Review By Brian Scott Lipton
Suicide is painless, or so says the theme song from “M*A*S*H*”. But can it be funny? The Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman certainly thought so in his 1928 black comedy “The Suicide.” The work has been reimagined by Moira Buffini and renamed “Dying For It,” and is now being presented in a very well-acted production by The Atlantic Theater Company under Neil Pepe’s sure-handed direction.
For most of the two-hour play, the main question at hand is whether the nebbishy Semyon Semmyonivich (the rubber-faced Joey Slotnick), an unemployed man living in poverty in a disgusting, dilapidated house (brilliantly designed by Walt Spangler), will actually go through with his threat to kill himself. His long-suffering wife Masha (the always wonderful, often hilarious Jeannine Serralles) – the family breadwinner – doesn’t want him to end his life, although she is frequently frustrated by her husband and his foolish ways.
However, Semyon soon finds encouragement in his desire to become a corpse from some unlikely allies: a snobbish intellectual (the brilliant Robert Stanton), the local priest (a wonderful Peter Maloney), a self-important writer (the fine Patch Darragh), and his sexpot ex-flame (the funny Clea Lewis), all of whom want Semyon to include their various “causes” in his suicide note and do their best to persuade him that his suicide will fuel the greater good.
As it happens, we eventually learn that Semyon’s plight has only come to these people’s attention because of the manipulations of his “friend” and neighbor Alexander Kalabushkin (an effective C. J. Wilson), who is making money from these folks. Meanwhile, Semyon’s shrewish, greedy mother-in-law Serafima (the invaluable Mary Beth Peil) keeps switching sides about Semyon’s fate, while Semyon’s only true ally is bar owner Margarita (a feisty Mia Barron), who throws him a farewell party in hopes he’ll have such a good time (or large hangover) that he will reconsider his decision.
The play certainly skewers Russian culture and its government, so much so that Joseph Stalin reportedly banned it before it even got presented. (I doubt Vladimir Putin is too fond of it either.) But the satire is still rather mild, focusing more on the foibles of human beings than anything else. This fine ensemble gets as many laughs as they can from the script, but the work does feel a bit too dated, and some passages are a tad sluggish.
The result is not something to die for, but if you grab a ticket, you’ll be glad you gave it a go.
Dying For It plays through January 18 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information, visit www.atlantictheater.org