"The Suicide" arrived at the ANTA Theater last night about a half-century too late. Though even in 1932, when the late Nikolai Erdman's jape at life under the Soviet regime in the '20s was withdrawn in rehearsal by the censors, this lengthy and very Russian comedy, unproduced there to this day, could hardly have held much interest for Broadway playgoers. Today, its primary function would seem to lie in the introduction of the British actor Derek Jacobi - you'll remember his fine work in public television's "I, Claudius" series - to the American stage.
The small, rounded, pale-faced actor, who looks as though he'd been fashioned out of modeling clay, is cast as a jobless man dwelling in a Moscow tenement with his wife and mother-in-law. Thanks to the wife's employment, they manage to scrape by. But the constant reminders of his failure and their mean existence drive him to contemplate suicide, whereupon members of different strata of society encourage him to do so on their behalf - as a political statement, for example, or a romantic one, but in such a way as to glorify his act. In the end, and it takes a long time coming, Senya, as he is nicknamed, opts for life above everything.
Good as Jacobi is in this less-than fascinating debut role, "The Suicide" is a production in which the scenery and staging take precedence over the play. Director Jonas Jurasas, an emigre from the Soviet Union, and "movement" director Ara Fitzgerald have collaborated on heavily stylized staging, as if in tribute to the Meyerhold production's 18 months of rehearsal before the ax fell in Moscow all those years ago. And Santo Loquasto's huge iconic setting with its reversible doors on two levels, secret panels, sliding platforms, rising and falling ones, a suddenly materializing banquet table that seesaws to drunken revelry, pipe scaffolding, and large wall tapestries reached by stairs and platforms along both sides of the auditorium is the most overpowering example of its kind since "Sweeney Todd."
Under the circumstances, not much can be said for the other characters, who lean toward grotesqueries in the expressionistic theater style of the period. John Heffernan, representing the regime's ignored intelligentsia, establishes a fussy presence; Laura Esterman, playing a faded beauty named Cleopatra Maximovna, is a proper fright in what is meant to pass for seductive black; Angela Pietropinto and Grayson Hall bustle about as the wife and her mother; Carol Mayo Jenkins is the only fetching female on view as the mistress of a gruff, grizzled, robust neighbor played by Clarence Felder, and there are other good school tries by Chip Zien as an emotional writer and John Christopher Jones as a stuffy young Marxist.
Every now and then, a band of gypsies appears from nowhere to break into a song and dance - most helpfully, as it happens, but too briefly - and there are other bits of incidental music.
As in a very bad but very popular summer movie with an equivalent copout finish, the fantastic events turn out to be a nightmare - for us, alas, as well as the bedded couple. And I don't feel in the least guilty giving away a finish most of you will probably never get to.
There can be little doubt that the production, originally presented by the Trinity Square Repertory Company, wowed them up in Providence earlier this year (London's Royal Shakespeare Company rediscovered the work in 1979). A big show, indeed, for the smallest state of the union, but too arty and dated to elicit much enthusiasm here.
Most plays are as predictable as lunch, but once in a while a full-blooded maverick comes into view that both surprises and delights.
Last night at the ANTA Theater the distinguished English actor Derek Jacobi made his long-delayed Broadway debut in a strange and once forgotten Soviet play of the '20s, The Suicide. The playing and the play add up to an evening of pure theatrical enchantment.
Over the years various Soviet governments have scarcely encouraged social or political comments from their artists. Which makes The Suicide so unexpected. It is an extremely funny satire on Soviet bureaucracy and manners. It is bitter and scathing, and it whiplashes Soviet government with just the same kind of unholy glee that Nikolai Gogol brought to the Czarist regime in his immortal comedy, The Government Inspector.
