Rebecca Hall in ANIMAL. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

By Stanford Friedman

It is obvious from the start of Clare Lizzimore’s melancholy Animal that something is not quite right with Rachel (Rebecca Hall). Conversations with her husband, Tom (Morgan Spector), are stilted, and sessions with her therapist, Stephen (Greg Keller), reveal that she has suffered something traumatic. Also, she won’t take off her hat. So, as they say, the stage is clearly set. A slow reveal is in store as the layers of Rachel’s psyche are peeled back to get at the root of her troubles. Ms. Lizzimore is betting that the audience will buy in to 90 minutes of analysis and hallucination before learning what has gotten Rachel here in the first place. And thanks to a talented cast, crisp direction by Gaye Taylor Upchurch and some poetic touches by the playwright, the gambit mostly pays off. Still, it is hard not to feel a little cheated by the play’s outcome. The reason for Rachel’s trauma, which I will not give away, is so utterly unpredictable it diffuses the angst that precedes its discovery.

Lizzimore pops the word “animal” into the dialog a handful of times, little triggers reminding us of life’s frailty.  Indeed, much of the play is a catalog of the way that animals, human animals especially, differ from the rest of the natural world. We sing, we procreate and…we have faces. Faces, here, are a leitmotif. Stephen instructs Rachel to write down a problem and draw a smiley face next to it, to lighten its burden. Later, she tries to imagine Tom with a smiley face in order to deal with the burden he is quickly becoming. Stephen also suggests that Rachel try a facial beauty mask as a way to relax, and when she does so it opens the door to Dan (David Pegram), a hallucinatory he-man offering her a way out. The green goo on Rachel’s face is in stark contrast to the bright tomato soup spilled all over the face of the Old Woman (Kristin Griffith), seemingly Rachel’s wheelchair bound, stroke ridden mother-in-law, whom Rachel harrowingly attends while her husband is off at work. The red smears across the Old Woman’s chin scream Stop! as much as Rachel’s green mask had shouted Go!

Self-awareness is another distinctly animalistic trait, and Ms. Hall does powerful work in transporting Rachel in and out of it; bewitched, bothered and bewildered, is she. As her two guides, Messrs. Spector and Keller are infinitely patient straight men. Mr. Pegram is more than a chiseled torso, bringing just the right level of heat and threat to Rachel’s life, while Ms. Griffith manages to conjure fear, resentment, anger and pleasure through a series of moans and contortions. Bless the Atlantic Theater for even bothering with a play that, midway through, calls for a single, stern scene with a ten-year-old child. And leave it to the Atlantic to cast Fina Strazza in the part; she nails it. At age 8, Miss Strazza was the youngest girl to play the title role in Matilda on Broadway. Now, in an oddly similar costume, she manifests an adult inner-life that signals to the audience, if it wasn’t apparent already, that the rules of nature in Rachel’s world are subject to change without notice.

Animal – By Clare Lizzimore; Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch

WITH: Kristin Griffith (Old Woman), Rebecca Hall (Rachel), Greg Keller (Stephen), David Pegram (Dan), Morgan Spector (Tom) and Fina Strazza (Little Girl).

Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Sarah J. Holden, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Stowe Nelson, original music by Daniel Kluger; Mary Kathryn Flynt, Production Stage Manager. The Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16 Street, 866-811-4111, Through July 2. Running time: 90 minutes.