Rabbit Hole

Drama Review – Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies

What better topic to use for a lachrymose tale of tragedy than marital problems? Donald Margulies served up a chilling meditation on just that in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Dinner with Friends. This play showed how two pairs of friends coped (or struggled to) with the disintegration of one of the couple’s marriages. The atrophy of the one gave the remaining couple doubts about the state of their own union.

This play moved me. Gabe and Karen were the “perfect” couple struggling with doubts about their marriage. Following that, they discovered their friends Tom and Beth decided to divorce. It led to a deep introspection of their situation. Afterwards, then they had to listen to them explain how their lives improved without each other.

The realism in Dinner with Friends impressed me. Beth lived a bohemian life style. I thought her behavior and dialog believable for that type of person. All the dramatis personae conducted themselves like I’d imagine people in their situation. I felt Gabe’s and Karen’s shock when Beth explained that she and Tom separated. Karen’s reaction to the reason for the breakup also came across as reasonable. As did her callous behavior towards Tom. The playwright also presented the latter’s anger towards his estranged wife in a believable fashion. “Don’t underestimate rage; rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac,” Tom said. (Page 38)

In keeping with the realism, the dialog didn’t contain any great lyrical flourishes. The playwright still worked in some memorable lines.

Karen: I spent the first twenty years doing whatever the hell I could do to get away from my family and my second twenty years doing everything I could to cobble together a family of my own. I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family…

Beth: Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is as f—-d-up and fallible as the one you were born into. (Page 68)

            Here are Gabe’s thoughts on marriage in light of Beth’s and Tom’s break-up.

Gabe: (Looks at him; a beat): I guess, I mean, I thought we were in this together. You know, for life.

Tom: Isn’t that just another way of saying misery loves company? (Page 77)

Here’s an exchange between Karen and Beth. This took place after Beth mentioned she had a new boyfriend.

Karen: You didn’t want to be alone for a while? You haven’t been alone in a dozen years.

Beth: I’ve always been alone, don’t you see? I spent my marriage alone. (Page 65)

That’s a harsh observation.

I don’t normally comment on this, but I liked the book’s cover. It summed up the play’s content non-verbally. It showed a dinner plate flanked by a knife and a fork. A large crack extended from the top of the dish all the way to the bottom. I found that very clever.

Dinner with Friends reminded me of another Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama, Rabbit Hole. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s work, a husband and wife struggle to keep their marriage together following the death of their four year old son. Donald Margulies’ portrayal of marital disintegration was comparable to a death. As in Rabbit Hole, the ending left more questions than answers.

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Drama Review – Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

The worst tragedy that any person can experience is losing a child. This 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning drama delved into the impact of such a loss on a young family. The result was a moving exploration of a couple struggling to cope with their grief and at times each other. While somber in tone, Rabbit Hole still served as an excellent read.

At first I struggled to get into the story. It began with Becca folding clothes while her sister, Izzy, prattled about her recent fisticuffs. It took several pages before the playwright made any reference to a child. He did so in a very subtle way. Here’s an exchange between Becca and Izzy. This took place after the latter announced her pregnancy.

Becca: I’m washing all these clothes to give to Goodwill. I might as well save them for you. In case you have a boy. No sense in my giving these away.

Izzy: I don’t know, Bec. They’re in baby clothes for so long, it’d be a few years before he could even fit into this stuff.

Becca: It comes up very quickly. You wouldn’t even believe it.

Izzy: Plus we don’t have a lot of room to…

Becca: That’s okay. I’ll keep them here. In the basement. You’ll be happy I saved them.

Izzy: But what if it’s a girl?

Becca: Then I’ll bring them down to Goodwill. What’s the big deal? You’re gonna thank me. A couple years worth of free clothes here. Think of the money you’re gonna save.

Izzy: It’s not about the money.

Becca: Well it should be. You need to start thinking about stuff like that, Iz. Especially if the dad’s a musician. It costs a lot to raise a child.

Izzy: It’d be weird, that’s all. If it’s a boy. To see him running around in Danny’s clothes. (Beat) I would feel weird. You would too, I think. (Beat) I’m sorry. (Pages 24 – 25)

A former screenwriting professor I know gave me some great advice. “The best way to drive exposition is through conflict.” The playwright nailed it here. Izzy kept trying to avoid the issue of Danny’s death while Becca inadvertently forced her to mention it. Later in the same passage, Izzy said “I know the timing really sucks,” in reference to her pregnancy. By contrast, the pace in this passage was exceptional.

At this point I realized that the story would focus on grief and bereavement. I liked the way that we never saw Danny. He passed eight months prior to the opening exchange. I applauded the playwright’s decision to avoid the hackneyed “hero dies after a valiant struggle” plot line. This gave Rabbit Hole that much more impact.

When the play began I assumed the drama would center on Becca’s efforts to cope. At one point when Howie suggested she return to work she replied, “No I can’t. That’s not who I am anymore. I left all that to be a mom.” (Page 46) That’s a pretty powerful line.

But Mr. Lindsay-Abaire had a twist in store. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of gender roles. Howie’s first scene introduced him using wine and Al Green music to seduce his wife. What a contrast to Becca’s! While the two battled grief in their own ways, Howie became the more emotional of the two. He spent his evenings watching a video tape of Danny and him. When Becca accidentally erased it, Howie became unhinged.

(Losing it.) It’s not just the tape! I’m not talking about the tape, Becca! It’s Taz (the dog), and the paintings, and the clothes, and it’s everything! You have to stop erasing him! You have to stop it! You HAVE TO STOP! (Page 86)

In another unique plot twist, the boy who accidentally hit Danny with his car contacted the family. Jason sent them a letter asking to meet them. Later he stopped by when the family hosted an open house. Howie threw him out. Later Becca met with the boy. That was the only scene in the play where she cried.

