Screwball writer David Lindsay-Abaire gets serious with Rabbit Hole.
The career of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is proof positive of the old adage about pleasing all of the people all of the time. Not that he would ever try such a thing, mind you.
You can’t look at his breakout comedy Fuddy Meers—in which an elderly woman’s stroke-induced speech impediment prevents her from explaining to her amnesiac daughter that her violent ex-con husband is trying to abduct her—or his follow-up play Wonder of the World—in which a pert, naive Sarah Jessica Parker disclosed that her husband received sexual pleasure from ingesting Barbie doll heads and shitting them out—or Kimberly Akimbo—in which a family on food stamps woefully mistreats its teenage daughter who suffers from a rare disease that ages people at four and a half times the normal rate—and think, Here’s a guy trying to appeal to the masses.
Yet Lindsay-Abaire’s puckered screwball voice—one that would go down nice and smooth were it not for the acrid vinegar he consistently stirs into the mix—was ultimately embraced by the people who counted (read: New York Times critics). And while his willfully distasteful scenarios also invited plenty of critical dissent and audience walkouts at the blue-haired Manhattan Theatre Club, his perspective and execution were singular enough to make his name synonymous with startling but embraceable counterpoint comedies.
Then he threw everybody for a loop. His 2006 play Rabbit Hole, which makes its Chicago premiere this week at the Goodman Theatre, is as traditional in form as a Thanksgiving turkey, and as offensive in its content as a Shirley Temple movie. A tender examination of a suburban couple grieving the loss of their adolescent son in a freak accident, the play—Lindsay-Abaire’s first on Broadway, in a production that picked up five Tony nominations—was both a stylistic about-face and his highest-profile hit to date. (As a lucrative grace note, Nicole Kidman is producing and starring in the film version.)
But just as he cranked out a proper play that might soothe the nerves of audiences and critics who were rankled by his more deviant work, there were also rampant accusations of shark-jumping from those appreciative of his more absurd work.
“I’m used to polarizing the critics,” Lindsay-Abaire says from his Brooklyn apartment. “There’s never been a consistent response.” But he’s quick to assert that the play some deemed a retreat into safe territory was for him the most dangerous thing he’d ever written.
“When I was at Juilliard, [teacher] Marsha Norman told us if you want to write a great play, you have to write about the thing that scares you the most,” Lindsay-Abaire recalls. “I was in my mid-twenties then and that didn’t make sense. Then I became a father.”
Now 37, Lindsay-Abaire (father to a six-year-old named Nicholas), imagines Rabbit Hole as his worst nightmare. That, coupled with the loss of a close friend in September 11, amounted to a deeply sobering approach to his family drama, a far cry from his normally barbed-wire take on the nuclear unit.
“I don’t think it’s thematically that different from my earlier plays,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “After knocking naturalistic plays for years, I saw a bunch of naturalistic plays that I really respected. I made a conscious, unapologetic choice to write a naturalistic play. Will I ever write a play like Rabbit Hole again? I don’t know. The stories dictate how they’re told. Go pick on Donald Margulies. He writes those kinds of plays all the time.”
At work on the Dreamworks-produced Shrek musical (which he promises is “not like a Disney Beauty and the Beast replication for the stage”), Lindsay-Abaire is finding attraction to projects that his progeny might enjoy. (“Yeah, I don’t think I could have taken him to the dead-baby play,” he says of Nicholas and Rabbit Hole.) Having recently cut his musical teeth and paid serious dues on the fast Broadway flop High Fidelity (“the musical that dare not speak its name,” as he refers to that project), he’s still looking to defy expectations.
Lindsay-Abaire is going down the Rabbit Hole at the Goodman. See Resident companies.