Monday, January 25, 2010

Goodbye Cruel World

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Suicide is a joke, or at least that's the butt of Nikolai Erdman's 1928 Russian play, The Suicide. When Robert Ross Parker remembers this, his hyperactive adaptation and direction works, but when he forgets, the whole thing flatlines. To be fair, some of his actors could double as EMTs--the terrific lead, Paco Tolson (who plays the indignantly stubborn Semyon), easily resuscitates his scenes with the intensity of his intents. But Parker goes to such extremes that what should be tongue-in-cheek is more often just a quivering, salivating piece of meat, devoid of intent.

This is made rather clear at the start: rather than begin in the squalid, cramped bed Semyon shares head-to-toe with his wife, Maria (Tami Stronach), he has the actors walk around with title cards, erroneously misspelling the play's title for cheap laughs (and with an exclamation point thrown in for good measure). Instead of trusting the comic banalities of his script--"Why is he shooting himself in the head in the bathroom?" "He's unemployed; they have very few options"--he undercuts the first half with slapstick sound effects, generated by amateur Foley artists. As a result, his direction is often to just tell his actors to get bigger: Cindy Cheung, who plays Maria's mother, Serfamia, is often reduced to wide eyes and gaping mouths, and Curran Connor--who is meant to be the manly, profiteering neighbor, Alexander--just gets louder and louder (a better fit for Chekhov's The Bear). Consequently, the jokes often become more about the on-stage character/costume changes (kudos to Theresa Squire and Antonia Ford-Roberts for their iconic wardrobe choices) than about the bleakness of observations like these: "The courts can sentence you to death, but not to life" and "Those who have ideas don't want to die, and those who die don't have any ideas."

This latter thought is spoken by William Jackson Harper, the most experienced member of the cast (and it shows). Here, he plays Aristarch, a member of the intelligentsia, who--like the rest of the characters--has come to ask Semyon to die on his behalf. Actresses like Raisa and Margarita (Stronarch and Cheung) make beggars of themselves, simply throwing their bodies at Semyon so that he'll die out of love for them, and people like the butcher Pugachov or mailman Eygorushka (both played by Aaron Roman Weiner) spout lines as unconvincingly as a constipated geyser. Harper, however, commits to his character, such that he develops running gags ("I didn't cry when my mother died, but..."); he's serious enough to land his jokes. The same goes for Tolson, who gets increasingly hilarious with each attempt to remain straight-faced. His attempts to turn his life around by taking up the tuba give new meaning to the term "blowhard," and his climactic duet with a pistol cements the message of the play: "I have to live, live, live so that I can kill myself."

As Semyon learns, there is no room for inconsistency when it comes to suicide, but it's hard to critique Goodbye Cruel World for dropping that ball. After all, can one blame Robert Ross Parker for being too full of life?

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