ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
Dying For It
By Elyse Sommer
The play centers around the first floor residents — the unhappily unemployed Semyon Semyonovich (Joey Slotnick), his wife Masha (Jeanine Serralles, as a delightfully combining shrewishness with loving support) and her buttinsky mother Serafina (Mary Beth Peil, best known as the meddling mother-in-law of The Good Wife, once again validating her stage acting credentials). To add to the lack of comfort and privacy in this grungy building we meet M upstairs neighbor Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin (CJ Wilson). . . his somewhat over-the-hill girl friend Margarita Ivanovna Peryesvetova (Mia Barron). . . and Yegor Timoveivich (Ben Beckley), a constantly complaining committed Communist who also happens to be amusingly voyeuristic and the source of the ironic ending.
Semyon's threatened suicide is prompted by his feeling like a parasite in the eyes of the wife who's become the family breadwinner. But while Semyon's threat is mostly just that, word gets out and the erstwhile nonentity finds himself newly important in the eyes of fellow citizens who see his suicide as an opportunity to promote their own agendas.
Moira Buffini has streamlined this 4-act absurdist tale about the Russian Revolution's failure to fulfill its utopian promises, and the effect of that failure on its citizens' well-being and moral uprightness. Her free adaptation, though true to the 1920s period, has a nice contemporary flavor. The cast of the 1928 play by Nikolai Erdman has been halved. But the various characters' antics are sufficient to animate Walt Spangler's richly atmospheric single set and capture the satirical humor of this will-he-or-won't he suicide.
I didn't see the play during its brief Broadway run in 1980 under the original title, The Suicide (with Derek Jacobi playing the suicidal Semyon). However, Buffini's turning Erdman's play into a more economically viable, two-hour chamber piece has probably sharpened its comicality and continued pertinence. However, her adaptation would much more effective with enough additional pruning to bring it in at today's popular run time of 90-minutes without an intermission. That said, the Atlantic Theater's cast and creative team, under the helmsmanship of Neil Pepe, have delivered a happy pond-crossing for Ms. Buffini's adaptation. Every member of this excellent cast (many are Atlantic regulars) has a chance to help bring the the Erdman-via-Buffini frenzied hilarity to life.
I couldn't think of a more apt actor than Joey Slotkin to play the chronically unemployed Semyon. He epitomizes the low self-esteem Everyman-Nebbish who searches for a reason to stay alive even as others besiege him with reasons to end it all.
Slotkin's marital and economic dilemma springs to hilarious life even before David Weiner lights up the fabulously on the mark dilapidated set. Semyon first follows up his declaration to disappear from Masha's life — not via suicide, but under the bed where he finds a tuba playing manual that stirs his hopes. Like so many of today's long-term unemployed, he sees the tuba as a means of creating his own job. Given the over-the-top plot, a tuba does appear but Semyon's bad luck holds out. Though he manages to coax a few ear piercing notes from the instrument, the manual's final lesson for mastery is to get a piano.
Unlike those blasts from the tuba, Josh Schmidt's original music makes for pleasant between scenes interludes on the accordion (Nathan Dame) and violin (Andrew Mayer). Costume designers Suttirat Labarb and Moria Clinton have dressed everyone in period attire in an aptly subdued palette.
The collapse of the tuba scheme once again makes Semyon prone to heed the various people who come on scene to encourage him to shoot himself in the interest of the causes they espouse. The intellectual Aristarkh (Robert Stanton) sees Semyon's suicide as a boon to freedom of speech. Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney) brought by Serefina, sees this one suicide persuading thousands to realize what happens when you give up religion.
One of the funniest pleas comes from Clea Lewis's romantic Kleopatra who wants him to die for love of her. Last but not least is Patch Darragh as "the people's poet" who pleads to write his obituary on behalf of the proletariat but also to make himself more than a slogan writer and fulfill his possibility to be another Tolstoy.
The deluge of conflicting causes, all bent on Semyon's martyrdom, ends with a dramatic bang as choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes and fight director J. David Brimmer — and, yes, there's a coffin ready to receive the martyr's body.
The show's Eli Gold is also back on stage. He's shed his suit and tie and gone back to the bare chest and suspenders of the Emcee in Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. It's the role that turned him into a star. Review of that after the offical opening.
April 14 Like the rest of you Good Wife fans I've been too shocked and saddened by the latest turn of events-- from a practical point of view, having Will killed was brilliantly done and rekindled the spark that the show lacked for a while. The episode following the big, jump out of the seat event was also extremely well handled. It actually had me choked up for a bit. Since Josh Charles is a seasoned stage actor, I'm sure he'll have plenty of offers. Maybe will come up with a play that could star Charles and Dan Stevens, another prematurely killed romantic lead from another hit TV series, Downton Abbey..
News too about Allan Cumming (His Ely Gold had to relay the sad news to Alicia and then deal with the effect of Will's death on the Governor. The Scottish born actor was a Broadway newcomer when he riveted audiences as the Emcee of Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret. Several decades have passed but I think it's a safe bet that this older Emcee will bring the original sizzle as well as something new to this musical with its ever potent story and music. Watch for my review later this month.
January 7, 2014 Update: Will and Alicia are now bitter enemies in and out of court. Diane, her judge dreams dashed, is back with Will and company-- and yes she's married. The guests with notable stage credentials continue to appear and make this the best employment opportunity for New York based Stage actors
Finally, since you're going to have to wait until Fall to see Alicia's move to aw firm works out and how being the First Lady of the State plays out, here's a British 3-parter about another political wife's finding herself faced with her mate's bad behavior. It's called The Politician's Wife and British stage actress Juliet Davidson is brilliant as the disillusioned wife. Here's a link to the DVD from Acorn Media:
Downton Abbey is back with star players either killed off (Dan Stevens who wanted to pursue other acting opportunities), Lady Grantham's nasty Lady's Maid flown to India to serve a new Lady.
Once This little engine that could turn into a huge stage hit has earned back its investment and continues on Broadway with a replacement cast, as well as crossing the pond to London. To read my review of the production This production is a rare chance for New York theater goers to experience this little known satire of the misguided Russian revolution. It would be interesting to see Ms. Buffini return to her original playwriting mode to create her own satire about Russia after the fall of the "iron curtain."
For a brief video about the play narrated by the show's star Click here and scroll down
Links to other plays by Moira Buffini
Dinner, London 2004
Dying For It, London in 2007
Gabriel, also at Atlantic Theater, 2010
Welcome to Thebes- 2010
Handbagged, London, 2014