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A CurtainUp Review
Anatomy of a Suicide

"She's a line around my middle, keeping me up when I want to be under."

Anatomy of a Suicide
(L–R) Carla Gugino and Jason Babinsky (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
For the second time this month, I find myself thinking about the idea of inheritance. The first instance, on-the-nose as it is, was during Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance, a two-part, six-and-a-half-hour examination of the ties that bind three generations of gay men. This review is not about The Inheritance, but that play provides a helpful point from which to begin thinking about Alice Birch's Anatomy of a Suicide.

Birch's intriguing play, now making its American debut in a production at Atlantic Theater Company with Lileana Blain-Cruz directing, is also a tale of three generations and a legacy of trauma that links them. There are even characters who spend time barefoot on stage. But, even if completely by accident, the play (which premiered in London in 2017, a year before Lopez's) offers several direct contrasts that almost feel like correctives to the Broadway production just over a mile away.

For one, Birch is laser-focused on female characters and the concerns that are typically assigned specifically to women in our culture: being a loving mother, keeping a home, always being emotionally controlled and ready to console others (men, often) in discomfort. The three women at the center of the play—Carol (Carla Gugino), the eldest and mother to Anna (Ava Briglia as a child and Celeste Arias as an adult), whose own daughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans) is the third generation depicted—are each uniquely influenced by the attitudes and realities of their own time. Yet Birch shows how the more things change, the more they have a way of staying the same.

When it comes to depicting three generations worth of stories, Birch forgoes the sprawling epic approach in favor of a radically compact one. She forces the three related narratives to share the stage and take place simultaneously, often competing with and overwhelming each other. It's a bold choice, fascinating in its demands of the staging but not without frustrations. Audiences are essentially forced to pick and choose which thread to attend to at any particular moment; in following one, you inevitably miss parts of the others.

Where this approach shines, however, are in the moments of overlap or collision between the three timelines. These can range from more superficial moments, like several conversations about eating fish, to ones with more obvious significance, such as heated exchanges that end with broken plates. There are also instances of dialogue overlapping entirely, made all the more striking by how effortlessly they appear to have been staged by Blain-Cruz, belying the obvious hard work required of the director and cast to do so.

The individual performances tend to get obscured in the shadow of the staging device. But some details stand out, like the carefully crafted differentiation of the three women. Gugino's Carol is stoic, minimal, and blisteringly intense. Arias offers a layered portrayal of Anna, with insecurity and conflict hiding under a free-spirited surface. As Bonnie, Beans draws on elements of the other performances to give the character a unique attitude still unquestionably in the lineage of the others. Richard Topol's portrayal of John through multiple parts of the story line is also finely tuned, while Miriam Silverman earns note for how she plays different members of the same family in different timelines.

One constant of the performances is a sense of acknowledgement of the weight of the material—not in a heavy-handed way, but in a way that makes sense within the play's approach to suicide as subject matter. Many dramatic works engage with suicide, quite often using it as a shocking reveal, a key part of the denouement, the product of a lengthy build up where the indvidual is somehow deprived of other options. In Anatomy of a Suicide, however, the outcome is an inevitability offered right in the title, even if we're not entirely sure what form it will take.

Birch is more interested in asking questions about her subject than she is in exploiting it for emotional catharsis. A more clinical approach is indicated by the institutional looking set Mariana Sanchez has designed, overwhelmingly grey but for the occasional projection designed by Hannah Wasileski or Jiyoun Chang's lighting, which still heavily emphasizes harsh fluorescent bulbs. (The creative team is rounded out by Kay Voce, who supplies a range of costumes that help to flesh out each time period, and Rucyl Frison, whose sound design fluctuates between foreboding and melancholy).

In trying to access the meaning of the work and find answers to the playwright's questions, we come back around to the difficulty of focusing in on any one thread of the story. This is undoubtedly a challenge, and it can feel as if Birch isn't so much inviting us to enter the world of the play, or engage with it, as she is daring us to try.

And yet there's a depth to the device that backs up its use beyond simple provocation. In layering these stories, heaping them one atop the other, Birch accentuates their heaviness and weight. Wrangling with the question of how trauma moves through generations, Anatomy of a Suicide shows that the past is inescapable, something we always carry with us whether consciously or not.

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Anatomy of a Suicide
by Alice Birch
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

with Celeste Arias (Anna), Jason Babinsky (Tim, Toby, Steve, and Mark), Gabby Beans (Bonnie), Ava Briglia (Daisy, Anna, Child), Carla Gugino (Carol), Julian Elijah Martinez (Jamie), Jo Mei (Jo, Laura, and Lola), Vince Nappo (Dan, Felix, Dave, Luke, and Nick), Miriam Silverman (Emma, Karen, Daisy, Esther, May, and Diane), and Richard Topol (John)
Scenic Design: Mariana Sanchez
Costume Design: Kay Voyce
Lighting Design: Jiyoun Chang
Sound Design: Rucyl Frison
Projection Design: Hannah Wasileski
Wig, Hair, and Makeup Design: Tommy Kurzman
Animals: William Berloni
Production Stage Manager: Egypt Dixon
Production Manager: S.M. Payson
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues)
Tickets: From $70;, 866-811-4111, or in person at the theater
From 2/1/2020; opened 2/18/2020; closing 3/15/2020
Performance times: Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays–Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Additional Sunday evening performance at 7 pm on 2/23; Wednesday afternoon performances at 2 pm on 2/26 and 3/4
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 2/15/2020 performance

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