By: David Sheward
Political satire is a rare commodity on American stages, so the Atlantic Theatre Company shows bravery and imagination in presenting Dying for It, Brit
ish playwright Moria Buffini’s "free adaptation" of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 Russian comedy The Suicide. Too bad director Neil Pepe’s pacing is slow and choppy when it should move with the speed of a Marx Brothers farce. Buffini has made slimming alterations to the original, such as reducing the number of characters and confining the action to a single setting (designer Walt Spangler’s depressing but atmospheric apartment house), yet the show feels bloated.
Set in the early days of the Soviet Union when Stalin had recently seized power, Erdman’s dark play criticizes the new government for its oppression of the very masses it claims to have liberated. (The play was banned and the author exiled to Siberia. It was not performed in Russia until 1990, twenty years after Erdman’s death. A short-lived production starring Derek Jacobi did play Broadway in 1978.)
Unemployed everyman Semyon Semyonovich finds no one will listen to his pleas for a decent life, until he threatens to kill himself. Representatives of every sector of society then pounce on him to espouse their cause in his suicide note. Intellectual Grand-Skubik demands Semyon declare his demise as a protest for academic freedom. Father Yelpidy wants to use the death as a call back to the church. Pretentious poet Victor Viktorovich aims to exploit Semyon for literary fame while Kleopatra Maximovna fashions him into a martyr to romantic love. Of course, the hero doesn’t do the deed and supposed comic chaos ensues when the mob shows up expecting a noble corpse.
The central conceit is wickedly sharp and there are many pointed and ironic observations about oppression and censorship-made even more relevant since the heinous terrorist acts against creative freedom just carried out in Paris-but the jabs are nestled in between forced bits and clichéd schtick. The action does pick up in the second act when Semyon is given a final blow-out by the glamorous bar-owner Margarita Ivanovna, complete with original spirited music by Josh Schmidt, played by Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer.
On the plus side, it’s always heartening to see an Off-Broadway show with a relatively large cast (there are 12 here) and each member has at least one funny bit. Joey Slotnick is an engaging schlemiel as Semyon and Jeanine Serralles keeps his shrieking wife Masha from being too much of a shrew. Clea Lewis is delightfully daffy as the cloying Kleopatra and Peter Maloney is appropriately devious and duplicitous as the drunken Father Yelpidy. I hope they all find work, unlike the unhappy Semyon, once the mildly amusing Dying for It expires at the end of its limited run.
Dying for it
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St., NYC.
Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun., 2 p.m.
Running time: two hours including intermission; $25-$65
(866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com.
January 8 – 18, 2015
Photo: Ahron Foster
Originally Published on January 11, 2015 in ArtsinNY.com
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