A free adaptation of The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman, directed by Neil Pepe, The Atlantic Theater Company
… the arrow of disillusion …
Dying For It is an all-out, hilarious satire of life under the rigid Soviet regime with vivid characters and a fascinating turn of plot — but it’s not all funny.
Semyon Semyonovich, unemployed, lives drearily, supported by the pittance of money earned by his wife, Masha who’s also supporting her live-in mother. No wonder Masha’s got a bitter streak, making Semyon’s miseries worse. Seeing no other way out, Semyon decides to commit suicide, and is all the more determined after a brief reprieve from despair: raised hopes followed by utter failure to learn to play the tuba. Like Molnar’s Liliom, but with an eye to the absurd, the play takes up the psychological import and strains on family life when a man is out of work.
But — wait: the play reminds us that death holds a great deal of power. Don’t waste it.
The strong-man who rooms upstairs, Alexander Petrovich, corrals off the streets characters, each representative of a segment of Russian society that has become disillusioned with the promises of the Russian Revolution (the Russian Revolution put the Soviets in power in 1917 and Erdman’s play was written in 1928). Alexander gives them each, for a price, the chance to persuade Semyon to give his suicide purpose by dying in protest for his or her particular cause.
The aristocratic intellectual, the Priest, the girl looking for “pure love,” the writer wanting to write honestly instead of propaganda — each of them urges Semyon to die a “meaningful heroic death” as a martyr. Each, though, has a different cause because each, depending on vocation and personality, has become differently disillusioned. Nothing, it seems, is working right. The sheer parade of lost illusions attributed to the Soviet system is powerful. No wonder Stalin banned Erdman’s original play
But where they all agree is that the post-Revolution society has become so repressive, and they are so desperate that the only way to fight the system is by the dramatic act of suicide. The rub, of course, is that none of them wants to die. How fortunate that Semyon’s so keen on it: he’s a weapon for all, “the arrow of disillusionment.”
Well, almost all — let’s not forget about the Postman who lives on the top floor and given to peeking through the keyhole at women using the bathroom and is a Communist loyalist. He won the Good Postman Award and, popping up and peeping in unexpectedly — we can take him for being a government spy, real or wanna-be.
Any play which generates so much taken-by-surprise laughter deserves to be called a “comedy” but that’s not the whole story. In its representation of key segments of society suppressed under Stalin, it’s a kind of parable and, in reflection, its vision is tragic — laughing all the way, almost. The paradoxes of laughter and tragedy find a haunting union in poignant violin and accordion music by Josh Schmidt, played by Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer, woven through the play and enlivening a great party scene. The play’s final impact is powerful.
Joey Slotnick as Semyon strikes the right balance between zany clowning and the serious sensitive acting the part of the desperate man requires. Among the fine ensemble cast, I particularly enjoyed the toughness and vitality of Mia Barron as Margarita who keeps a shady bar and can’t help loving the macho muscle man Yegor, played strongly by Ben Beckely.
Jeanine Serralles as Semyon’s wife is so ratty it’s easy to see why Semyon would be drawn to suicide, though it’s hard to reconcile her nastiness with her professions of true love for her husband. Though Mary Beth Peil, playing Masha’s mother, seems a little too elegant to be toting around the slop bucket, her takes are so right on I’m happy to have seen her in the part. An all-star cast fills out the ever-surprising array of characters who, while standing for something beyond themselves are all are vividly individualized.
Walt Spangler’s set of the dilapidated peeling wall-paper rooming house echoes and supports the play, suggesting the mystery and complexity of the varied characters and puzzles of existence.
I’m not sure what the outstanding playwright, Moira Buffini, did in terms of freely adapting Erdman’s The Suicide — as it is, if feels very “Russian,” though I’m sure she included the element of music, but in any case, this is a fine, satisfying play and that it gives a glimpse into a place and time of special historical interest is a bonus.
Dying For It plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through January 18, 2015. For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.
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