PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Rabbit Hole Mourning Becomes Lindsay-Abaire

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Rabbit Hole Mourning Becomes Lindsay-Abaire At the first preview of Rabbit Hole, which officially opened for business at The Biltmore Feb. 2, Sheila MacRae settled into a seat fourth row center and braced herself for the loopy lunacy that David Lindsay-Abaire has historically, often hysterically, dispensed for Manhattan Theatre Club (Fuddy Meers, Wonder of the World and Kimberly Akimbo).

David Lindsay-Abaire; Cynthia Nixon; Byron Jennings; Donald Magulies; Jayne Houdyshell; Kurt Vonnegut; Eric Bogosian; Lynne Meadow; Daniel Sullivan; Mary Catherine Garrison; John Slattery.
David Lindsay-Abaire; Cynthia Nixon; Byron Jennings; Donald Magulies; Jayne Houdyshell; Kurt Vonnegut; Eric Bogosian; Lynne Meadow; Daniel Sullivan; Mary Catherine Garrison; John Slattery. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

To be sure, there were some welcoming, reassuring laughs at the outset, but gradually a heavy emotional undertow took hold, and MacRae found herself reconfronting a tragedy she lived through five years ago when her daughter Meredith died. The play, which she did make through (albeit, from the last row, where much of the audience wept with her), addresses the universal subject of the hole in the heart that is left by a death in the family.

“One of the nice things about the play,” says Cynthia Nixon, who stars as a young woman coping with the traffic death of her four-year-old son, “is that it deals with this incredibly weighty painful topic, but it is not solemn in any way. I think people dealing with a huge amount of pain are never solemn. They’re very quixotic. They keep changing all the time. Their emotions constantly switch from angry to happy to sad to whatever.”

Given the circumstances, Tyne Daly lightens the load considerably as Nixon’s blunt, brass-tacks mom who herself has had to bury her son (in this case, a 30-year-old druggie suicide)--and Daly goes after her role with the Swiss-watch-timing of a Nancy Walker.

“Actually,” clarifies Daly, “the person that I think of when I do this part is Shirley Booth. I was a great fan of hers, and so was my mother. She used to say, ‘Shirley could do anything--laugh, cry, laugh, cry, laugh, laugh, cry.’ The character here is very funny, and, when called upon to say something straight, she gives it her best shot and tries to tell the truth. So that’s a great opportunity. It’s a true ensemble piece. In ensemble pieces, especially in ensemble pieces where there’s no villain, it’s lovely to get to know each of these people--and, because David Lindsay-Abaire is such a wonderful writer, he allows the audience to get to know each a bit. I’m in love with my play, and that’s such a treat.”

Ordinarily, for Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway opening-night parties, first-nighters merely cross 47th Street and go East to The Supper Club midway up the block, but for Rabbit Hole they went West to China Club, which is said to be yet another of the nightspots soon to be shuttered for the massive rebuilding that will take place on Eighth Avenue. Its requiem-black walls worked well not only for the play but also for the place. Making the trek across the road: A Touch of the Poet’s Byron Jennings; wife Carolyn McCormick and another recent graduate of the Pinter double-bill, Kate Blumberg; Polly Draper, Talia Balsam (Mrs. John Slattery), Donald Margulies (who’s “sorta cooking a new play and working on a couple of screen projects, one of which is very exciting”), Lisa Kron and Jayne Houdyshell (exactly one week away from Well rehearsals), Joan Rivers, Kurt Vonnegut, Eric Bogosian (who’s scripting an as-yet-untitled HBO series about the probation department that will star Nixon), and Kevin Geer.

Lynne Meadows and Barry Grove, MTC’s top honchos, saluted the talent involved in putting on the show--with particular praise for their typically astonishing set designer, John Lee Beatty, who artfully fashioned an archetype American home with revolving rooms on the principal of the Rubik’s Cube. Then, as is their custom, they turned over the mike to the evening’s true auteur, Lindsay-Abaire, who in turn thanked them (“It’s a rare gift that a playwright has a home so consistently”) and did a deep bow in the direction of the play’s director, Daniel Sullivan (“I’ve never had to say less in a rehearsal room”).

