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Expect to be disoriented and confused by the events in the off-Broadway play Animal. And while it’s not fun to feel this way at the theater, it’s nothing compared to what the central character, Rachel, feels. Brilliantly played by Rebecca Hall, Rachel is one hot mess, and it’s the actress’ sterling performance that makes Clare Lizzimore’s gimmicky drama, receiving its New York debut in an Atlantic Theater Company production, worth the discomfort.
That Rachel is flailing emotionally becomes evident from the opening scene in which she meets with a therapist, Stephen (Greg Keller), in what is clearly a session mandated by her employer. Rachel treats Stephen’s attempts to get her to describe her feelings with sarcasm, although the response doesn’t feel inappropriate when he asks, “Are you still cooking?”
“Do you ask men that question?” Rachel replies, her blood boiling.
Although married to a loving and supportive husband, Tom (Morgan Spector, Hall’s real-life spouse), Rachel struggles to deal with her home life, which includes serving as caregiver for Tom’s elderly, wheelchair-bound, dementia-addled mother (Kristin Griffith). So, it’s not surprising that she finds herself drawn to a mysterious, handsome stranger (David Pegram), who suddenly appears and kisses her when she’s temporarily blinded by face cream in her eyes. Although Rachel resists his playful advances when he subsequently pops by periodically while her husband is away, she clearly enjoys the attention.
In later scenes depicting Rachel’s interactions with her therapist, he talks to her about “circadian rhythms” and at one point appears to her in the form of a little girl (Fina Strazza). He also expresses concern about her drab daily garb: “I want to talk about your hat,” he says, referring to the knit cap she constantly wears as if it offered some form of protection. Occasionally during the play, a microphone drops from the ceiling into which Rachel delivers stream-of-consciousness monologues expressing her troubled state of being.
Teasing out its fractured storyline with elements of menace and surrealism reminiscent of Harold Pinter, Animal can be a bit of a slog — slow-paced and lacking in narrative momentum. Everything is explained via a twist ending in which Rachel’s situation becomes clearly defined. But the glib resolution feels more redolent of a playwright’s trickery than an exploration into the human condition. Although audience members will at least learn about a medical condition, or a variation of it, of which they may not previously have been aware.
Hall’s superb performance provides the main redeeming element. The statuesque actress, her beauty here barely dimmed by her unglamorous costuming and lack of makeup, delivers a live-wire turn that keeps us intrigued about her troubled character, who remains sympathetic throughout. The rest of the ensemble provides solid support under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s unobtrusive direction.
There’s a claustrophobic sense to Upchurch’s staging in the intimate theater as well, given that the production unfolds in a narrow playing area surrounded by the audience on both sides. It makes us uncomfortably aware that Rachel’s nightmare is one from which neither she nor we, at least for a while, will be able to escape.
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2, New York
Cast: Kristin Griffith, Rebecca Hall, Greg Keller, David Pegram, Morgan Spector, Fina Strazza
Playwright: Clare Lizzimore
Director: Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Music: Daniel Kluger
Sound designer: Stowe Nelson
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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