A gate is left unlatched. A dog chases a squirrel into the street. A four-year-old child runs after the dog. A teenage driver, maybe going slightly over the speed limit, swerves to avoid the dog. And David Lindsay-Abaire writes Rabbit Hole, which tells, tersely, quietly, and compassionately, what happens to the child’s parents after the fatal accident.
Terse, quiet, compassionate: These are adjectives I never dreamed I’d be applying to a play by Lindsay-Abaire, whose previous works seen here have all been noisy, self-conscious forays into surrealist farce, with a seemingly unquenchable appetite for grotesquerie. Some people found them funny and imaginative, for reasons that escaped me.
But arguing about taste in things past makes no sense: The point is that Lindsay-Abaire has made a stylistic U-turn that I, for one, cautiously applaud. Which makes me feel all the more like a heel when I say, reluctantly, that his aesthetic pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. Rabbit Hole is an honorable, decent, and decently gripping play, but a play can be too terse, too quiet, too compassionate. Lindsay-Abaire presumably wanted to avoid the subject’s potential for cheap TV-movie histrionics, and he mostly does, gratifyingly. But a degree of dramatic excitement, plus a certain amount of substance, has drained off with them. Daniel Sullivan’s subtle, understated production draws attention to these lacks: It’s staged on an elaborate interlocking set, by John Lee Beatty, that shifts between scenes with dizzying portentousness, as if trying to expand into some larger philosophical dimension that Lindsay-Abaire’s script never quite enters.
The warren of unexplored passageways that Beatty’s set displays during these shifts reflects the play’s title, which comes from a short story written by the guilt-ridden driver of the fatal car (John Gallagher Jr.), a budding creative writer from a broken home, who appears in several scenes, attempting in his nerdy teenage way to befriend and comfort the couple whose child and hopes he has unwittingly destroyed. Like many daydreaming teen writers, he leans toward sci-fi: His story—which he wants to dedicate to the memory of the dead child—tells of the son of a scientist who has discovered the existence of alternative universes in which different versions of ourselves exist. When the scientist dies, his son hunts for him in these rabbit-hole alternative spaces.
An alt-universe where their son is alive is precisely what Becca (Cynthia Nixon) and Howie (John Slattery) are hunting for, unawares, in their differing ways. She picks fights with mothers in supermarkets who won’t indulge their kids; he sneaks downstairs at night to watch old videotapes of their dead toddler. With sly judiciousness, Lindsay-Abaire layers fragments from each segment of their years together into the story, letting us learn by indirection about the accident, the family’s life before it, the couple’s shattered condition now. Becca’s seemingly unstable sister (Mary Catherine Garrison) and their well-meaning but aggressively button-pushing mother (Tyne Daly) add their own kinds of pressure to the unhappy mix. The emphasis is on the women: Howie doesn’t seem to have any relatives or friends of his own. And we get so few inklings of any feeling he and Becca might have shared before or might still share, other than parental love, that you may wonder how they came to marry in the first place.
It’s intriguing, in the context of Howie’s isolation, that the other women in Becca’s family have manly nicknames: Her mother is “Nat” and her sister “Izzy.” Both, like her, are contentious fight-picking types, while the one male we hear about in their clan is a drug-addicted son who committed suicide. (Becca fiercely resents Nat’s claiming kinship with her grief on the basis of his loss.) With Nat’s constant provocations, and the ongoing irritant of Izzy’s counterexample, added to the numbing grief, it’s no wonder Becca and Howie’s marriage itself seems on the verge of falling down some rabbit hole into infinity. But it doesn’t. Grief dissipates, though it will never wholly leave, and normal life starts up again. What future Becca and Howie might have together, Lindsay-Abaire declines to guess, just as he barely tells us what went before. Never dishonest, always conveying the weight of tragic pain without getting emotionally pumped up, his play nonetheless has an irresolute, unfinished quality, like a piece of music that ends on a diminished-seventh chord. It all seems so normal, since he’s taken such pains to make it appear believable. The ironic result is that one longs for the little bit of excess reality provides. In real life, after all, nobody’s normal; normality’s only a concept.
It all seems real enough, though, in Sullivan’s judicious hands. Nixon and Slattery, actors seasoned in understatement, know how to freight a role with sorrow while never making an outward show of it. Daly’s work is cunningly calibrated: just sufficiently larger than life to feel intrusive, a chill wind rocking this marital boat. Gallagher’s gentle underplaying, too, gives exact measure to his character’s disquieting presence. Only Garrison, with her conventional choices and TV-bred inaudibility, seems insufficient. Otherwise, the performances make it impossible to deny the play’s validity. That, to be great drama, it needs to be more than simply valid is a different matter, maybe less important than the unexpected news of this alternative universe suddenly glimpsed inside Lindsay-Abaire’s world.