Animal plays a complicated game. Withholding, until the end, the precise reason why, at the start, we find its central character, Rachel, in a therapist’s office keeps the terrain open. It enables British writer Clare Lizzimore to keep us thinking broadly about the many issues she explores from Rachel’s perspective; here, it situates one clinical diagnosis in a wider, thornier social context. However, it also casts Rachel adrift at the play’s centre.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s production of Animal makes its New York premiere at Atlantic Theater Company’s studio Atlantic 2, after debuting at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. Here, British actress Rebecca Hall plays Rachel. She’s a brittle, prickly presence, swamped in sweatpants and wearing a hat she never takes off. Her defensive challenges of therapist Stephen (Greg Keller) are self-lacerating barbs. There’s a deadened, exhausted quality to her restlessness.
Lizzimore shows us Rachel’s world as a fragmented sequence of memories and confrontations, cycling through fraught domestic collisions with her husband, Tom, and Dan, an intruder (played, initially at least, by David Pegram with exaggerated seductiveness) who slips into her home in a dreamlike encounter. The divide between what is real and what is imagined is porous. Characters approach each other warily, from opposite ends of the traverse staging. There’s a chilly deliberation to Upchurch’s direction and something unyielding in designer Rachel Hauck’s concrete-floored, bare set.
As Rachel rails against romanticised views of women, she hurls a reality of shit tracked indoors by painful high heels at Stephen. She’s repulsed by the dependency of – who we assume is – Tom’s dementia-suffering mother, wheelchair-bound and dribbling soup. Later, she expresses horror that ‘beauty’ is still seen as a main goal for women. Each instance is another bar on a social cage Rachel kicks against angrily and fearfully. When Dan – here a black character who is seemingly a figment of Rachel’s delusionary state – angrily attacks her for reducing him to a few traits, for not seeing that he’s so much more, it feels both rooted in guilt but also self-projective.
In jagged pieces, Lizzimore gives us an unvarnished portrait of a woman trying to hold herself together as she rejects a role allotted to her by a world she feels trapped by. Hall’s pared-to-the-bone snarl of anger is tinged with an unease and fear as things become increasingly hallucinatory. We’re in her head, which is a pitilessly unforgiving place. Her descent is often compelling and thought-provoking.
The cast do well at colouring in the various shades of the play’s imaginatively inside-out progress through a stricken mind. However, Animal ultimately struggles to ground its swirl of ideas in a specific person with a particular story, as Rachel suffers from double duty as both focal point and a mystery with delayed resolution. As a consequence, for most of the play, she is an effective mouthpiece for a potent social critique, but strangely nebulous as a character. We empathise generally but not specifically.
In this structural trade-off, Animal is uncompromising about the ambivalence of what it means to ‘be’ a woman today, amid a barrage of expectations, but watching it is ultimately a detached experience. When we do learn what has happened to Rachel, it lends retrospective emotional power to the production and leads to a few ‘oh, was THAT what was really going on?’ moments. But then the play kicks into a diminishingly over-expository mode, as Tom and Stephen explain everything we’ve seen – mansplaining that sits awkwardly between irony and accident.