Why, one has to ask Lindsay-Abairie, this extreme change in mood, switching his comedy mask for his tragedy one for his Broadway debut? He had a good answer:

“I have a five-year-old son who was three when I started writing this. I was a student at Juilliard, and one of my teachers, Marsha Norman, said to us once, ‘If you want to write a good play, write about the thing that frightens you the most.’ I’d heard a couple of really awful stories about children dying suddenly, and, as a new parent, I could not think about what it was like for those families. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s what she’s talking about. That’s the thing that frightens me the most.’ And that’s how this play came about.”

In a sense, he doesn’t feel himself too far afield from the zany antics of his past. It’s just that he used existing medical conditions like amnesia and premature aging to get to the knockabout nuttiness of his main courses. “I feel like I’m writing a lot about the same stuff that I’ve already written about thematically,” he says. “This, too, is about a woman waking up to an upside-down-world where nothing makes sense and she has to sort her way through the world and make her way and make sense of that. It’s about dysfunction within the family. It’s about how we communicate within a family. That’s the stuff of Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo. It’s just executed in a totally different way.”

Has he as a playwright reached a fork in the road? “I don’t know what the next play’ll be. I have an idea for a play. As I’m thinking about it, it seems more naturalistic, like this.”

Whatever that turns out to be, John Gallagher Jr. would seem to have a good shot at being on board. He’s the only member of the five-person cast to have had prior Lindsay-Abaire exposure. He was in Kimberly Akimbo at its MTC premiere, did the London edition of Fuddy Meers and now turns 21 and a Broadway actor all in one year as the guilt-ridden high-schooler who struck Nixon’s son. “Y’know, what David said is true about him never having to say much in the rehearsal room. Dan is so precise and exact in his direction. He knows exactly what a scene needs to make one involved in the play.”

Mary Catherine Garrison, who plays Nixon’s scattered and scatter-brained little sister, is amazed the cast made it through unscathed and unscarred. “The whole process has been unbelievably pleasant and strangely easy,” she admits. “I probably shouldn’t say that, but I guess with people like this, it looks like they did all the hard work and I just showed up to work. No one suffered in this whole thing. There was no pain, no agony, no tears. Dan’s one of the most patient, intelligent people I’ve ever met--so insightful and so good at what he does. He was just born to be a director. It seems easy the way he does it.”

The other John in the show, and the other male--John Slattery--plays Nixon’s grieving husband. When he guested on HBO’s “Sex and the City” (as Sarah Jessica Parker’s political plaything), “Cynthia and I shook hands, but we’ve known each other for years. This, however, is the first time we’ve really worked together.” His reason for wanting to do the role--his first on Broadway since Betrayal in 2001--is “just for the challenging of doing this part eight times a week. Sometimes you score. Sometimes you don’t.”

The fact that the cast brings the play off exactly life-sized is a tribute to a sensitive task-master. “We worked for that effect, the whole group,” says director Sullivan. “And, frankly, with such difficult subject matter, I couldn’t have had a better group to work with. “It’s a play that’s all subtext. It’s all about what people are not actually saying, what they’re trying to keep to themselves. what their expectations of one another are. This is a play that a lot of people read and didn’t respond to. They didn’t see it. They didn’t understand the simplicity of it, they didn’t understand the power of it. So that was unusual to read this play and respond so strongly to it, then find out a lot of people hadn’t. I think part of it has to do with expectations of David. Those who’ve seen his plays in the past see him as a traditional Christopher Durang type and wonder ‘Where’s the absurdity?’”

Casting, as it always is, is key to Sullivan’s success. “I never see anyone when I read a play. I only see the play, so I always really have to turn myself around to see about who could do it. When we were trying to find people who would be right for the lead, we saw a lot of actors who were emotionally wrought from the beginning, but Cynthia is somebody who is so careful to show the arc of the play, she gets closer and closer to her feelings. And that’s when you realize that she’s the person who could do this role.”

William H. Macy, in town on “a cocktail tour” to raise money for a romantic comedy he has written with Stephen Schachter and will film with Lisa Kudrow, thought the play “magnificent--great acting, great writing, beautifully directed. It’s what Broadway’s supposed to be. It wasn’t trying to be a movie. It’s what theatre does best.”

He admitted he got into it the same way the author got into it—as a parent. “I’ve got two little kids, so I found it very moving. What I loved the most about it was that these actors, even in this tragic story, were duking their way out of it. They weren’t indulging in it. They were looking for solutions, and, as a result, I just wept. For parents, it’s the unthinkable.”

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben