In 2007 I saw a fine local production of Rabbit Hole just months after it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. I was initially wary about the play, since the Pulitzer jury had originally recommended three inventive plays that were ultimately rejected by the Pulitzer Board in favor of Lindsay-Abaire’s lesser, safer play.
Rabbit Hole chronicles the story of a suburban couple recovering from the death of their son, who was struck by a car. The drama unfolds on a claustrophobic set that reflects the couple’s descent into an existential hell.
My difficulty with the play was accepting the premise that the couple is still in the throes of getting beyond their loss nearly a year later.
It’s hard to turn any prize-winning play into a film. Most of the time, it doesn’t work (Rent, A Chorus Line, Nine), but when it does, it can be magical (Chicago, The History Boys, Angels in America).
Consider John Patrick Shanley’s successful adaptation of his play Doubt, which made its transition from the stage to the screen with aplomb. Ditto John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Perhaps that is why Mitchell was hired to direct Lindsay-Abaire’s film adaptation of his play. Yet despite the layered performances that Mitchell elicits from Nicole Kidman (the film’s producer and star) as the grieving mother, and Miles Teller (as Jason, the young man involved in the accident), the rest of the secondary characters come across as losers in a suburban telenovela. Even Dianne Wiest as Kidman’s mother is given an abbreviated version of a role that actually worked in the play.
Mitchell’s valiant attempt to give the film a sense of the tragic falters, hampered by Linday-Abaire’s melodramatic and maudlin adaptation of his own play.
In a scene not in the play, the film ridicules those attending a support group for grieving parents. It is played for laughs but stops short of showing just how pathetic Howie and Becca are in this setting, and instead opts to make them seem superior.
Rebecca’s refusal to have conjugal relations with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart), and his refusal to find comfort with another woman out of love for his wife, would be more appropriate in a 1950s Douglas Sirk film than a scathing examination of a 21st century marriage on the rocks.
The constant squabbling between the couple isn’t vintage Albee or Inge. By allowing the characters to whine and deny each other a healthy sex life, much less serious discussions about conceiving another child, Lindsay-Abaire fails to plumb deeply the couple’s past life, romance, or love for one another.
An element that worked successfully in the play was a soliloquy by Jason, the young man behind the wheel of the fatal accident. It is from Jason that we get the title of the play — a graphic novel he has written explores an alt universe portal (a rabbit hole). Jason’s mature use of creativity to heal and move beyond the experience is the film’s saving grace.
But Rabbit Hole is a tailor-made film vehicle for Kidman, so Jason becomes a stand-in for Becca’s dead son (and perhaps her boy toy) and his spot-on insights are now shared with Kidman.
In an author’s note to his play, Lindsay-Abaire writes how his work should be produced: “It’s a sad play, don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be. Avoid histrionics and sentimentality at all costs. If you don’t, the play will flatten out and come across as a bad movie-of-the-week.”
In his rush to convince, another talented playwright succumbs to the banalities of his screenwriting. •
Dir. John Cameron Mitchell. Writ. David Lindsay-Abaire; with Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard
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