The question to be asked is, how in the holy name of Stalin, did the playwright Nicolai Erdman expect to get away with it? In the event he didn't get away with it - the play was banned after its dress rehearsal and Erdman, who died only ten years ago, never wrote another play. Yet the question remains how experienced men of the Russian theater - Meyerhold and Stanislavsky - ever imagined that this scalding but hilarious play could ever be staged in a totalitarian state. But Russia's loss is our gain.
Senya the hero decides to commit suicide. His wife nags him, his mother-in-law nags him, and he cannot get a job. Life is insupportable.
The news of his intended suicide, having become known, leads to various people, such as Grand-Skubik, a self-annointed Bolshevik intellectual who feels neglected by the revolution, trying to persuade him to dedicate his death to their cause. Indeed soon his impending death becomes of little importance in comparison with how people will envisage that death.
Finally he decides that life and survival are really the important things. One puts up with things because there is always hope, while the alternative is nihilism. This superbly maverick play has been directed by a superbly maverick director, the Lithuanian-born Jonas Jurasas, who protested censorship in the Soviet Union following the banning of his production of Macbeth in Moscow, and was finally expelled from Russia six years ago.
Jurasas, once regarded in the Soviet Union, albeit somewhat warily, as one of its leading theatrical talents, first staged The Suicide earlier this year for Adrian Hall's Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. That was a very special production that gave full measure to the play's subtle mixture of expressionism and realism.
Jacobi is sensational. With his potato-face and look of anguished surprise he always makes the ordinary into the extraordinary. His genius is to find humanity in princes, and regality in humans. And his face is the perfect barometer of the play - sometimes he reacts almost better than he acts.
Jacobi virtually dominates the play with his own brand of bewildered authority. However Jurasas, while making every possible use of Jacobi's concentrated focus, never lets him run out of the stage door with the play. He keeps him happily in scale with the large cast - and luckily the cast is excellent.
John Heffernan as the malcontented intellectual is particularly brilliant, his air of unctuous pompousness having just the right scent of decay to it. Chip Zien made an impassioned writer fighting for the right to be heard, and as the hero's beleagured and beleaguring family, Angela Pietropinto scores as the happily ferret-faced wife, and Grayson Hall makes a divinely outraged mother-in-law.
This is a funny, lovely play about survival. And it is as beautifully acted and staged as any play on Broadway. The triple debut of Erdman, Jurasas and Jacobi is an event not to be missed.
In 1932, Nikolai Erdman's anti-Stalinist political comedy. "The Suicide," was banned by Moscow censors, and it remains unproduced in the Soviet Union to this day. In 1980, "The Suicide" is all the rage in the United States. Productions are planned this season for Washington, Chicago and New Haven - all in addition to the Broadway version that arrived at the ANTA last night. Is this a conspiracy?
One certainly approaches the play a bit warily. At a time of chilly American-Soviet relations, it wouldn't be a suprise to discover that Erdman's sudden vogue has less to do with his talent than with the popularity of his dissident political views.
It's therefore a relief to report that such worries are needless. While "The Suicide" is certainly a political indictment, it is far more than that. This is a play that bursts with dark surrealistic wit and that ultimately summons up a shattering, almost hallucinatory vision of totalitarian terror. If it's also imperfect, one can nonetheless see why Erdman attracted such fans as Meyerhold and Stanislavsky and was hailed by Gorki as "a new Gogol."
Even at its worst, "The Suicide" is a prodigious work for a writer who was still in his 20's and had written only one previous play. Who knows where he might have gone from here? Though the playwright survived until 1970, his theatrical career apparently ended on that day when "The Suicide" was shut down in 1932.
Erdman's legacy is, with some irritating exceptions, in good hands at the ANTA. The production's director, an émigré Soviet dissident named Jonas Jurasas, has an imagination that can match the playwright's virtually leap for leap. Indeed, it seems that the only area of the theater that eludes Mr. Jurasas is the matter of casting. Were it not for a largely mediocre crew of supporting players, it's quite possible that this "Suicide" wouldn't sag at all. Luckily, Mr. Jurasas has found a star, Derek Jacobi of "I, Claudius" renown, who encourages us to ignore the lesser actors who yap at his heels. This actor's performance, his first in New York, encompasses an astonishing range of feeling.
