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To say that Nikolai Erdman‘s dark comedy The Suicide has had a long and tortured history is an understatement. Written by the Russian playwright in 1928, the play was championed by such figures as Constantin Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold but found less favor from that amateur theater critic Josef Stalin, who banned its production and exiled the playwright to Siberia. The play didn’t see the light of day until a 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company production that had a short run on Broadway the following year. A new version, freely adapted by British playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Byzantium, Jane Eyre) and retitled Dying for It, is now receiving its off-Broadway premiere after an acclaimed run at London’s Almeida Theater in 2007.
It would be nice to report the rediscovery of a lost masterpiece. But at least in this Atlantic Theater Company production directed by Neil Pepe, it emerges as a mostly laborious farce whose political satire feels all too dated.
The hard-working Joey Slotnick plays the central role of Semyon, living in a dilapidated boarding house (superbly realized in Walt Spangler‘s multilevel set) with his shrewish wife Masha (Jeanine Serralles) and overbearing mother-in-law Serafina (Mary Beth Peil). From the play’s beginning, the hapless, unemployed Semyon is clearly at the end of his rope, planning his suicide and intending to leave a note declaring that “no one is to blame.” Although he briefly finds hope in the prospect of learning how to play the tuba, even that last-ditch effort doesn’t succeed as planned.
But as he soon learns, killing yourself out of sheer despair isn’t easy, especially when he’s suddenly surrounded by an array of interlopers clamoring for him to become a martyr to their own particular causes. Beset by such figures as a voyeuristic Communist postman (Ben Beckley) who urges him to do it “for the Party”; an unctuous priest (Peter Maloney) who wants to use his death to restore the people’s faith in God; a member of the intelligentsia (Robert Stanton) who pushes him to proclaim that he’s dying for “society”; and a distraught young woman (Clea Lewis) who encourages him to do it for “love,” Semyon announces his plans to phone the Kremlin and inform them that he’s “read Marx and didn’t think much of him.”
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It’s easy to see why Erdman’s play, which Buffini has compressed to a single setting with about half the number of characters, inspired Stalin’s ire. But shorn of its original context, it emerges as an awkward theatrical relic that doesn’t hold up particularly well. The liberal use of modern vernacular — “I think he’s gonna off himself,” declares Masha about her depressed husband — doesn’t help matters, despite the staging’s attempts at Russian atmosphere via such devices as musical turns by a violinist and accordion player.
The performers do what they can with their archetypal roles, and Slotnick ably balances his character’s despair with buffoonery, hitting particular comic grace notes when he winds up prostrate in a coffin, seemingly dead. The playwright has some delicious fun with language, as when a pair of undertakers inquires about the whereabouts of the “incoming occupant” of their coffin, and the climactic moment is genuinely sobering. But it’s ultimately not enough to breathe theatrical life into Dying for It.
Cast: Mia Barron, Ben Beckley, Nathan Dame, Patch Darragh, Clea Lewis, Peter Maloney, Andrew Mayer, Mary Beth Peil, Jeanine Serralles, Joey Slotnick, Robert Stanton, CJ Wilson
Director: Neil Pepe
Playwright: Moira Buffini
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designers: Suttirat Larlarb, Moria Clinton
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Ben Truppin-Brown
Music: Josh Schmidt
Choreographer: Monica Bill Barnes
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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