Nothing gets laughs quite like suicide, Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman must have thought when he penned his 1928 comedy, The Suicide. Joseph Stalin's Soviet government begged to differ, banning the play. It was never staged during Erdman's lifetime. But if the original Russian is as good as Moira Buffini's English version, Dying for It, we can safely say that Soviet audiences missed out. This freewheeling but tonally faithful adaptation (now making its American premiere at Atlantic Theater Company) is a laugh riot…just maybe not for the politically ambitious.
The story revolves around Semyon (Joey Slotnick), a hapless unemployed man living with his wife, Masha (Jeanine Serralles), and her mother, Serafima (Mary Beth Peil), in the hallway of a Russian slum. When a brief experiment as a tuba player doesn't pan out, Semyon resolves to kill himself. Before he can do that, however, he's visited by a slew of ill-wishers who want to use the occasion of his death to push an agenda. Semyon's upstairs neighbor, Alexander (the appropriately brawny CJ Wilson), collects a fee from each of them, like a bouncer at a particularly macabre nightclub.
Then there's Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik (Robert Stanton), a self-styled intellectual who's bitter at the way the government ignores him. He wants Semyon to put in a good word in his suicide note. And there's Kleopatra (Clea Lewis), a hopeless romantic who wants Semyon to die for love of her. Poet Viktor Viktorovich (Patch Darragh) sees an opportunity to pen his next great epic of working-class struggle, while Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney) would like Semyon's death to be a lesson that calls Russians back to the flock. To all of these bourgeois misfortune fetishists, Semyon is worth far more dead than alive. This story is essentially the Soviet answer to Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.
But where George Bailey teaches us that "no man is a failure who has friends," Erdman's Semyon resolves to endure despite his friendlessness and uselessness. Slotnick capably embodies Semyon's ineptitude. He's a walking bag of insecurities and half-baked ideas. This makes Masha's love for him all the more hilarious. For indeed, it's not fair to say Semyon is completely alone: He has a wife who inexplicably adores him. Serralles brings a schoolgirl charm to the role. The way she looks at him when he's blowing into that tuba shows nothing but true love. This contrasts strongly with Peil, who plays the morbid and hardscrabble babushka with great relish. She curses Semyon with her backhanded prayers and sees the prospect of his death as her ticket to a comfortable life.
Director Neil Pepe marshals the sizable cast in this tight and visually appealing production. Walt Spangler's haunted house of a set is a spectacle of rotting wood and crushed dreams. Suttirat Larlarb and Moria Clinton achieve Stalin-era realness with their costumes. The scene transitions are underscored by Josh Schmidt's catchy original music for accordion and violin (performed with authentic style and flair by Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer). Dame, Mayer, and their instruments join the rest of the cast for a second-act party in which the characters dance around and drink to Semyon's impending doom. It's all terribly gruesome, but boy, does it look like fun.
Dying for It manages to walk the thin line between comedy and tragedy for a full two hours, making us laugh at one moment and feel incredibly guilty about it the next. Erdman presents a world in which every man acts out of selfishness, especially those who present themselves as champions of the common man. Also, this tale of cynical individuals who capitalize on death in order to grind a political ax will resonate with anyone following the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris. In retrospect, it's easy to understand why Uncle Joe didn't want that message to get around.