From her movie debut more than a decade ago in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige all the way through last year’s high-wire tragedy Christine, Rebecca Hall has proven herself an expert portrayer of the emotionally fraught. On stage, the actress (daughter of legendary theater director Sir Peter Hall), has been no less adventurous. In her last appearance in New York, she ended up in the electric chair as a woman convicted of murder in Machinal. Now in the intimate, 98-seat Off-Broadway venue at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, Hall appears onstage, mere feet from the audience on both sides of her, for the entirety of Clare Lizzimore’s domestic drama Animal. The role is Rachel, a delusional woman suffering a mental breakdown while making self-deprecating comments about her condition to her husband (Morgan Spector, Hall’s own) and therapist (Greg Keller). Unfortunately, the material is replete with tired, female-cracking-up clichés, and coasts mostly on Hall’s considerable stage presence.
For a while, that’s good enough. Hall, dressed in gray sweatpants, a hoodie, and a winter cap, makes us care during the play’s first two or three scenes about what is going on inside Rachel’s head. But then other characters begin to appear as figments of her imagination — an overused contrivance — and Hall’s performance devolves into a series of noisome rants on the black cloud hanging over her head. The dialogue reeks of playwriting, especially as we’re able to telegraph the clumsy direction that the story is going, long before Lizzimore and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch actually get us there. A late message about feminism is more than a bit corny given how much the play hinges on depicting Rachel as a dutiful wife and mother. Hall deserves sharper, tougher, better material. For a performer capable of such exquisite emotional control, Animal is too off-the-leash. C