Pulitzers, Past and Present

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Last Monday it was announced that David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. As those who saw the first-rate Broadway production (starring Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly) or the less starry, but still solid Geffen Playhouse production last year know, Rabbit Hole is a very conventional play.  An upper-middle class family experiences loss and struggles to move on. That's all.  No flashbacks, narrative trickery, or zany conceits. Just a straightforward, well-made drama.

Luckily Rabbit Hole also has a sense of humor. It's not a comedy, but its observations about family life are so precise that early in the play we become part of the family, laughing with the Corbett clan instead of just at them.  Lindsay-Abaire's talent for writing straight drama laced with comedy stems from his years writing zany comedies laced with tragedy. Those who missed Rabbit Hole, or those who saw it and are curious for more, should make a trek to the Valley, to see a modest, but affecting revival of Lindsay-Abaire's 2003 play Kimberly Akimbo.

Like Rabbit Hole, Kimberly Akimbo is also a five character play about a family with a flaky sister-in-law.  However, Kimberly Akimbo's down-and-out Lavackos family of Bogota, New Jersey bears little relation to Rabbit Hole's prosperous Corbetts of Connecticut.  Similarly, the tone of Kimberly Akimbo could not be more different: Kimberly Akimbo is farce, albeit bleak farce that features a bag lady, stolen mail boxes, a nickel jar for curse words, and a 72-year old teenager.

The 72-year-old teenager is the title character, Kimberly Lavackos (also known as "Akimbo" thanks to an anagram of her name, "Cleverly Akimbo," arranged by her would-be boyfriend). Kimberly suffers from a disease which causes her to age at a rate of four-and-a-half times that of a normal girl. So as her classmates go through puberty, she's experiencing menopause.

This is no easy role, but this revival (directed by Maria Gobetti) benefits from an assured performance by Judy Jean Berns as Kimberly. The part requires an actress to be believable as both a mall rat and a golden girl-and Berns does both with panache. The rest of the cast is energetic, performing the screwball scenes with well-timed mania. Unfortunately, Lindsay-Abaire's script sputters towards the end. Instead of building on the inspired improbability of his scenario, he opts for a staid finale that doesn't quite satisfy. The only thing more difficult than writing a conventional Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is creating something truly original and not knowing quite how to dig your way out of it.

For theatergoers desperate to see the latest Pulitzer winner, Rabbit Hole will be revived in Memphis later this year. An alternative to flying to Tennessee is going to see the first play to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.  A revival of Why Marry?, the 1918 Pulitzer winner by Jesse Lynch Williams, is playing in the San Fernando Valley. Like Rabbit Hole, Why Marry? is not particularly innovative or daring theater. It's a marriage comedy with a few drops of light, Shavian social satire. The colorful-and well costumed-Theatre Neo revival plays up the work's dated elements for laughs. It's hard to imagine it played any other way.  Why Marry? isn't art but rather respectable entertainment-and more often than not, that's what the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is all about.

Why Marry? runs until May 19 at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood; David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo has been extended again at the Victory Theatre Center through May 27.