David Lindsay-Abaire's new play Rabbit Hole begins with a misdirection: sisters Izzy and Becca sit in Becca's kitchen as Izzy lightheartedly tells her older sister about her recent bar fight with a jilted woman.
Lindsay-Abaire opens humorously because he wants to unsettle audiences once he reveals the darkness of his story's core: the recent death of Becca's and husband Howie's four-year-old son Danny. The trouble with this opening, as with much of the play, is that it never reaches the heights of hilarity or tragedy its author aims for. Rabbit Hole is simply too shallow to be moving, even with a foolproof dramatic subject.
It's not for lack of trying on Lindsay-Abaire's part. Becca and Howie lost Danny after he darted into the street while chasing the family dog and was killed by a car driven by Jason, a high-school senior who happened to turn down the wrong street at the wrong time.
The bulk of Rabbit Hole shows Becca coming to terms with Danny's death, even as other irritations materialize: Howie's well-meaning but ineffectual attempts to rekindle their romantic relationship; Izzy's announcement of her pregnancy, which is fraught with obvious symbolic meaning; and her mother Nat's continuous mentioning of her own son's (and Becca's brother's) death 11 years ago of a drug overdose at age 30.
Hovering in the background is the pimply teenager who accidentally killed Danny: Jason's three scenes, including an awkward meeting with Becca, are the most interesting in the play, since they are the few times in Rabbit Hole that Lindsay-Abaire avoids maudlin to reach deeper into this tragic situation.
Unfolding as a domestic melodrama, Rabbit Hole never breaks out of its mold because Lindsay-Abaire seems reluctant (or is unable) to transcend his old-hat setup to probe Becca's psychological wounds. The primary onstage offender is Nat (played by Tyne Daly with shrewd comic timing), who exists only to provide a foil for Becca by bringing up the long-ago death of her own son and, in one lengthy, unnecessary scene, discussing the travails of the Kennedy clan, which seems both tasteless and unfunny in this context.
There are hints at the better play Rabbit Hole could have been. For example, it's insinuated that Howie may be seeing another grieving mother he met in group therapy, but nothing is made of this potentially enlightening development.
Instead of connecting events to arrive at a mosaic of tragic consequences, Lindsay-Abaire resorts to desperate stratagems that betray a playwright who can't conceive of anything more than smart-alecky one-liners and hoary platitudes. Becca and Izzy's curtain-raising conversation has its Act II parallel when Becca describes her own supermarket "bar fight.": such linking of scenes sacrifices any broader dramatic meaning.
The production, agilely directed by Daniel Sullivan, is enhanced by an interlocking set of the various rooms in Becca's home by the always-inventive John Lee Beauty. The actors do what they can with flimsy material: Mary Catherine Garrison makes a memorable Izzy (one letter removed from Dizzy, of course), John Slater is an empathetic Howie and John Gallagher Jr. brings depth to the underwritten Jason.
Cynthia Nixon tries hard, even achieves the desired pathos during Becca's meeting with Jason; poised and polished as she is, however, she cannot garner much sympathy as a heartbroken mother who's lost a son, because the playwright (who even clumsily explains his title) loses his way early and never recovers.
Several years ago, Lindsay-Abaire wrote Wonder of the World, which first starred Sarah Jessica-Parker off-Broadway. Now, there's Cynthia Nixon in Rabbit Hole. Is Lindsay-Abaire halfway to a quartet of plays for Sex in the City actresses? If Kim Cattrall and Kristen Davis are lucky, he'll stop while he's ahead.