Dying For It
Linda Gross Theater: Atlantic Theater Company
January 17 2015
Perceived “wisdom” suggests that Russian Comedy is an oxymoron. Years of deathly dull interpretations of Chekov pieces as grand tragedies do not help the cause. Neil Simon’s wonderful adaptation of some Chekovian stories, The Good Doctor, is, in its own way, a masterpiece, showing that hilarity and the pen of a Russian are not mutually incompatible things. Lighter work from Turgenev and gems such as Gogol’s The Government Inspector also demonstrate clearly that Russia is home to gentle comedies and zany farce.
Nikolai Erdman wrote The Suicide in 1928, incurred the wrath of Stalin and was promptly exiled to Siberia. The play was banned and never performed in Erdman’s life and it was not until the RSC exhumed it in 1979 that it had real success both in England and Broadway.
Moira Buffini’s “free adaptation” of Erdman’s play, curiously titled Dying For It, has just completed a run at the Linda Gross Theater off- Broadway; the production was directed by Neil Pepe for the Atlantic Theatre Company.
It always fascinates me why modern adaptors of Russian texts always insist on making characters regularly use the complete name of other characters in ordinary exchanges. “What are you doing Margarita Ivanovna Peryesvetova?” seems otiose for a modern language adaptation: why not “What’s up Madge?” if you are aiming for clarity and brevity? Buffini’s script was inconsistent in this regard; sometimes the full name was flung around, sometimes just a part of it or a pet name or appellation. Still, when you want people to laugh, always best not to overtax them with convoluted and unfamiliar names.
Buffini shortened both narrative and characters, quite efficiently it must be said, but never seemed precisely clear about whether the end result was meant to be farce with purpose or comedy of manners (ill or otherwise). There is a lethargy and indecision about the writing which provides the first hurdle for a truly riotous night at the theatre.
The story concerns a man, Semyon, who has failed to gather a career around him. In desperation, he tries to learn the Tuba (don’t ask) but fails and concludes that he must end his life; an act of defiance and a statement about the quality of his life. He wants to leave a note behind to make sure no one thinks they are to blame.
However, the path to self-destruction is paved with difficulty. Once word gets out that he plans to commit suicide, various interested parties seek to exploit the occasion for their own purposes. There is a peeping Tom postman who urges Semyon to sacrifice himself on behalf of “the party”, a raunchy girl who wants his death to be a highly romantic affair, a mother-in-law who just wants to be rid of him and his uselessness, a member of the priesthood who sees it as a way to shore up support for his flock’s faith, and a progressive thinker who wants him to kill himself for the good of society. All very cheery.
A big party is held to send him off in style but, of course, he does not actually manage to do the deed. Cue frustrated would-be celebrators of a life given up for “right”, anger of different kinds and varying degrees of amusement, a pretty funny scene involving an open coffin and a pretending corpse and, then, unexpectedly a sombre twist. What twist? Well, that would be a spoiler as the youngsters say.
It’s not all that difficult to imagine Stalin’s vitriolic response to the original: it’s as dark a black comedy as they come and rooted firmly in reactions to and adherence with Communist dogma and the notions underpinning the Stalinist state. So in its time and place, it would have had a remarkable frisson, possibly akin to North Korea’s reaction to Sony over a recent film.
Designer Walt Spangler has sought to evoke the sense of that long ago Russia with a set that is twisted and tattered, with wallpaper peeling, many doors for slamming and spying and a staircase that permanently reminds one of the notion of class, of higher and lower levels in society. Fittingly, it’s blue – matching the mood of Semyon, who, with wife Masha, essentially has a Harry Potter like existence under the stairwell; although unlike Potter, they have no doors, no privacy except darkness.
The costumes take a middle ground: Suttirat Larlab and Moira Clinton provide a semi-modern take on peasant and comrade habiliments which is both pleasing and successful in evoking the era of Stalin. There are even a pair of musicians who play melancholic violin and accordion music (nice, haunting melodies from Josh Schmidt) to emphasise the familiar Western concept of Russia at that time.
Buffini opts for mostly modern sounding language (apart from the aforementioned full name convention) and this gives the piece an immediacy but also steps it firmly away from its original context. So Pepe has quite a task to fuse all of these elements into a consistent whole.
Thanks to an extremely gifted cast, he mostly succeeds – admirably.
At the centre of the play, with most of the hard work to do, is Joey Slotnick as Semyon. Slotnick manages that perfect fused state of incomprehension and determination so critical in comic work of this type. He is manic, deluded, embarrassed, cunning and adaptive; a sewer rat racing around a tunnel into which he has hurled himself and which is rapidly filling with dank, cold water.
Technically, his work is clean and stylish; but it needs more exuberance, more inner fire, more slightly-out-of-control edginess to propel it into a masterful comic turn.
The rest of the cast, all with very clearly delineated supporting roles and specific humour functions, are uniformly excellent, but each take the level of their performance from Slotnick. So, there is a uniformity which is desirable but, equally, the moments which could be Mt Everest peaks of wild, abandoned laughter do not scale those heights as no one exceeds the limits set by Slotnick.
Mary Beth Peil relishes her waspish mother-in-law to Semyon and is pure joy from start to finish. As Masha, Semyon’s long-suffering wife, Jeanine Serralles is a triumph of befuddled angst and incomprehension.
Peter Maloney is a joy as a most unholy priest, agitating Semyon to take his life with a relish that is as disturbing as it is believable (especially in these days of fanatical religious fervour) and Clea Lewis was funny and quirky as Kiki, the slightly unhinged amorous supplicant who comes between Semyon and Masha.
Particularly good was Ben Beckley’s Russian equivalent to Postman Pat (albeit with a touch of Jimmy Saville) who likes to peep for the Party and Robert Stanton’s stiff intellectual who does not really fit into any camp.
The best scenes were the group set pieces – the enthusiastic party to celebrate Semyon’s planned suicide and the reveal around the coffin when the truth comes home to roost. The cast were all in tune with each other, delightfully interacting in a silly way while keeping true to their particular character’s interior motivations and drives.
Solid ensemble acting made the most of this curious adaptation of Erdman’s original play, which is definitely that rare creature – a true and undeniable Russian comedy.