Hole in none

Manhattan Theatre Club goes down a bourgeois Rabbit Hole

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DEARTH IN THE FAMILY Cynthia Nixon, center, and her relatives lack the proper coping mechanisms.

DEARTH IN THE FAMILY Cynthia Nixon, center, and her relatives lack the proper coping mechanisms. Photograph: Joan Marcus

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5

David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole made me sick. During this competent dramedy about the mourning process, I experienced bizarre hallucinations, nausea, confusion and an irritability verging on dyspepsia. Upon learning my theater-going patterns, the doctor delivered a swift diagnosis of Biltmore Syndrome. It's a fairly common condition brought about by seeing too many middlebrow, bourgeois plays at New York's big nonprofit theaters. The disease gets its name, obviously, from MTC's Biltmore Theatre, which has been home to a steady stream of unimaginative comedies and dramas about middle-class angst since it opened in 2003. Sight Unseen, Absurd Person Singular, After the Night and the Music and Brooklyn Boy are some representative mediocrities.

How do you know if you have Biltmore Syndrome? While sitting through yet another living-room drama about the endlessly fascinating troubles of suburbanites, you find yourself longing for pirates to crash through the kitchen window or zombies to shamble through the front door and chew the protagonist's face off. Escapist fantasies of destruction flit through your mind. Or, you might start believing that the production in front of you is actually relevant, that it is fiercely attacking your political, economic and moral assumptions. You develop an insatiable craving for anything weird, exotic or cruel.

The irony is that a Lindsay-Abaire play used to guarantee at least a veneer of zaniness. In previous MTC outings, he purveyed screwball whimsy laced with sketch-comedy perversity. Strange diseases or disorders used to be grist for Lindsay-Abaire's mill: In Fuddy Meers (2000), a wife and mother's short-term memory was the jumping-off point for a frantic comedy about identity; in Kimberly Akimbo (2003), a teenage girl afflicted with progeria was played by a sexagenarian actor for poignant laughs. But Rabbit Hole, a workmanlike and deeply conventional study of grief, feels like the product of a dare: "Okay, David. We know you can do quirky. But what about a normal functional family dealing with, um, death?" And so we have this well-behaved stiff of a play, in which Becca (Cynthia Nixon) and Howie (John Slattery) go through a slow healing process after their boy is senselessly killed in a car accident (offstage, sadly). On hand to help our likable protagonists express their feelings are a kooky mother (Tyne Daly) and a feckless but good-hearted younger sister (Mary Catherine Garrison). The shy teenager (John Gallagher Jr.) who accidentally ran the boy over tiptoes in for a visit. Not to spoil Lindsay-Abaire's nonexistent plot contortions, but after two long hours, our poor parents look like they'll be able to move on with their lives.

No doubt there's a thrilling play to be written about grief and recovery in suburbia, but this isn't it. And until Lindsay-Abaire and his supporters at MTC crack the code, you'll learn more from Oprah and Dr. Phil than from this pabulum. Personally, I'd rather see a ripping tale about Uzi-wielding hobos spreading grief around than brave homeowners suppressing it.

But then, I'm not an MTC subscriber or ticket buyer; I don't have to justify seeing money wasted on an expensive-looking set and the blandest stars that money can buy. John Lee Beatty's lavish Westchester interiors, spinning on hydraulic turntables, stand as smug, imagination-murdering monuments to MTC's wealth and, presumably, the well-appointed estates of some percentage of its subscribers. And, like its aesthetic clones, the Roundabout Theatre Company and Lincoln Center Theater, MTC attracts big names regardless of whether they possess real talent. Cynthia Nixon is the kind of poised, shallow celebrity that creates frisson in advertising and publicity—anywhere but onstage, where I find her washed-out and wan.

There's no known cure for Biltmore Syndrome, but I have heard of some radical new treatments coming out of downtown and from across the pond in Europe. London's National Theatre, for example, joined forces with the daring Fringe collective Shunt in 2004. The New York equivalent would be if Lynn Meadow, head of MTC, or Andre Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater were to actually creep below 14th Street and see Elevator Repair Service or the National Theater of the United States at P.S. 122. Or if, maybe, they met with the independent playwrights' group 13P. Until a bold, possibly invasive operation takes place, though, the sickness is bound to spread.

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