Onstage: Down the Rabbit Hole

A conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire

David Lindsay-Abaire

Let me tell you a little about playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose Pulitzer Prize winning script, Rabbit Hole, opens at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati on Wednesday. He was born in Boston in 1970 to a blue-collar family who didn't care much about theater. When he was in seventh grade he won a scholarship to a private academy where he was exposed to drama classes and other aspects of the arts.

He liked being onstage and found himself in the school's ninth-grade play. When 10th grade rolled around, someone said to him, "You should write a play. You're the funny one."

Lindsay-Abaire attributes his sense of humor to his mother.

"My mother is a very central character in my life," he told me in a recent phone conversation. "She's a very funny person who is always the center of most family events, she's a great storyteller and a huge personality. So that sort of influence on me as a person has found its way into my work."

He went to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., where he performed in plays and continued to write scripts. But it wasn't until he was in his mid-twenties that he realized his career was in writing for the stage.

He won a playwriting competition in South Carolina and was subsequently urged to enroll in the prestigious Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard in New York City. There he studied with playwrights Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang and wrote his first commercially successful play.

Fuddy Meers (1999) was an absurdist piece about a woman with a form of amnesia that wipes her memory clean every night as she sleeps. His next two plays were staged in 2000: Wonder of the World, which starred Sarah-Jessica Parker as a runaway wife, and Kimberly Akimbo, about a 16-year-old girl with progeria, a genetic disorder causes her to age four times faster than average.

Those three plays — all of which have been presented by Cincinnati theaters (Fuddy Meers by Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival in 2001, Wonder of the World by Know Theatre in 2004 and Kimberly Akimbo by New Stage Collective in 2005) — created expectations that his work was always comic and absurd.

When Rabbit Hole was first presented at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 2005, some saw it as a radical departure for the writer. The play told a naturalistic story about a couple struggling with grief after their son's accidental death.

Despite winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the play still elicits some confusion from those familiar with Lindsay-Abaire's earlier work. I asked him if he made a conscious choice to move from surreal material to something more naturalistic:

David Lindsay-Abaire: It certainly was conscious and very deliberate. The idea of writing some kind of more naturalistic play had been in the back of my head for a while. I had seen myself being classified in a very specific way by the press. I noticed that my name started to creep up in other people's reviews to describe a very specific kind of play. Instead of "wacky" or "absurd" they would say "like a David Lindsay-Abaire play." Of course, it was very flattering to be summoned as an adjective, but it was a little bit limiting. I wondered what it would be like to write a naturalistic play. Could I even do it? I had never done that kind of play. That sat there for quite a while, waiting for an idea that might fit into that sort of genre. And then the Rabbit Hole idea came to me, and I thought, "Well, maybe this is it."

Rick Pender: Will you write more scripts in this vein?

DLA: The story (of another play) will dictate how it's going to be told. That said, I've certainly been empowered to use that other set of muscles again. So if naturalistic idea — whatever that is — would come to me, I would think, "OK, I can write that kind of play." I can also imagine writing a play that straddles both genres. More naturalistic, perhaps but with elements of absurd.

RP: I understand you're writing a screenplay for Rabbit Hole. Is it completed?

DLA: You never quite know. I handed in a draft that everybody was very happy with. Nicole Kidman will be playing the mother. The studio quickly said, "Let's get a director." Of course, the director might say, "This is fantastic. However, I have a few notes." It becomes a totally different beast when you try to tell this story with as many visuals as possible. Knowing how films work, I can accomplish much more in a two-second close-up than I can with two pages of dialogue. So I was able to strip away at it and to rely on the camera.

RP: Are you concerned that the movie will become too emotional? In a note in the script you warn, "It's a sad play, don't make it any sadder than it needs to be. Avoid sentimentality and histrionics at all costs."

DLA: The story of Rabbit Hole is not about the accident. It's about the repercussions of the accident. Nobody wants to see the accident. I wouldn't want to see it. If you showed that, I wouldn't like it. That's not what the story is about.

RP: I prefer to look at similarities between your plays rather than differences. Each of them has a woman as its central character. Is that a conscious choice?

DLA: It is. I think about the idea first, whatever the play is about and what I want to write about. Then pretty close to one of the first questions I ask is, "Does it matter whether this protagonist is a man or a woman?" If it doesn't actually matter, then I like to make it a woman. I've known so many great actresses, and most plays are about men, so as a writer who gets plays produced, I feel like it's my part to be on the other side of the scale! Also, when I write a play, I like to write about things that I don't know. I'm more comfortable with stories that I'm not completely familiar with. Who are these people? Maybe by making the character a little more removed from myself, it's just more interesting for me.

RP: Did you ever consider making Becca's husband Howie the protagonist?

DLA: No. I do think he's central. He is the co-star of the show. I actually feel that Howie is the character closest to myself, and I didn't want to write about myself — I'm a husband, I have a son. I wanted to push away from my own life. I just don't find that as interesting. That said, I must say that I'm very similar to Becca, too. I'm really in every character in the play.

RP: Rabbit Hole has had more than 30 productions in two years and won the Pulitzer Prize. But why would readers of a paper like CityBeat want to see your play?

DLA: Well, I guess the play works because it engages you. I don't know what else to say than it wheedles its way into your heart. It affects you in some way. It speaks to you. It provokes you. Even if you hate it, it's good to be provoked.

RP: Some people find your play frightening because it evokes emotions many of us fear, a situation that scares us: losing a child. It's a subject you might think about but not want to talk about. To have it represented onstage is a very daring, risk-taking thing to do. And yet you portray these people in some very human ways. I think that's part of the appeal of Rabbit Hole.

DLA: I so appreciate you saying that. I really wanted to put it out there and not shy away from the reality of it. Some have asked, "What would this play have been like if he had written a 'real' David Lindsay-Abaire play?" with that weird absurdity. It would have been so easy for me, but it would have pushed people away from the real feelings. It would have become ironic and glib, not as potent. This was the kind of play I wanted to write. I wanted to see what would happen if I stripped away everything and wrote a really naturalistic play. I didn't want to rely on those tricks that I've often relied on. For better or worse, this is what it is.

RABBIT HOLE opens Wednesday at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and continues through Sept. 30. For tickets: 513-421-3555.

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