How it’s New York: Atlantic Theater Company is one of New York’s best, edgiest Off-Broadway companies.
How it’s Irish: Moira Buffini is an Irish playwright. There’s a reference to a shebeen (doesn’t make sense in Soviet Russia, but we’ll go with it.
Suicide is painless.
Or not. When Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov (Joey Slotnick) decides to off himself, disgusted with his unemployed status in Soviet Russia, living off his wife in one of those apartments like the ones in “Ninotchka” where curtains separate different homes (set design by Walt Spangler) the decision unexpectedly makes him a celebrity.
That’s the premise of “Dying for It,” adapted by Moira Buffini from Nikolai Erman’s 1928 play (usually called “The Suicide”). As the play wears on you can see why it was banned by Stalin: there’s a lot of criticism of the Revolution, and by extension, the government, here.
As different factions vie to get Semyon to dedicate his suicide note to them– the Intelligentsia, the Artists, the Romantics– the play is amusing but a little schematic. But wait. There’s a lot more lurking underneath this play than an easy joke. Which is not to say that there aren’t big belly laughs, because there are.
As directed by Neil Pepe, “Dying for It” offers exquisite comedy from a top-notch cast. They make the sucker punches that follow hurt that much more.
Hangdog and self-pitying, Semyon isn’t the easiest guy to love. He takes off on his wife, Maria (Jeanne Serralles) for no good reason, really, and picks on her mother Serafina (Mary Beth Peil, brusque and sharp). When he finds a tuba instruction book under the bed, he decides that he’ll make money with tuba concerts. A comely bar-owner, Margarita (Mia Barron) even sells him one. No surprise, it doesn’t work out.
The Intelligentsia is represented by Aristark Dominkovich Grand-Skubik (Robert Stanton, using an English accent beautifully); the Artist class by poet Viktor Vitorovich (Patch Darragh, hilariously tossing his hair around); and Love by a woman who calls herself “Kiki”( Clea Lewis, with a high-pitched voice like a Russian Carol Kane). Religion gets in there too, with Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney).
So far, so farcical.
But in Act Two, when Semyon’s hangers-on, and actual friends, including brawny upstairs neighbor Alexander Petrovich kalabushkin (CJ Wilson, demonstrating humor and heart) and postman Yegor Timoveivich (Ben Beckley, who beautifully walks the line between officious civil servant and man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit-dying inside), the seriousness of a suicide comes home.
Live accordion and violin add to the atmosphere.Buffini’s atmosphere makes the play feel modern, though there are a few Irishisms that are jarring in New York. A “shebeen” may just say “pub” to Irish ears, but here, it feels as though we’ve suddenly left Russia for Erin. Maloney’s priest is lovable, but feels like an Irish pater rather than a Russian Orthodox authority (though with lines in which the priest wants to tipple, perhaps the characterization is understandable).
There are people who love Semyon, for whom his death would be a tragedy. Masha returns after walking out, to tell him,
We’re hungry, that’s all that’s wrong with us.
When Semyon thinks he has to go through with it still, his thought is:
I thought I was a maggot, they made me feel like a man,”
The horror of that is that it’s only the people who want him dead that cause him to feel that way.
But, like George Bailey, Semyon not only doesn’t die, he comes to appreciate life. There’s a “Finnegan’s Wake” moment when he’s in the coffin (for a moment he’d rather be buried than embarrassed) and then there’s the glorious reveal that life is better than death.
But this being a Russian play, don’t expect the happy ending the Baileys get. Life is serious. And suicide isn’t painless. It may even be contagious.
Though wrapped in a farce, Erdman’s questions about life and death are profound. Pepe’s production at Atlantic Theater Company sends the questions home.
“Dying for It” runs at the Linda Gross Theater, New York, through Jan. 18.