwelling.
Arthur Miller, in writing “Death of a Salesman,” managed to generalize the ethnicity of the Loman family. With Leo J. Cobb playing Willie, they seemed Jewish. With Thomas Mitchell in the role, they came over as distinctly Irish.
Lindsay-Abaire seems to have attempted something similar with “Rabbit Hole,” but with a cast headed by Tyne Daly, John Slattery and Mary Catherine Garrison, it’s a decidedly uphill fight.
Nat, the awkward, blustery, but well-meaning mother and mother-in-law, suggests, at least as played by Daly, origins in the Bronx.
She is obsessed, or at the very least seriously preoccupied, with the family of Joseph Kennedy, and, in particular, with the deaths and disasters which have, perhaps all too often, been referred to in the world’s press as “the Kennedy curse.” To Nat, the Massachusetts clan’s many misfortunes seem more like a run of bad luck than anything even remotely resembling an outright curse.
In addition, her proletarian mindset renders her unable to trust people who fly their own private planes and jet out to Vail for the ski season.
Anyone wishing to encounter “Rabbit Hole” with no clear and specific knowledge of its subject matter would be strongly advised to stop reading here, at least until after experiencing Lindsay-Abaire’s subtle powerhouse of a play.
One of the great strengths of “Rabbit Hole” in its resolute and unrelenting matter-of-factness, despite the severity of the tragedy that has befallen its characters.
These decent people have, only a few brief months before the play’s opening scene, lost their four-year-old son, Danny, struck and killed by an automobile as he darted into the street, following his beloved dog who was chasing a squirrel.
Becca tried a support group, but found it unsatisfactory, because there was too much religion attached to it, and people were always saying banal things like “God must have needed another little angel.”
Having previously worked at Sotheby’s, she ponders returning to her old job, but doesn’t seem able to muster much enthusiasm for the possibility.
Howie goes to his office, and seems to take his frustrations out in squash a game with a partner whose wife, a close friend of Becca’s, hasn’t been able to face her since Danny’s death.
He wants the dog, which had been handed over to Nat, back, but once the animal has been returned, he frequently forgets to feed him. To quiet the barking dog, Becca slips him “a couple of Ambien tablets.”
For her part, Becca joins a Bronxville Continuing Education Group, and finds herself reading Dickens’s “Bleak House” which she doesn’t much warm up to. Maybe “Madame Bovary,” next up, will prove more to her liking.
Should they put the house on the market and move to a smaller place? Which of Danny’s toys and books should they keep and which should they give away? He loved “Runaway Bunny.” And what about his clothing, the small garments which Becca had been so lovingly folding when the play began?
Among the functioning virtues of “Rabbit Hole” is the ordinariness of its materials. There is talk of lemon squares and glasses of milk, and of Matt Lauer’s giving the commencement address at Jason’s recent high school graduation.
All of Lindsay-Abaire’s people attempt to assume a measure of guilt for the disaster which has befallen them. Jason was, of course, driving the car that struck the child, but was he going two, even three, miles above the suburb’s speed limit?
Had Howie left the front gate unlatched, and did Becca fail to check it? Is Izzy guilty for keeping her sister on the phone in a lengthy, needless phone call in which she mainly complained about their mother when Becca should have been watching her child?
The play’s title, by the way, derives from a science fiction short story about an alternative universe, written by Jason, who dreams of becoming a writer, and given to Becca in a kind of gesture requesting and administering a form of absolution.
The shadow on the stair landing wall is, of course, Becca’s, while the man watching the family vacation video is Howie.
In an oddly moving note, the “Rabbit Hole” program comments that Danny’s voice on the tape has been supplied by John Slattery’s six-year-old son, Harry.