The real story behind David Lindsay-Abaire’s win for Rabbit Hole is not that the Pulitzer board is out of touch with theater (it is); or, paradoxically, that its jurors selected interesting, somewhat obscure contenders (they did), but that the play should have been boosted up to such singular cultural prominence in the first place. Why are we telling the world that this is the best we can do? Where the hell are our intellectually inspiring issue plays, our bold stylistic experiments, our epic history plays? When I reviewed the production last March, I pilloried it as a prime example of everything that’s wrong with Manhattan Theatre Club—and, by extension, the nonprofit producing system in this city. Programming safe, bourgeois TV movies on stage for the delight of (presumably) conservative subscribers rather than showcasing thematically or formally demanding works in what used to be the greatest theater city in the world.
David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole made me sick. During this competent dramedy about the mourning process, I experienced bizarre hallucinations, nausea, confusion and an irritability verging on dyspepsia. Upon learning my theater-going patterns, the doctor delivered a swift diagnosis of Biltmore Syndrome. It's a fairly common condition brought about by seeing too many middlebrow, bourgeois plays at New York's big nonprofit theaters. The disease gets its name, obviously, from MTC's Biltmore Theatre, which has been home to a steady stream of unimaginative comedies and dramas about middle-class angst since it opened in 2003. […] How do you know if you have Biltmore Syndrome? While sitting through yet another living-room drama about the endlessly fascinating troubles of suburbanites, you find yourself longing for pirates to crash through the kitchen window or zombies to shamble through the front door and chew the protagonist's face off. Escapist fantasies of destruction flit through your mind. Or, you might start believing that the production in front of you is actually relevant, that it is fiercely attacking your political, economic and moral assumptions. You develop an insatiable craving for anything weird, exotic or cruel.
Not to lay the blame for NYC’s feeble theatrical state at the same doorstep every time, but where are the artistic directors who will shepherd difficult works into prominence? Yes, bravo for the Vineyard Theatre for presenting Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist. But I want MTC or LCT to be taking the lead on these shows, getting a dramaturg to research material for the program, try to get news stories written, cultivate a sense of excitement and event over a new, fascinating, difficult play. Prepare the audience for a bracing experience. Not build a million-dollar revolving replica of a Westchester mansion and allow us to watch Cynthia Nixon playing at fetishized emotional repression.
Another conclusion we can draw from the Pulitzer is that they Just Don’t Make Em Like They Used to. As a colleague recently asked with mock-desperation, “Where are our second-rate Arthur Millers? They deserve the Pulitzer!” Now, whether you think Miller was a naive hack or America’s Aeschylus, or somewhere in between, the man wrote meaty, ambitious plays, well constructed, that you could argue about afterward. About which Op-Ed pieces could be written. (Which reminds me, for all the scores of articles written about The Coast of Utopia in the New York Times, has there been one on the Op-Ed page? I’m pretty sure I saw Maureen Dowd hanging on Stoppard’s every word in the Vivian Beaumont lobby—twice!) Doubt was canny in that way—a 90-minute thriller that would not have been out of place on one of those 1950s live telemovies programs (e.g., Twelve Angry Men). As theater, it was tight, stimulating, finely acted. It deserved the Pulitzer and I liked it very much. But come on—is it possible that no other playwrights want to tackle serious issues of the day—pretentious though that sounds?
Or, again, do they simply know that literary managers and artistic directors shy away from anything too political, divisive or intellectually abstruse?
What’s ironic is that, even though the board overruled its jury and went with a safe, mainstream title, the general public still doesn’t know what the hell Rabbit Hole is. That is, until it fulfills its aesthetic destiny and is made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman.