By Brian Scott Lipton
“A suicide kills two people, that’s what it’s for,” Arthur Miller famously wrote in his 1964 play After the Fall. But the women contemplating this desperate act in Alice Birch’s bracing play Anatomy of a Suicide, now at the Atlantic Theater Company under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s piercing direction, would strongly disagree.
Indeed, the desperately unhappy desperate housewife Carol (rivetingly played by Carla Gugino, who, coincidentally starred in the most recent Broadway revival of After the Fall) and the seemingly bi-polar Anna (a remarkable Celeste Arias) have only one goal: to ease the unbearable pain of living. They give little—if any—thought to the repercussions the act of ending their lives will have on their well-meaning husbands: John (a moving Richard Topol) and Jamie (a rather bland Julian Elijah Martinez); never mind their children, who will inevitably be scarred by their mothers’ actions.
OK, semi-spoiler alert: we know this latter fact because while the play initially appears to be made up of three overlapping stories that we think are taking place at the same time, that’s not the case. Birch pretty quickly reveals we are, for the most part, in three different time periods watching the actions of Carol, her grown daughter Anna, and Anna’s grown daughter, the emotionally reserved Bonnie (an excellent Gabby Beans), a doctor who seems unable to treat anyone—most of all, herself—with any real kindness. (Everything takes place on Mariana Sanchez’s unit set, which somehow easily transports us from location to location.)
Initially, Birch’s gambit is clever, if slightly confusing, to audiences; but it quickly renders diminishing returns. Birch’s writing is so sharp and so precise, and each of these women’s stories are so fascinating, that it’s ultimately so counterproductive that our focus becomes hopelessly divided, practically forcing us to listen to just one conversation. (Which one may depend on where you sit or which performer intrigues you the most; in my case, both of these factors led me to concentrate primarily on the magnificent Gugino.) In fact, I suspect the work might indeed benefit from a structure that firmly separates the women’s stories once we understand the familial connection between them.
To Birch’s credit, she offers no pat explanation for Carol and Anna’s urges; if anything, we suspect that their drive toward self-annihilation is primarily genetic, and therefore unstoppable. Neither woman responds to electro-shock therapy, and little discussion is given to other, more conventional forms of medical treatment. (However, the program does provide phone numbers for mental health and suicide hotlines.)
Still, I wish that Birch hadn’t made every man onstage (a variety of others are well played by Jason Babinsky and Vince Nappo) quite so ineffectual, if not, at times, almost patently ridiculous; or that the many other women we meet (portrayed brilliantly by Ava Briglia, Jo Mei, and especially Miriam Silverman) are primarily selfish and self-absorbed, and equally oblivious to the needs of Carol, Anna and Bonnie.
Perhaps, though, that is part of the lesson Birch wants us to take home. Without question, this Anatomy needs no X-ray to show us clearly how little comfort and understanding is often found in other people, especially for people who need comfort and understanding the most.
Anatomy of a Suicide. Through March 15 at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Two hours with one intermission. www.atlantictheater.org
Photos: Ahron R. Foster