Rabbit Hole focused on the bereavement process and how people cope in different ways. Becca delivered the most trenchant observation on the subject. Here’s a comment she directed at Howie.

You’re not in a better place than I am, you’re just in a different place. And that sucks that we can’t be there for each other right now, but that’s just the way it is. (Page 87)

While an otherwise superb work of art, I did have one criticism of the play. I thought the playwright added some gratuitous references to pop culture. Izzy worked at Applebees. Becca worked at Sotheby’s before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Izzy had a Three Stooges shower curtain. While I understand any writer strives to make his work relatable, these examples were a bit much for my taste.

A few days ago, I watched a local community theater group perform this play. The show was very powerful and really affected me. It led me to remember times when I experienced grief and how I coped with it. I think all this led me to re-read Rabbit Hole as a form of closure. How many dramatic works can inspire people like that? While an uncomfortable subject matter, I’d still encourage people to try it. It’s a phenomenal example of brilliant writing.

Theatre Review – Rabbit Hole at Burlington County Footlighters

It seemed appropriate that a man named Al Krier would make his directorial debut with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. The drama explored how two parents, a grandmother and aunt coped with the accidental death of a four year old child. In an interesting spin, it also showed this tragic event’s effect on the 17 year old boy who drove the car that hit him. The realistic performances the cast delivered made the audience criers.

Rebekah Masters (as Becca) and Dan Brothers (as Howie) turned in phenomenal performances as the grieving parents. They animated Lindsay-Abaire’s dialog in a way that made me feel like part of the conversation.

Ms. Masters brought great depth to a character who internalized her pain. This role allowed her to show the range of her skills. The performance began with her folding laundry and talking with her sister, Izzy. (Played by Corrine Hower-Greene.) Several minutes into the conversation she revealed with composure that they had belonged to her deceased son. She’d washed them before donating to charity.

Later in the show Ms. Masters displayed anger in response to Becca’s mother Nat’s (played by Susan Dewey) references to her own son’s passing. (Ms. Dewey’s character had a habit of telling Becca the worst things at the worst times.) Ms. Masters assertively snapped at her. She pointed out the difference between a 30 year old heroin addict hanging himself and a four year old child getting hit by a car. I thought that an interesting response from a character talking about her brother’s death.

Ms. Masters also showed vulnerability when cleaning out her son’s bedroom. She asked Nat (Susan Dewey), “Does it (the feeling of loss) ever go away?” Ms. Dewey showed great tenderness in her explanation of how the grief process changes over time.

The most intense scene in the show took place when Becca met with Jason, the boy who drove the car that killed her son. Max Farley played Jason on the night I attended. He took on arguably the most challenging role in the show. Performing with Ms. Masters, Mr. Farley kept his head down and expressed remorse without being consumed my guilt. That’s a difficult balance. He also showed calm and poise when Ms. Masters cried; the only occasion in the show when her character did.

Dan Brothers’ performance impressed me the most. He started out playing Howie as a relaxed, laid back man trying to coax his wife out of her grief. Then his character became emotional: really emotional. I liked his facial expressions as he watched a video tape of Howie and his son. He managed to weave those of a proud father with a grieving man very well.

Mr. Brothers has such a soothing bass voice that he’d make an exceptional nighttime disc jockey. That is until he yells; and boy did he yell in this show. I’ve been to numerous sporting events in Philadelphia. I’ve never heard yelling quite like his brand. I thought the building was going to rattle.

I also liked the way he could play an unhinged Howie and still bring himself down to a calm demeanor within minutes. He did this best in the scene where he discovered Becca erased the tape of Howie and his son.

In a story this somber, comic relief becomes the sine qua non of the show. Most of the humorous lines went to Becca’s sister, Izzy. (Played by Corine Hower-Greene.) I enjoyed the deadpan way she delivered the line, “we’ll have to do it again next year” after Izzy’s birthday party disintegrated into fighting. She did an entertaining job describing a bar fight that wasn’t really a bar fight in the beginning, as well. Because of the immense sadness in the show, had Ms. Hower-Greene not delivered the catharsis so well, this play would’ve been unwatchable.

Just about every performance I attend encounters some sort of technical difficulty. Much to Footlighter’s credit, this one didn’t. Al Krier and Bob Beaucheane did a great job with the sound. While Howie watched the video of him and his son, I could understand all the pre-recorded dialog without any trouble. It came through loud enough to hear and very clear.

While I’ve been “cautioned” not to comment on costuming, I’m going to do it, anyway. Everybody dressed in accordance with the way I imagined the characters would when I read the play. It helped me to suspend my disbelief that much more. I felt like that this was an average American family living in Yonkers.

My only criticism of the show involved the audience, of all things. No one applauded between scenes. After the show I heard someone tell a cast member that he “didn’t like the show, but liked the performances.” These responses probably stemmed from the uncomfortable subject matter in Rabbit Hole. It shows how intense the drama and how convincingly the actors performed when people thought it inappropriate to applaud.

No one likes to think about grief until they’re forced to. The play showed how different people cope with it in different ways, not always healthy ones. We all confront grief and loss in our lives. Watching the show got me thinking about some I’ve experienced. It led me start reexamining how I dealt with them. In spite of that, I still enjoyed the play. It brought out an unpleasant facet of the human experience. Isn’t that what great drama is supposed to do?

After the show I joked with Mr. Krier. I mentioned how he selected an “easy” play for his first outing in the director’s chair. He explained that the script and the great cast made it easy. The cast members with whom I spoke expressed their admiration for the dialog in Rabbit Hole. It came through in their performances.