Rabbit Hole
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham
Through Dec. 22

The playwright’s title winks at us, while the company’s promotional material promises a “bittersweet comedy” to “share with your family this holiday season.” As a result, those expecting the pratfallsor even the redemptive laughterof David Lindsay-Abaire’s previous works are likely to feel they’ve been rabbit-punched well before the end of Rabbit Hole.

Yes, we laugh as Izzy (a tart Nicole Quenelle), the streetwise younger sister of Becca (Katja Hill), appalls her with an account of her latest combination of bar fight and romance. Later, their mother Nat (Marcia Edmundson) demonstrates a Kennedy family obsession that provides a gleeful moment of poor taste before it sparks the implosion of another family gatheringitself, one of the playwright’s signature moves. But, particularly in the last example, Lindsay-Abaire keeps the comic well separated from the relief. A queasy sense of old wounds reopened negates the early, easy laughter. Repeatedly, we think someone’s going to get hurt, just before we realize that someone already has been.

During the play’s endgame, Jeff Storer’s direction and the acting of Hill and Derrick Ivey make it clear that husband and wife, though together, are fundamentally alone, gripped in the icy isolation of their own grief. It’s one of the most compelling portrayals of loss I’ve seen in months on the regional stage. It is also verifiably no comedy at all. Still, the integrity of such moments is one of the things that makes Rabbit Hole well worth seeing. Byron Woods

The Santaland Diaries
Common Ground Theatre, Durham
Through Dec. 22

Common Ground Theatre carries the torch of cynical Christmas spirit with its third annual production of The Santaland Diaries. Starring, for the first time, local improv actor Dan Sipp, this one-man show gleefully wrings the compulsory cheer out of Christmas.

David Sedaris, in his original readings on radio, related his tales with a certain amount of resignation to the decline of humanity, while Sipp’s interpretation adds a level of exasperation that feels more fitting to the present day. While Sipp’s approach nails what’s wrong with the world, it almost misses the beats when Sedaris earnestly evokes holiday magic. Fortunately, he doesn’t, but the close calls are a useful warning to all of us cynics this holiday season. Megan Stein