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Everyone toils away during Alice Birch’s new play, Anatomy of a Suicide: The audience, which attempts to decipher three separate but interconnected storylines being depicted simultaneously; the actors, who display perfect, split-second timing as they deliver dialogue constructed with the complexity of a musical fugue; and most of all the British playwright herself, who has created this jigsaw puzzle of a theatrical event that seems less designed to convey its provocative themes than to illustrate her formalistic cleverness.
The conceit behind the piece — a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner, seen in 2017 at London’s Royal Court and now receiving its U.S. premiere at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company — is to present the stories of three generations of women struggling with severe depression and suicidal tendencies. It takes a little while to figure out that the central characters, Carol (Carla Gugino), Anna (Celeste Arias) and Bonnie (Gabby Beans), are mother, daughter and granddaughter, respectively, and that their storylines are taking place several decades apart.
The three scenarios are presented at the same time, with each accorded their own section of the stage. The set suggests a medical facility in its stark simplicity, with a large clawfoot bathtub prominently, and ominously, featured. Bushes and plants are scattered throughout, and balloons are a recurring visual motif.
As the play begins, we’re introduced to Carol, whose bandaged wrists provide visual evidence of her recent suicide attempt. Later, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Anna, who grows up to become a heroin addict and the wife of a documentary filmmaker (Julian Elijah Martinez). Anna, in turn, has a mixed-race daughter, Bonnie, who works as a doctor in an overcrowded emergency room and tentatively begins a relationship with a lovestruck female patient (Jo Mei).
The evening consists of short, episodic scenes marked by their banality despite the play’s serious themes. The dialogue is primarily distinguished by its use of counterpoint and linkage among the three storylines. Thus, you’ll sometimes hear different characters utter the same words, such as “good” and “sorry,” at roughly the same time. Themes that are brought forth in one section are frequently echoed in another, such as a doctor advising Carol that she may experience some memory loss after undergoing electroconvulsive therapy at the same time that Anna complains, “I can’t remember everything.”
At other times, the action is more contrasted, as in the scene in which several supporting characters engage in an argument about Carol while Anna dances by herself and Bonnie cuddles a rabbit. At one exasperating point, Carol repeats the words “a baby” literally dozens of times in succession.
It’s all elegantly constructed and formally impressive, and we soon adjust to the idea of following the three sections that frequently comment on each other. Unfortunately, the complex structure more often than not serves to distance us from the intense emotional material. None of the characters or situations is presented with significant depth; instead, they mainly serve to advance the play’s primary theme that suicidal ideation can be an inherited condition, which is hardly a novel concept. That several members of the ensemble play multiple characters, many of them barely delineated, only adds to the production’s frustrations.
The playwright, best known for her screenplay for the acclaimed 2016 film that accelerated Florence Pugh’s career, Lady Macbeth, certainly wields her ambitiously experimental style expertly. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz (Marys Seacole, Red Speedo) also deserves credit for her intricately trafficked staging of what is essentially three plays in one. And the performers go through their complicated paces with tremendous skill, with the three female leads outstanding as the troubled multi-generational women.
Gugino displays a compelling emotional intensity made all the more powerful for her stillness; Arias employs her lithe physicality to stunning effect; and Beans makes her world-weary character fully relatable. But their efforts are undercut by the gimmicky nature of the proceedings, which too often feel like the theatrical equivalent of vigorously attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube.
Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Celeste Arias, Jason Babinsky, Gabby Beans, Ava Briglia, Carla Gugino, Julian Elijah Martinez, Jo Mei, Vince Nappo, Miriam Silverman, Richard Topol
Playwright: Alice Birch
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Mariana Sanchez
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Jiyoun Chang
Sound designer: Rucyl Frison
Projection designer: Hannah Wasileski
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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