Theater Review: Trying Dying for It, Once Again

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Photo: Ahron R. Foster

The Suicide, Nikolai Erdman’s biting 1928 satire of Soviet thought control, so overflows with ironies that they seem to slosh into real life. To begin with, the play died by its own hand: Erdman’s anti-authoritarian comedy (a character says he read Marx but didn’t like it) was deemed too subversive for the Soviet stage and was therefore suppressed — at least until the Soviet Union, too, self-destructed. And Erdman, in trying to have it produced in the first place, committed a kind of cultural suicide; Stalin not only sent him to Siberia but banned him from writing any more plays for adults. (He was allowed to write for children.) Nor can the play catch a break in the West: Its 1980 Broadway debut, starring Derek Jacobi as the poor schmo who just wants to be left alone to end it all, expired in two months. More recently, theaters have tried rejiggering it as a contemporary musical about paparazzi and pop stars or renaming it Goodbye Cruel World. Nothing seems to work.

Still, playwrights who admire political theater keep trying, perhaps feeling that anything so brave must be immortal. On the evidence of Dying for It, a “free” adaptation by Moira Buffini, now at the Atlantic after a well-received London production in 2007, I’m not so sure. It’s not that Buffini makes unreasonable choices. Though a self-avowed maximalist, she has put her aesthetic philosophy aside long enough to chop the play down to producible size, reducing the original cast of about 30 to a dozen, five acts to four, and three settings to one. The unintended result is dramatically claustrophobic. That single setting, for instance, the decrepit tenement in which our unemployed antihero, Semyon, shares a makeshift flat with his exhausted wife, Masha, is simply too grim. Not just the wallpaper but the walls themselves seem to be peeling away in Walt Spangler’s set. (The couple’s quilt looks like string cheese.) We get it: There’s little light, and less joy, in the household. And though that understanding works to support the first part of the story, in which Semyon decides that killing himself is the only choice a useless person like himself has left in a society devoted to productivity, the glumness robs the comic part of the story of any lift it might otherwise manage.

Comic? Yes: It is Erdman’s conceit that even Semyon’s suicide be collectivized. As soon as word of his shocking plan gets out, neighbors and comrades arrive to take ownership of the dire but inspiring event. A member of the recently dispossessed intelligentsia informs Semyon that he must not shoot himself “as an individual” but “as a responsible member of society.” That is, he must make clear in his suicide note that he is doing it to protest the recent dispossession of the intelligentsia. Next comes the romantic who would have Semyon do it for love — that is, love of her. Soon follows a parade of various ists with their relevant isms. The church, art, meat, Marxism, “the sexual emancipation of Russian women” are all proffered as ennobling justifications for what was only meant as an ignoble act. Even in death Semyon cannot be a parasite; he must be an “ideological corpse.” Once he accepts this, the celebration begins, and the dramatic question becomes one of intent: not what he will do but what he will do it for.

Erdman’s bitter insight into the value of actual as opposed to theoretical life does not make, even in the original, a very convincing farce. Too much of the play is taken up with the suitors peddling their suicide stories; the audacity of that narrative withers fast. Even when we move on to the circus that erupts when it becomes unclear whether Semyon has done the deed as promised, the pace is too sluggish. Indeed, with its open casket and bucket of slops, its bellowing tuba and misunderstood liverwurst, the plot is labored, and not in the Soviet sense. There’s something fundamentally unaligned about the humor, which wants to be rollicking but for all its smarts is flippant and sour, built on intellectual paradoxes. “You can’t sentence a man to live,” says one character, in Buffini’s version. To which another replies, “Why not? He deserves it.”

That’s more of a koan than a conversation, and something about Neil Pepe’s production further saps the vitality of the story. Everyone looks and sounds just right: Joey Slotnick (who has played Groucho Marx elsewhere) has the perfect long face and sad eyes for Semyon; Clea Lewis the ideal demented voice for the incurable romantic. The costumes, too, by Suttirat Larlarb and Moria Clinton, gorgeously illustrate the aspirations and degradations of the people and the time. But Breugelesque portraiture is not what’s wanted here. If The Suicide can work at all for today’s audiences it would need a crew of Monty Pythons — or, for that matter, that other great Marx — to turn it into a kind of whistling-in-the-dark vaudeville. Unfortunately, vaudeville is even deader than the Soviet Union.

Dying for It is at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through January 18.