NEW YORK -- In "Rabbit Hole," playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's concerns come to grief -- and the ways in which we never get over it. A little boy from a well-to-do home has died in a car accident and now, months later, his survivors have entered the circumspect middle age of mourning, that period after the numbness recedes and daily routine has been reshuffled to account for the permanent void.
The talented Lindsay-Abaire has dealt with the issue of loss many times before, but the approach usually involved an elbow-in-the-side. The heroine of the farcical "Fuddy Meers," for example, is an older woman with aphasia; and the comedy "Kimberly Akimbo" is built around a teenager aging at a shockingly accelerated pace.
With "Rabbit Hole," however, the playwright makes almost no effort to leaven the pain, and the result at Manhattan Theatre Club is a strong, solemnly painted, solidly performed drama that takes a forthright look at the outsize ripple effect that one small death creates.
Some reviewers have decried "Rabbit Hole" as being overly conventional, the stuff of television movies. It's true: This is not groundbreaking theater. Yet to categorize it too blithely is to ignore its fine footing on the stage, the opportunity it accords wonderful actors -- Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly among them -- to sculpt characters of warmth and insight. Nixon ("Sex and the City") and Daly ("Judging Amy") have found abundant financial success on the small screen. In Daniel Sullivan's scrupulous production at the Biltmore Theatre, they remind us of the more ephemeral, and enriching, kind of success generated by a magnetic stage performance.
Lindsay-Abaire, whose work has been championed in Washington by Woolly Mammoth and other companies, takes such a dramatic shift from zaniness in "Rabbit Hole" that fans might wonder in which drawer he misplaced the whimsy. Although the play has a few amusing moments, the strain of contained, suburban anguish the dramatist makes accessible here invites comparison to such movies as "Ordinary People." It's turmoil a la Cheever: buttoned-down drama in sparkling kitchens and handsome dens that raises two vital questions: Why is it that these people are tearing each other apart? And who's their decorator?
The set designer in this case is the accomplished John Lee Beatty, who puts the smart-looking Westchester home of Nixon's Becca and John Slattery's Howie on two turntables. Beatty's elegant spin on a garden-variety idea allows us to see through the rooms to other ones in changing configurations, so that we get a potent sense of the vastness, the bleakness, of an under-occupied house. There is nothing so vacant as a space emptied of the energy of a child.
The 4-year-old was run over by a teenager (John Gallagher Jr.) avoiding Becca and Howie's dog but not seeing the boy, and the house is still filled with his playthings. The first thing we see is Nixon, folding his laundry; it's taken her many months, it seems, to steel herself for a task either meaningless or of bottomless significance.
In a sense, you can see the whole play refracted through this chore. It is Becca's method of dealing with the loss that sets the rhythm for the household and how the others -- her husband, mother (Daly), sister (Mary Catherine Garrison) and even the teen driver -- must include in their own emotional calculus Becca's higher claim to bereavement.
The play becomes a study of the unpredictable, unspoken rules of grieving.
You can see, especially in the excellent performances by Daly and Slattery, how the characters try to bend to Becca's moods, to figure out what might set her off. Will it be the husband's invitation to make love, or his demand that the family dog be allowed to live at home again? Her mother's suggestion that Becca enter therapy? The revelation of the sister, Izzy, that she's expecting?
The story might seem more calculated and melodramatic were it not for the layers of complexity Lindsay-Abaire applies. Slattery's Howie may or may not be fooling around. Daly's Nat lost one of her own children, a heroin-addicted son, to suicide. And Izzy is a flighty and restless spirit, with no real career and no reliable partner.
What becomes ever clearer as the taut production unfolds is that no one can come to terms with the death, and perhaps no one ever will. That notion is played out marvelously in a scene in which Jason, the driver, visits Becca. Although the death was considered accidental, Jason confesses to Becca to having been driving slightly over the speed limit. It's as if he can only swallow his guilt in small doses.
Gallagher achieves a commendable balance between the teenager's adult sense of decorum and childish directness, and Daly brings an earthy, wholesome normalcy to an everyday mom trying to gauge the depth of a daughter's despair.
So many of the evolving shades of "Rabbit Hole," however, are reflected right there in Nixon's eyes. The portrayal is a subtle rendering of a woman holding her ground against a world that pretends to know there's a right amount of black crepe to hang for the dead.