Monday, June 5, 2017

19 (2017-2018): Review: ANIMAL (seen June 4, 2017)

"Mind Matters"

It’s a bit surprising but definitely encouraging to see a rising English star of Rebecca Hall’s (Machinal) stature performing in a tiny venue like the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, four flights down from W. 16th St. Given the demands of her role in British playwright Claire Lizzimore’s Animal, one can understand this artist’s desire to tackle the role of Rachel, a woman suffering from a troubling psychological disorder. Not, however, that Hall hasn’t been down a somewhat similar road just recently in her lauded performance as Christine Chubbuck, who suffers from depression in the biopic Christine.

Unlike Christine, Rachel is fictional, a sharp-edged, self-deprecating woman whose “anxiety has reached a vivid level of intensity,” as her psychiatrist, Stephen (Gregg Keller), puts it. Rachel, suffering from insomnia and not ready to return to work, is unwilling to admit she needs help and dismisses Stephen’s gentle inquiries with one irritatingly defensive quip after the other. 
At home, her extremely patient husband, Tom (Morgan Spector, Hall’s real-life spouse), does his best to keep his cool as Rachel behaves irrationally in one way or the other. She’s especially short when dealing with the frustrations of handling a tantrum-prone, wheelchair-bound, old lady (Kristin Griffith), whom we assume to be Tom’s dementia-afflicted mother. Rachel insists that the inarticulate woman’s cries are for her mummy: “Your mummy died a long time ago,” she tells her. 
In a plot that eventually seems largely a red herring, Rachel’s inner demons express themselves not only in how she perceives and treats the babbling old lady but in her encounters with a mysterious, devilishly attractive, kiss-stealing intruder, Dan (David Pegram). When Rachel engages in a dialogue with a ten-year-old girl (Fina Strazza) who responds in the shrink’s words, we realize the level to which Rachel’s, multi-medicated hallucinations have taken her. Whatever we’ve seen thus far is confirmed as mere manifestations of how Rachel’s mind manages her tormented world. 
Eventually, Rachel’s condition is anticlimactically given a name, she removes the wool cap she’s worn throughout, almost as if to keep her thoughts under control, and the occasionally surreal vagaries of what we’ve been watching fall into place. It’s hard not to feel that Animal is little more than the dramatization of a rather common mental condition (a recoverable one, by the way), showing the audience its symptoms so that it can respond at the end, “Aha! Is that what it was all about?” 
The play has some excellent exchanges. Although Rachel’s version of the disorder in question is perhaps a bit extreme, its enactment and the reactions to it can be quite absorbing. Still, Animal's focus on her mental issues and the consequent lack of suspense or developing action begins to make it seem longer than its intermissionless hour and 20 minutes. 
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who staged the play’s premiere, at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, in the round, here works on Rachel Hauck’s alley-style, minimalist setting, with the audience on either side of a pale carpet on which sit a few chairs and such. Bradley King's lighting makes the most of its opportunities as does Stowe Nelson's mood-inducing sound design and Daniel Kluger's original music.
The cast, using British accents, maintains a consistent level of truthfulness, with Hall—whose voice, posh British accent, and intonations are dead ringers for Emma Thompson’s—offering just the performance you’ve come to see. She’s as honest, funny, cynical, angry, defensive, and confused as Rachel must be.

Keller and Spector bring well-balanced underplaying to their roles; Pegram (with a body so ripped you could scrub your clothes on it) adds a bolt of charisma; Griffith is effective in a role favoring sounds rather than words, and young Strazza makes the most of her brief scene in such august company.

It’s hard to recommend Animal as a first-rate drama but easy to recommend the first-class artistry of Rebecca Hall.


Atlantic Theater Stage 2
330 W. 16th St., NYC
Through July 2