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Anatomy of a Suicide

An unsatisfying minor exercise simultaneously depicting three women’s stories and two suicides by an acclaimed British playwright consumed with technique.

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Carla Gugino, Jo Mei, Celeste Arias, Gabby Beans and Miriam Silverman in a scene from Alice Birch’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

[avatar user=”Darryl Reilly” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Darryl Reilly, Critic[/avatar]

Anatomy of a Suicide’s title is more than accurate as two suicides are depicted. Dramatizing such subject matter would usually be intrinsically harrowing. However, acclaimed British playwright Alice Birch is concerned with hollow technique rather than rendering fleshed out characters straightforwardly grappling with life’s travails. Instead, we get three women’s cryptic underdeveloped stories mashed together, enacted simultaneously, structured as short scenes in this 90 minutes play. It’s an unsatisfying minor exercise with flashes of emotional resonance.

The intensely and long-term depressed Anna has tried to commit suicide through a combination of pills, liquor and slitting her wrists in the bathtub. She has a sympathetic husband. There is a quick mention of an uncle who is never referred to again. Did he molest Anna as a child and did such an incident cause her bleak state? Anna later becomes pregnant, and raising a child gives her purpose.

Carol has just gotten out of rehab and we learn of her long history of destructive depressive behavior. She later marries a convivial man and they have a child.

Carla Gugino and Jason Babinsky in a scene from Alice Birch’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The emotionally distant Bonnie is a hardworking nurse who witnessed a doctor’s mistake during surgery. She occasionally drinks too much and has a series of same-sex involvements but pushes potential partners away. Bonnie’s mother died at her family house when she was a child of an unspecified cause. Was it suicide? Bonnie refuses to sell the rarely visited neglected residence out of some sense of sentimentality.

We gather as the play goes along that these women are each connected. They are actually mother, daughter and granddaughter, bound by inherited depression. The shocking and sad finale would have made a greater impact if what had come before was more specified.

/ Denotes the overlapping of speech.

Words in square brackets [ ] are not spoken.

The absence of a full stop at the end of a line denotes a kind of interruption – the lines should run at speed.

The use of a full stop on a line on its own suggests a pause – whether this is a single beat or ten minutes depends on what feels right.

 The spacing of the dialogue, the use of upper and lower case letters and the punctuation is all there to help the actor in terms of the pacing and the weight of their words.

Gabby Beans and Jo Mei in a scene from Alice Birch’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

These are among Ms. Birch’s precise stage directions. Harold Pinter’s vaunted pauses are a piece of cake in comparison. Birch’s stylized speech rhythms and her preoccupation with form over content results in icy vagueness. The talented and industrious cast do their best under such micromanaged conditions. The dialogue itself is a grating synthetic mélange of Pinter and David Mamet, where pointless staccato repetition abounds.

You were away

It was because I was away

 Not Because you were away, it’s just a. I was just Stating. It’s not a

 The accident Happened because I was away…I won’t go away then

 I like it when you’re away

Celeste Arias as Anna, Carla Gugino as Carol, and most especially Gabby Beans as Bonnie, all deliver superior performances of great intensity. The rest of the stalwart ensemble consists of Jason Babinsky, Ava Briglia, Julian Elijah Martinez, Jo Mei, Vince Nappo, Miriam Silverman and Richard Topol. Each offers striking characterizations, some performing multiple roles.

Celeste Arias and Richard Topol in a scene from Alice Birch’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The production is faithful to and aesthetically fulfills Birch’s cerebral vision. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s focused staging combines picturesqueness and emotional intensity. Scenic designer Mariana Sanchez provides an engaging landscape with three defined areas on the airy stage set with minimal furnishings and symbolic foliage all over. Jiyoun Chang’s accomplished lighting design appropriately veers from stark to murky, with shimmering blackouts for scene transitions. Those are enhanced by evocative pop songs realized by Rucyl Frison’s also jarring and aching sound design that successfully complements the actions. Projection designer Hannah Wasileski supplies haunting imagery. From Anna’s alluring purple-patterned sleek dress to an assortment of stylish contemporary wear, costume designer Kaye Voyce’s work is laudable.

Birch’s biography in the program notes a lengthy list of awards from international theater and film bodies and citations of prestigious institutions that have presented her works. It is too voluminous to include in this review.  As well as these touted achievements, Anatomy of a Sucide was awarded the prestigious 2017/2018 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize which is given to English-language women playwrights. Its pedigree magnifies its flaws.

Anatomy of a Suicide (through March 12th, 2020)

Atlantic Theater Company

Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission

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