Seen on Broadway: The sky has fallen: I’ve actually liked a play by David Lindsay-Abaire. Liked, mind you, not loved, which is still a lot better than our track record to date. I missed his acclaimed debut, 1999’s Fuddy Mears, but 2001’s Wonder of the World was so off-putting the audience I saw it with was actively booing the stage, to the dismay of the actors, and I can’t think about 2003’s Kimberly Akimbo without my stomach turning flip-flops; it’s a serious candidate for the worst play I’ve ever seen, with its ghastly, unendurable whimsy, which is (or, I hope, was) Lindsay-Abaire’s stock-in-trade. Undaunted, the Manhattan Theatre Club (which seems to pay more attention to local reviewers, who have made him their pet playwright, than its own subscribers) is debuting his latest, Rabbit Hole, at its Broadway venue, the Biltmore. Surprise: The fake sentiment and coy, contrived situations are largely absent, replaced by a slightly sitcom-ish naturalism that, backed by a good cast and direction, manages a warm appeal. Truth is, the play, about a couple coping with the accidental death of their four-year-son, could use a little more pizzazz, but I was grateful that the playwright kept his “inventiveness” to himself and told us a straightforward story for once. And his efforts are beautifully served by set designer John Lee Beatty, who manages, once again, to outdo himself.
Beatty’s last design, for The Color Purple, was undone by too much vertigo-inducing movement, but it’s that kind of show. Rabbit Hole takes place entirely within a Westchester home, upstairs and downstairs, and the set is placed on two turntables, which move, and interlock, gracefully, thanks to seamless automation provided by Hudson Scenic Studio. Much of it takes place in the kitchen, where Becca (Cynthia Nixon) and husband Howie (John Slattery) do their best to keep up appearances, for all the agitation Becca’s carefree (and pregnant) sister Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison) and mother Nat (Tyne Daly), a talkative busybody, bring into their home. In the course of the play, Becca and Nat will reach an understanding about the nature of loss in the dead son’s upstairs room, which is slowly being emptied of his possessions as Becca and Howie mull a possible sale of the home. Downstairs, in the living room, Becca will have an awkward meeting with teenage Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), who was driving the car that killed the boy. The sets, which themselves seem slightly shrunken from grief, reposition themselves for each scene and are flawlessly appointed.
Taking a cue, perhaps, from the somewhat barren atmosphere (which is broken with a few laughs from Izzy and Nat), Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costumes are exactly right, the kind of clothes people wear when looking presentable is about all they can handle. Perfect, too, is Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, in a funk but never overly moody. You can feel the gloom that has lodged itself in this once happy home. The one false note is struck by sound designer John Gromada’s upbeat entrance music, a holdover from the funhouse misery of Lindsay-Abaire’s other plays, but its intrusions are brief. Daniel Sullivan directs with his customary sure hand—not sure enough to find something deeper and more resonant in the drama (the “rabbit holes,” the planes of existence that sci-fi fan Jason expounds about, don’t quite come off as a metaphor) but altogether steady as the characters gain new insight into the predicament of having to move on. (PRG supplied the lights, Masque Sound the audio, and Showman Fabricators the scenic elements.) Speaking of moving on, I’m thoroughly relieved Lindsay-Abaire has, and—a pleasant shock this—I’m curious to find out where he goes from here.
Seen Off Broadway: Becca and Howie have it bad, but at least they have good sense and good taste on their side. Drunken excess, British-style, is the subject of Abigail’s Party, a 1977 play by Mike Leigh that is making its very belated New York debut at the Acorn Theater, after a number of successful productions elsewhere. It’s easy to see what keeps audiences coming back for more—it’s wickedly, deliciously funny, in some respects a foreign-born cousin to Hurlyburly, which The New Group and director Scott Elliott put on last season. The new production hits another bulls-eye, right in the solar plexus of propriety, with a climax guaranteed to leave you reeling. The unseen Abigail, a teenager, is having a party, and the grownups are stuck at a soiree thrown by gin-swilling Bev (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose way with a bottle is matched only by her addiction to the era’s garish pop culture artifacts—Derek McLane’s set, brimming with lava lamps, is like someone’s nightmare of consumer trends 30 years ago. Bev’s husband, Laurence (Max Baker, in a marvelous spleen-venting performance), throws fits of disapproval at her uncouth behavior, which peaks with the attempted seduction of a monosyllabic neighbor, Tony (Darren Goldstein), right under the nose of his giggly, air-headed wife, Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki). Helplessly looking on, trying to keep the proverbial stiff upper lip, is Abigail’s sad-faced mother, Susan (a classic deadpan performance by Lisa Emery), who maintains as much control as possible as Bev’s incessant vulgarity cascades her way.
I can see why Leigh, whose recent films (like Vera Drake) are more somberly humanistic, left the likes of Bev behind in his studies of middle-class attitudes and behavior, but it was a thrill to get acquainted with her. Leigh’s funnier movies, and later plays that I’ve seen, aren’t anything like this, and Elliott, the cast, and the designers really let it all hang out. Eric Becker’s feather-dripping costume for Bev, contrasted particularly with Susan’s more sensibly conservative style, is as tacky as can be without going over the top. The lighting design, by Jason Lyons, has a morning-after quality soiled further by constant cigarette smoke, while sound designer Ken Travis (repeating a touch from Hurlyburly) cranks up the volume on the punk rock emanating from Abigail’s party; Jose Feliciano is more Bev’s speed. (Stagecraft Alliance constructed the set, GSD supplied the lights, and One Dream Sound the audio.) I don’t know who gets credit for Bev’s pineapple-and-cheese treats, skewered on toothpicks, but they looked perfectly awful. “Perfectly awful”—that about sums up Abigail’s Party, except that the production of this corrosively comic play is just plain perfect.--Robert Cashill