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A CurtainUp Review

I want you to know. It's been really nice to know you Tom. To be married to you. Everything before. I liked that. I want you to know that. You wouldn't remember me as mad would you? — Rachel

Rebecca Hall
Is it the enigmatic contours and dramatic contrivances or the in-your-face honesty and coherence of this fine play by Britisher Clare Lizzimore that keeps one riveted to the action? It is all of that as it is being performed on an almost empty playing area at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage II with the audience seated on bleachers on two sides.

Except for a table, a few chairs and some props, the play needs only the minimum of setting designed by Rachel Hauck and the perfectly enhanced lighting of it by designer Bradley King to have it work it spell. The spell is initially cast by British actress Rebecca Hall who almost never leaves it while giving a brilliantly unnerving but essentially convincing performance.

Hall, who deserved the acclaim she got following her Broadway debut performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Machinal during the 2014 season, has returned to play another extraordinary character in emotional peril. This time she's Rachel, a woman who appears to be not only losing her mind but aware of it herself. Her downward spiraling is as closely monitored by a psychiatrist (Greg Keller) as it is also being witnessed by her attentive husband Tom (Morgan Spector.)

Lizzimore's play, which received its world premiere as part of Washington D.C.'s Studio Theatre's Women's Voices Theater Festival, is one helluva trip into an area of the mind that is notably susceptible to stress, anxiety and to a woman's hormonal fluctuations. More information than that, however, would be telling too much about a devastating condition exclusive to women and the one that propels this play.

Animal has been splendidly staged by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch to emphasize the play's need for theatrical minimalism. What is most effective is how we become privy to Rachel's demons and the portents of dementia with which she appears to be at war.

It looks like a fight to the finish for the combative but also disoriented Rachel. She baits her husband into confrontations, mixes and mismatches weird looking attire even to her always testy sessions with the analyst.

Apparently taking sick leave from her job, Rachel seems also to have more than she can cope with attending to Tom's invalid mother (Kristin Griffith) who vehemently resists the frustrated Rachel's half-hearted efforts to feed and comfort her. Most interesting to observe are the analyst's deliberately passive responses to Rachel's behavioral swings.

The brief but insightful scenes with the always professional but also cautiously friendly analyst (excellent performance by Keller) do not divulge or sacrifice the play's need for some ambiguity and secrecy. That need is well met with the appearances by Dan (good work by David Pegram) a sexy stranger who dares to offer favors even knowing her husband is in another room. Also appearing is a very pretty pre-teen girl (Finna Strazza) whose presence adds another confounding layer to Rachel's mental state as do the old woman's cries and whimpers.

Animal may be providing a heavy dose of the psychotic. But who will complain when its being doled out by the terrific Rebecca Hall.

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Animal by Clare Lizzimore
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Cast: Kristin Griffith (Old Woman), Rebecca Hall (Rachel), Greg Keller(Stephen), David Pegram (Dan), Morgan Spector(Tom) and Fina Strazza (Little Girl)
Sets: Rachel Hauck
Costumes: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting: Bradley King
Sound: Bradley King
Stage Manager: Mary Kathryn Flynt
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Atlantic Stage 2 at 330 West 16 Street
From 5/24/17; opening 6/06/17; closing 6/25/17
From 5/24/17; opening 6/06/17; closing 7/02/17
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 6/03 press preview

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