Dying for It
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Dying for It. Atlantic Theater Company (see Off Broadway). By Moira Buffini. Adapted from The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman. Directed by Neil Pepe. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.
Dying for It: In brief
Joey Slotnick stars as a miserable man whose plan to kill himself makes him the center of local attention in Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s Soviet-era satire The Suicide. The Atlantic’s Neil Pepe directs a rich ensemble cast that includes Jeanine Serralles, Peter Maloney, Mary Beth Peil, Clea Lewis, Robert Stanton and Mia Barron.
Dying for It: Theater review by David Cote
Suicide is hilarious—as long as you’re very, very bad at it. That’s one takeaway from Moira Buffini’s Dying for It, her sleek and unexpectedly tenderhearted adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s Soviet-era satire, which finds big, bitter laughs in a hapless man’s frenzied attempt to end it all.
Stalin’s culture fascists banned this pitch-black comedy (called The Suicide in 1930) and banished the dramatist to Siberia, and it’s easy to see why. Uncle Joe’s workers’ paradise is more like a Kafkaesque hellscape, crawling with party bootlickers, money-grubbing Marxists and every species of post-Gogol gargoyle. Splenetic, despairing Semyon Semyonovich (wedge-skulled and goggle-eyed Joey Slotnick) realizes that his shabby, parasitic life is not worth living. Unbeknownst to his long-suffering but loyal wife, Masha (Jeanine Serralles), our hero procures a gun and pens his suicide note. Cue a parade of sharp-edged caricatures, each hoping to exploit Semyon’s impending self-murder: The preening intellectual (Robert Stanton) urges him to blame the government; the boozy priest (Peter Maloney) begs him to be a lesson to sinners; the romantic floozy (Clea Lewis) seductively asks him to die for her. In one day, he goes from schlub to symbol.
Neil Pepe’s appropriately grim yet giddy production mixes gallows yuks with zany turns from one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen in ages. Walt Spangler’s unit set, a crumbling, claustrophobic landing in a boardinghouse, is perfectly lit by David Weiner, which is to say, for maximum gloom and grime. Monica Bill Barnes is credited as choreographer, and there is some impromptu rug-cutting in a second-act going-away party, but she must have also helped with the excellent overall juggling of bodies for bursts of slapstick group hysteria.
Besides assured comic turns from the aforementioned actors, C.J. Wilson is delightful as a swaggering but sensitive Marxist, and Mia Barron injects her soigné bar owner with notes of warmth. Desperately clownish yet lovable, Slotnick is perfect as a bumbling everyman who learns that he’s worth more dead than alive.
Dying for It may be a one-joke affair, but it’s a great big cosmic joke, and the Atlantic Theater Company’s first-rate cast and crew find ingenious ways to keep you hooked until the final, sobering punch line. Will you die laughing? It’s very possible.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE A brutal satire from Soviet Russia simply kills us.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote