Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 2, $60
Rebecca Hall gives a blistering performance as a woman struggling to deal with debilitating anxiety in Olivier Award-winning director and playwright Clare Lizzimore’s Animal, which opened last night at Atlantic’s Stage 2 theater. The intimate, emotionally involving play takes place on Obie-winning designer Rachel Hauck’s spare set, a small, horizontal space where the characters occasionally bring in a few chairs or a table, the audience of ninety-eight sitting in a handful of rows on opposite sides of the room. Hall is Rachel, a young woman who is suffering from mental illness brought on by an unnamed incident. About to visit a doctor, she asks her worried husband, Tom (Morgan Spector), “What if my thoughts change?” wondering if he will leave her. “Then good,” he responds supportively. “That’s what thoughts are supposed to do.” Rachel is seeing a psychiatrist, Stephen (Greg Heller), in the belief that she just needs the doctor to sign off on a piece of paper that will allow her to go back to work and resume a normal, healthy life. “The ultimate aim is for you to be able to stand in the middle of a storm, be buffeted on every side by the world, but remain centered,” Stephen says, explaining that there is no simple form for him to fill out and that it will take more sessions and complete honesty for her to get better. Back home, Rachel has trouble helping Tom take care of his ailing mother (Kristin Griffith), who is confined to a wheelchair. Meanwhile, a mild-mannered stranger named Dan (David Pegram) breaks into the house, titillating Rachel even as she demands him to leave. Rachel wants to pretend that she’s fine, that she’s ready to rejoin life, but deep down she knows that there is something that she is refusing to face. “I’m crying at counters, weeping into the arms of the checkout girls, not ’cause I’m sad, or depressed or — ’cause I hate myself,” she tells Stephen, whom at one point she envisions as a little girl (Fina Strazz). Rachel’s inability to separate fantasy from reality leads to a shocking, unforgettable conclusion.
Animal is a beautifully perceptive play, as Lizzimore (The Mint, The Rage) and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch (The Last Match, The Year of Magical Thinking) wade through the morass of one woman’s severe mental illness. However, there are more than a few bumpy patches, particularly when Rachel and Tom, at opposite sides of the stage, pick up microphones and speak as if they’re suddenly absurdist confessional comics, and there are a few instances where the dialogue lapses into more of a graduate school thesis than dramatic narrative. Heller ( The Who and the What, Belleville) is excellent as Stephen, soft and gentle with the extremely fragile Rachel while not being afraid to occasionally challenge her. But the play belongs to Hall (Machinal, As You Like It), who is mesmerizing as Rachel, a woman who doesn’t understand why she has fallen apart. Throughout the eighty-five-minute play, she wears the same loose-fitting gray sweats, hoodie, and ever-present tight hat — as if she’s physically keeping her pain inside her. The revelation at the end is no mere gimmick or M. Night Shyamalan gotcha; rather, it is a surprise that one doesn’t see coming, much like mental illness itself.