avid Lindsay-Abaire has penned acclaimed works about women who age unnaturally (Kimberly Akimbo), go on wild adventures to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel (Wonder of the World), and awaken every morning with their memory gone (Fuddy Meers). Known for his skewed humor and offbeat tone, Lindsay-Abaire might not seem the playwright to tackle the grief that befalls a couple after the sudden death of their 4-year-old son. The writer admits that when his play Rabbit Hole premiered, many audience members weren't sure how to react. "A lot of people came in knowing nothing about the play and were laughing a little too hard in the first scene," he recalls. "Then they were like, 'Wait a minute—is this a David Lindsay-Abaire play?'"
The author may have shattered all preconceptions about exactly what a "David Lindsay-Abaire play" is with the raw, gutting Rabbit Hole, which premiered on Broadway in February, garnering a Tony Award for actor Cynthia Nixon. The play is currently running at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, with Amy Ryan and Tate Donovan as the mourning parents. Although there are moments in which Lindsay-Abaire's absurdist wit shines through, the drama is a quiet meditation on the nature of sorrow in all its anguish—and its ordinariness. It's this knowledge that kept the playwright from entering into what he refers to as "Lifetime-movie territory" and keeps the show grounded in reality. "I had an inner barometer where, if something felt a little too gooey, I had to back off it," he says. "Inevitably, if you're writing about grief, there are things you have to touch on. But in the real world, there's so much about the healing process that is just mundane."
Knowing he was treading delicate territory, he did something he had never done before in a published play: wrote notes on how it should be performed. "I essentially said to not indulge in histrionics and to not sentimentalize it and don't embrace or touch each other unless I say to and don't cry unless I say to," he elaborates. "I just wanted to have a say about it. If you choose to ignore me, at least I've said it." In retrospect, he admits, he has regrets about not putting stage notes in his earlier works. "When I see productions or pictures or read reviews, the big mistake is that [the actors are] always so overly wacky," he says. "I feel like, 'I take care of the wacky. Your job is to make it grounded and real. Don't worry about the comedy.' But the instinct seems to be, 'Oh, I'm in a wacky David Lindsay-Abaire play; I'd better wack it up.'And it's deadly. Those plays drift away when you do that. If you're not making the stakes real, the audience will stop laughing after 15 minutes."
It's a lesson the scribe says he learned on his first play, Fuddy Meers, an outlandish comedy about a woman who awakens every morning with amnesia. "The read-through was okay, but while rehearsing the first two weeks, there was not a laugh in it," he recalls. "It was making me crazy. The director kept saying not to worry, that the comedy was there and his job was to ground the stakes." The playwright was skeptical, but as soon as the cast got in front of its first preview audience, he says, the jokes flew. "It was crazy funny, but they had also done all this deep work and had all this emotion," he notes. "It was an amazing lesson for me to trust my director, trust my actors, and trust myself in the comedy I had written."
Lindsay-Abaire first entered the theatre as an actor, doing plays in high school. In 10th grade, a friend suggested they mount a play. "He said, 'Let's do this, and you should write it because you're the funny one,'" Lindsay-Abaire recalls with a laugh. "Having never written a play before, I said okay. Then I wrote an 11th-grade play and a 12th-grade play. Because somebody said, 'You should be a playwright,' I just did it."
He attended Sarah Lawrence College primarily for acting but took playwriting classes to expand his theatre knowledge. Although he wasn't pursuing writing, he says, he also never stopped. Upon graduation, he picked up a copy of the Dramatists Sourcebook and submitted to "every single contest and development opportunity there was." He won a competition that sent him to Columbia, S.C., where he met playwright Steven Leaver, who suggested he apply to the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School. Recalls Lindsay-Abaire, "He said, 'Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman run it, and it's flexible enough that you can keep your day job, pay your rent, and go to Juilliard.' I applied and got in, and it wasn't until I was there that I said, 'Hey, maybe this playwriting thing is working out. This was 10 years after I'd written my first play in high school."
At Juilliard, Lindsay-Abaire began work on Fuddy Meers—the result of an assignment that required him to bring in 10 pages a week of a script. "So every 10 pages, I had this cliffhanger," he notes. "The structure is sort of a roller coaster; it's serialized like Dickens. So it's unlike any other play I've written." Fuddy Meers opened Off-Broadway in 1999 to rapturous reviews, even earning Lindsay-Abaire notice in Time magazine as one of its "people to watch."
During his time at Juilliard, the seed for Rabbit Hole was planted, though he didn't know it at the time. "Marsha Norman said to us that if we wanted to write a good play, we should write about the thing that scares us most in the world," he recalls. "I was maybe 25 at the time, and I didn't know what that would be. A few years later I had a son, and when he was 3 years old, I heard a couple stories about friends of friends who had children die very suddenly and unexpectedly." The playwright says he inevitably put himself in the shoes of those parents and found the very idea unimaginable. "Then I thought, 'Oh, this is what Marsha was talking about. This is the biggest fear I have. Maybe there's a play in there.'"
Up next for Lindsay-Abaire are two high-profile stage projects. Coincidentally, both are musicals and both are his first play adaptations. High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby novel, is currently previewing in Boston and is set to hit Broadway by the end of 2006. Lindsay-Abaire is also hard at work on an adaptation of the animated hit Shrek and hopes to have a draft done by next spring. He's working on both simultaneously but says he never gets them confused. "They're so different, and my jobs are so different," he explains. "I'm just the book writer on High Fidelity, but on Shrek I'm the book writer and lyricist. Writing Shrek is much more like writing a play, because I'm responsible for creating through scenes and dramatizing events in song. For High Fidelity I'm not writing the songs, so sometimes I'll just write up to a song and then turn it over."
Asked what made him confident he could tackle the musical genre, Lindsay-Abaire responds, "I was asked. By people with a lot of Tonys. I figured, if they think I can do it, I can do it. I guess it remains to be seen." For Shrek, he was approached by producer Sam Mendes, who thought the playwright's sensibility was a perfect match for the unique fairy tale. High Fidelity came about on the suggestion of Lindsay-Abaire's agent, who also represents the show's composer, Tom Kitt, and lyricist, Amanda Green.
Lindsay-Abaire also recently completed the screenplay Inkheart, an adaptation of the Cornelia Funke novel, set to star Brendan Fraser and Paul Bettany. This isn't Lindsay-Abaire's first time in the movie biz; though he's a credited writer on the animated film Robots, he confesses, "There isn't a whole lot of my stuff in there." But he's quick to say he has no regrets about the Hollywood process. "There's a part of me that knows this isn't entirely mine, and I just have to take the notes and go to work and be a plumber on this one," he says. "It's just very different from being a playwright. When you're a playwright, you're in charge."
"Rabbit Hole" continues at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, Calif. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Through Oct. 22. (310) 208-5454.