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Rabbit Hole, at the Biltmore Theatre

Going to the theatre fairly often eventually teaches you to infer, inter alia, from the folding of a small child's clothes when there are no children in the cast that the character folding the clothes is experiencing a terrible grief. And so it turns out in Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire's new play at the Manhattran Theatre Club. This is a third of the playwright's works that I have seen at MTC, each one in a larger theatre. There was the nightmarish farce (or perhaps it was a farcical nightmare), Fuddy Meers, at Stage II, the bad-surburb bleakness of Kimberley Akimbo at Stage I, and now, at the Biltmore, Mr Lindsay-Abaire's best work to date. Unlike the other two, it is completely naturalistic.

When I was in school, there were comedies and there were tragedies. There were funny plays and sad plays. Now, as if the "richest man in Vienna" were running things, plays handle very sad material with a lot of laughter. Think, for example, of Reckless, at MTC a little over a year ago. It begins with a wife's being rushed out of the house by her repentant husband so that she won't be home when the hit man arrives. He hired the hitman, and now it's too late to cancel. The whole scene was played an at antic speed that drew helpless laughter.

The humor in Rabbit Hole is strictly verbal, but its purpose is the same: laughing softens up the audience, makes it glad to be there. This makes the hard work much easier for everybody. Who wants to sit through a play about grieving parents? Who wants to read The Year of Magical Thinking? The success of works that make you laugh so you won't mind crying is probably a telling timestamp of our moment in history. The curious thing is that, while I remember laughing heartily, I don't remember what was so funny. It certainly wasn't the situations.

It's often said that the loss of an only child will drive a couple apart, and, in Rabbit Hole, Mr Lindsay-Abaire dramatizes one explanation of the phenomenon. The play begins several months after four year-old Danny, momentarily unguarded, ran out into the street after his dog and was killed by a car driven by a high school student. It takes a while for us to learn all of this, because our attention is directed to the differences between Becca Cynthia Nixon) and Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison), Danny's mother and aunt respectively. There is nothing avuncular about Izzy; she's a pretty girl who has usually taken the path of most fun and least resistance - and now she's pregnant. Izzy is used to unfavorable comparisons with her older sister, but she doesn't like them, especially when they're implied by Becca herself. And Becca, folding the clothes, a curious but sensible and all-too responsible woman, can't help implying them. As clear as the dynamic between the sisters is the fact that they're stuck in it; they will always annoy each other. Then, because they're sisters perhaps, they will kiss and make up. The scene is a masterly exposition of the involuntary tics that doom some relationships to perpetual awkwardness.

If the opening scene presents Becca as a level-headed woman, the play quickly but subtly tends in the opposite direction, and we see that Becca has only just begun to grieve. Up to now, she has made the best of things, but she can't keep that up anymore. News of Izzy's pregnancy is certainly an irritant, but so are the ubiquitous reminders of Danny, which Becca has only just begun to process. What the ensuing scene with her husband, Howie (John Slattery), shows is that two people can have very different ideas about how to treat the relics of a lost child, about how and when to mourn.

Howie goes to a support group for grieving parents, but Becca finds the meetings odiously religious. This detail telegraphs a sense that Howie is much more comfortable in the marriage than Becca is. Howie finds, to his chagrin, that Becca is nowhere near ready to welcome his attempt to seduce her. And his attempt, in turn, telegraphs a sense that Howie's mourning is complete. He is ready to move on, which, for him, means returning to the life that he had with Becca before they became parents. Becca, in contrast, is tired of seeing Danny's toys around the house. In fact, she wants to sell the house.

We get to see quite a bit of the house. John Lee Beatty's incredible two rotating platforms take the prize for cleverness. At the start, we're in the dining-and-kitchen end of the house; we can see the living room through French doors. Then everything whirls about and we're actually in the living room itself, looking through the same French doors (but from the other side) to the kitchen window, formerly stage right. The platforms turn again, and we're in Danny's room. It is here that Becca reads a letter from Jason (John Gallagher Jr), the high school student whose car struck Danny. While she sits on Danny's bed, Jason himself comes forward to center stage. He is an awkward teen in sweatpants, a miracle of gangly incompleteness. He wants to meet Danny's parents, and he wants their permission to dedicate a story that he has written to Danny's memory. No sooner has Becca read Jason's letter than Howie is screaming for her to come downstairs. Owing to missed signals, she has obliterated the last long videotape of Danny, which Howie watches somewhat obsessively. Ms Nixon must run out of the door to Danny's room and reposition herself at the top of the staircase as the set rolls round. Add the show-off set, impressively lighted by Christopher Akerlind, to the list of Rabbit Hole's comic blandishments.

Add Tyne Daly, too. Ms Daly, whom we last saw in Gypsy, plays Nat, the mother of Becca and Izzy with gusto. A woman whom one would characterize as "not shy," Nat continually affronts Becca by speaking of the loss of her son. Becca resents this because Arthur, her dead brother, was a thirty year-old heroin addict who hanged himself. (She's also very touchy when Izzy attributes some of her bad behavior to her nephew's loss. Nat also confirms what we may have suspected from the difference between Izzy and Becca: Becca has moved up in the world, thanks to education. That's how she's won the nice Westchester house with the broker husband. The clash of Becca's armored respectability and Nat's brash vulgarity (not that Nat isn't always decent) makes their one scene alone - clearing Danny's room - ultimately very moving. But for the most part Nat keeps us laughing with her

But the scene that follows is even more moving. Jason and Becca sit on the living room sofa, having the meeting that both have wanted and trying to figure out the next step. Mr Gallagher transforms Jason from clueless teen to budding writer right before our eyes, and his persuasiveness is moving in itself. He will be going to Connecticut College in the fall, and Matt Lauer is going to speak at his graduation. Becca asks if he's looking forward to the prom, but the prom is already history. Jason went, with a girl friend not a girlfriend and some other kids in a vintage Rolls. While he's telling a funny story about driving to the prom in the Rolls, something gives in Becca, some vision, perhaps, of the prom that Danny might have gone to, and she begins to keen.

Rabbit Hole has a third act, but Mr Lindsay-Abaire spares us. Just how long Becca and Howie will stay together after the final curtain is left open to surmise, but I was not optimistic. I was grateful not to have to watch Becca detach herself from Howie, whom we have reason to suspect of philandering. By the end of Rabbit Hole, Howie stands revealed as the average sensual man, while Becca, while not so brittle, is more self-contained than ever. Their emotional parts just don't fit anymore. They have grown apart in grief.

If there's a moral here, it has got to be this: don't have just one child! "An heir and a spare," as Consuelo Vanderbilt put it.

Director Daniel Sullivan has put together one of the great ensemble performances that I've seen lately, one with richly-layered characters who communicate physically with that preternatural choreography that always makes plays more compelling than movies. Jennifer van Mayrhauser's costumes were spot-on, and John Gromada's melody at the beginning of each act was also just right. The actors were formidably good. Rabbit Hole puts David Lindsay-Abaire in class with John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) and David Auburn (Proof). Here's hoping for many wonderful revivals. (March 2006)

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