Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 18, $20-$86.50
Living in 1920s Russia was no walk in the park, as so cleverly depicted in Moira Buffini’s Dying for It, a rollicking good “free adaptation” of Nikolai Erdman’s long-banned 1928 play, The Suicide. Twenty-seven-year-old Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov (Joey Slotnick) is at the end of his rope. “I’m a parasite,” he tells his wife, Masha (Jeanine Serralles). “I’m a bloodsucking leech. I have no work in this worker’s paradise.” They have such little money, they live in the hallway of a miserable apartment building, their bed under the stairs. One of their upstairs neighbors, the hulking, recently widowed Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin (C. J. Wilson), tries to convince him that “life is a miracle, full of wonder,” but Semyon is adamant that it’s too late to change his mind. “I have no dignity, no labor, no value at all,” he says. But shortly after he decides to off himself, he is bombarded by various members of Soviet society, each of whom wants to make him their martyr — one imploring him to write a suicide note crying out about what they believe is wrong with the social order, another protesting the revolution, the next a victim of Communism, et al. Too afraid to speak out themselves, they want the soon-to-be-dead Semyon to be their personal mouthpiece. Among those who want to turn Semyon’s last act into a heroic gesture are comrade Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik (Robert Stanton), an intellectual who tells him, “You are in a position of great power. . . . Nowadays, only the dead may say what the living think”; Kleopatra “Kiki” Maximovna (Clea Lewis), a kittenish romantic who believes she has found a kindred soul in Semyon; Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney), a priest who wants Semyon to consider the damnation he faces; and Viktor Viktorovich (Patch Darragh), “the people’s poet,” who sees this as an important career opportunity for himself. Also involved in the festivities are Masha’s mother, Serafima Ilyinichna (Mary Beth Peil), who can’t wait for Semyon to be out of her daughter’s life; Yegor Timoveivich (Ben Beckley), a postman who prefers to play by the very strict rules; and Margarita Ivanovna Peryesvetova (Mia Barron), a married, carefree vamp having an affair with Alexander. Semyon might have had no purpose in life, but he has suddenly found his true calling in death.
Dying for It gets off to a rocky start, with silly, lackluster slapstick that quickly grows tiresome. But once Semyon gets rid of the blood sausage and the tuba, the play, keenly helmed by Atlantic Theater artistic director Neil Pepe (3 Kinds of Exile, A Life in the Theatre), finds its groove on Walt Spangler’s appropriately dilapidated boarding-house set, evolving into an engaging farce about trying to find meaning in one’s life. The cast is a mixed bag: Slotnick (Boston Public, The Altruists ) is charming as the suicidal Semyon, Lewis (Ellen, Writer’s Block) is delightful as the spirited Kiki, Stanton (A Free Man of Color, All in the Timing) is stalwart as the determined Aristarkh, Barron (Domesticated, Knickerbocker) is fiery as the wild Margarita, and Wilson (The Lady from Dubuque, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man) proves once again that he is one of New York theater’s finest character actors as the bold and beefy Alexander, but Serralles (The Jammer, Stunning) is too brusque as Masha, the usually dependable Maloney (Outside Mullingar, Glengarry Glen Ross) falters with comedic timing as the priest, and Darragh (The Jammer, Appropriate) overdoes it as the poet. The Suicide was never staged in Erdman’s lifetime (he died in Moscow in 1970); it made a brief run on Broadway in 1980, with Derek Jacobi in the lead role. With Dying for It, Buffini (Gabriel, Handbagged) has thankfully brought it back from the dead, reinvigorating it for another time, when rampant surveillance, cyber-bullying, and terrorism have people around the world questioning what they say and do in public.
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