Obviously a satire on bureaucratic hypocrisy, it is quite apparent why Stalin banned this play which was not allowed to be performed in Russia until 1990. Not only does it make the off-stage Soviet officials look bad but like a Moliere comedy, it makes its own characters sound venal and greedy. Atlantic Theater Company’s artistic director Neil Pepe is successful in moving the 12-person cast around the play’s four acts, but he seems to have missed the fact that the play is a farce and should be acted in double time, fast enough that we don’t realize that Dying for It revolves around a one-joke plot.
The second New York staging of a play by the prolific British playwright (Atlantic staged her original W.W. II thriller Gabriel in 2010), it is also the first of her plays to have a man as its leading character. Whatever else Dying for It is or isn’t, it streamlines Erdman’s original large cast play of 24 roles, reducing it to a manageable 12 and uses a unit set rather than the three settings originally required, making it possible for small theater groups to attempt it. Joey Slotnick plays Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov, the protagonist if not the hero of Dying for It. Having lost his job, he has been living off of the salary of his nagging wife Masha (Janine Serralles), and has begun to consider himself a parasite. When an attempt to learn the tuba as a new source of income fails, Semyon announces that he will kill himself.
While he may simply have been seeking attention, the news gets around his neighborhood and various visitors appear hoping to make use of his death: an affected intellectual (Robert Stanton), a confirmed romantic (Clea Lewis), an alcoholic priest (Peter Maloney) and a poet-journalist (Patch Darragh). Each begs him to write a suicide note blaming his or her pet cause for his condition: the government, love, sin or literature. With the help of his first floor neighbor Alexander Petrovich (CJ Wilson), a bear of a widower with a sympathetic heart, Alexander’s girlfriend Margarita Ivanovna (Mia Barron), a woman of loose reputation who is the owner of a wildly popular restaurant, and the scorn of both his second floor neighbor (Ben Beckley), a loyal Marxist postman, and his greedy mother-in-law (Mary Beth Peil), Semyon is swept along in a maelstrom not of his own making.
The cast is generally fine though none are the bigger-than-life creations of the original author and none have the zaniness that the play requires to make it a comedy. Slotnick is a convincing sad sack, while Serralles as his put-upon wife is at times childlike, at other times shrewish. Walt Spangler’s three-tiered set for the shabby tenement in which Buffini has set all of the action is impressive though at times distracting. (One never knows where to look first.) The lighting by David Weiner generally keeps the level down to an impoverished haze. Suttirat Larlarb & Moria Clinton’s drab costumes may be entirely accurate for their period but seem to be devoid of the color which would have livened up the proceedings. Even poor people wear colors. The original music by Josh Schmidt is played live by Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer in an appropriately melancholy fashion.
Dying for It, Moira Buffini’s free adaptation of The Suicide, is fine as a drama but the premise makes it a classic farce. Unfortunately, the Atlantic Theater Company production fails to find the humor in this dark comedy. As such the contemporary parallels to our own time do not become obvious as either satire or humor.
Dying For It (Through January 18, 2015)
Atlantic Theatre Company
Linda Gross Theatre, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 5 minutes including one intermission