Artificial, Intelligence

Broadway’s formula is challenged by downtown’s remedy

“No Great Society,” by the avant garde troupe Elevator Repair Service, is a tight, astonishing 70-minute piece riveting in its content and thrilling in its performance. The text is taken from two TV appearances by Jack Kerouac––in 1957 with Steve Allen on “The Tonight Show” and in 1968 with William F. Buckley on “Firing Line.” The text is a literal transcription, but refracted through the off-kilter view of the company and under the direction of John Collins, it becomes a wonderful commentary on celebrity, the role of television in our culture, the death of independent thought, and the need to dumb down ideas for the mass media.

Of course, you may not see this at all. The delight of this piece is that though the words are literal, they function in the abstract, becoming poetic and lending themselves to individual interpretation. Its magic comes from its inherent simplicity and the wonderful performances of Susie Sokol as Kerouac and Ben Williams in dead-on impersonations of Allen and Buckley.

This is groundbreaking, daring work that provokes without assaulting and engages through its theatricality. While I suspect no two people will have the same responses to the piece, it is impossible not to be impressed by the finely honed direction, committed performances and the intellectual precision of the piece as a whole.

Largely a meditation on grief and the confusing warren of emotions surrounding the death of a child, “Rabbit Hole” is a solid, workmanlike play with strong performances and a magnificent set. But for all it has going for it, the play finally leaves one cold and unmoved. The death of a child is a trigger issue to which there will always be predictable responses of shock and horror. As a dramatic device it should be the springboard for real drama, but David Lindsay-Abaire’s play seems to skim the surface, keeping the grief neat and impersonal in the predictable home where Howie and Becca, the dead child’s parents, live and deal with their loss.

This is not to say that there are not affecting moments in the play; there are. But the writing and Daniel Sullivan’s mostly competent direction trade largely on the assumptions of what they audience “should” feel in a situation, rather than a full exploration of the realities of loss. As a result, the events of the play feel as though their being observed from a distance, not lived. Everyone has different ways of coping, and who is to say one is more or less fraught with dramatic potential? There is no such thing as a generic loss for any individual family, but this play comes as close as possible and the play often feels dishonest and manipulative without breaking new ground. It is as bland and palliating as a TV movie.

So the stock situations are expressed through Becca folding the child’s clothes to give to Goodwill, the wise-cracking n’er do well sister accusing Howie of having an affair, the sitcom mother, and the sorrowful, sad-at-home teen who drove the car that killed the child. It is very well done for what it is, but it is far too easy overall, and we are never chilled for the dead child. The experience is already distant when the curtain falls. That shouldn’t happen. This should be a play that haunts us, that shakes us out of complacency and comfort, that drags us out of the ordinary, but it doesn’t. Like our nation’s experience of the Iraqi war, this plays is remote, sanitized, anything but visceral; the tragedy can never cut to the soul.

Cynthia Nixon plays Becca as a woman in control of her grief and everything in her life. From managing the household to making lemon squares, she is a woman whose ability to feel appears virtually nonexistent. Was it before her child died? Are there glimmers of something lost? We never get that. While her presence is wonderful, and I would watch Nixon read the phone book, this part should have more to it.

John Slattery as Howie does a good, solid job, but again we never see inside him. As the kooky sister Izzy, Mary Catherine Garrison is too pat and predictable to feel real. In fact, only Tyne Daly seems to dig beneath the surface of a fairly pedestrian, borderline alcoholic mom character to find some real humanity. In a performance beautifully played and subtly laced with subtext, Daly gives a sense of life before and after the loss. Through her two stirring scenes, we see the struggle to regain the balance that any death inevitably challenges.

John Lee Beatty, who is having a banner year this year, has designed a set that fractures, turns, and reassembles to underscore the upheaval of the household and the lives within. Likewise, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is magnificent at conjuring the wealthy suburban world of the play with a breathtaking use of shadows and darkness. Their artistry is undeniable, but it would be all the more impressive were it matched by the script and the other elements of the show. Sadly, it is not.