Mr. Jacobi plays Senya, an unemployed Russian worker who is ignored and badgered by his family and neighbors. "The Suicide" is about how this miserable, hapless soul finds celebrity and friendship once he announces his plans to shoot himself. A wild variety of visitors - beautiful women, tradesmen, artists and thinkers - storm his tenement apartment, begging him to declare that his suicide is in support of their grievances against the state.
In the repressive Russia of the play, Senya is a convenient substitute martyr for those who don't care to martyr themselves, and a suicide note is a uniquely valuable means of political protest. As one character explains, in Stalinist Moscow, "only the dead can say what the living think."
Perversely funny as its central, Catch-22 situation is, "The Suicide" is not just a farce. It is also a moving drama about Senya's eventual discovery of his will to live and an eerie, Kafka-esque portrait of a bureaucratic society. Mr. Jurasas is sensitive to Erdman's nuances, and he establishes his tone quickly with the help of a multilevel set, designed by Santo Loquasto.
The set looks like the wayward offspring of "Sweeney Todd" and "Evita." It boasts a multitude of doors, scaffolding, fire poles, peepholes, ladders and stairways, all framed by Socialist murals. While at first this funhouse seems merely an antic setting for Senya's encounters with his deathwishers, it ultimately comes to resemble a nightmarish maze from which there is no escape. By the end of the evening, Senya's supplicants are no longer swinging through the doors in comic frenzy; instead, the play's world literally cracks apart and becomes a charnel madhouse in which the characters cower in deathly shadows.
The director has invented some other superb conceits as well, including a tightly choreographed gypsy chorus that darts all about the action to give Senya's feelings and adventures the dreamy, folkloric resonance of an old-style Russian fable. It's unfortunate that the play's 11 secondary characters - Senya's pursuers and his family - are so shrilly and broadly played. If the actors were able to give individual life to these somewhat similar people, perhaps we wouldn't notice that the play's two big second-act scenes, Senya's farewell banquet and mock funeral, repeat each other to the point of tedium.
At least there is one remarkable exception to the general pattern: John Heffernan, who plays a representative of Moscow's silenced intelligentsia. As he slavishly courts Senya's favor, the wheezy Mr. Heffernan is a gloriously ghoulish buffoon, but there are also times when his voice and body flicker sadly from the ravages of his tortured conscience.
As Senya, Mr. Jacobi has an even more difficult task. When we first meet him, he's a blithering shnook, so frightened that he seems to disappear within his large green coat. A little later, when he briefly takes up the tuba to calm himself, the actor shows off a full array of pure comic technique. Wrestling with panic, frustration and rage, Mr. Jacobi seems to disintegrate into raw nerve endings - and yet somehow rises from a sweaty pulp to blow a bellowing honk from the horn. It's the kind of display to make an audience gasp and laugh at the same time.
But there's more to come. When, in Act II, Senya begins to reclaim his life, Mr. Jacobi physically transforms himself. After Senya decides that he doesn't have to be an anonymous member of the masses, the actor's previously colorless, almost featureless face develops character; his pinched, whiny voice expands to fill the dimensions of a man who belatedly realizes that his "heart is beating everywhere."
Nonetheless, Senya's sudden desire to live is not entirely heroic; he's still living his same miserable life in a world he hasn't saved. Rather than sentimentalize Senya's survival, Mr. Jacobi shows the Pyrrhic nature of his victory. In the play's final moments, the hero is awakened by a nightmare, just possibly about someone else's suicide. As Mr. Jacobi bolts up into the night, his face is consumed by an unnameable dread that seems every bit as terrifying as the death he has escaped.
It's at that instant that we see just how chilling and black a darkness lies at the heart of Erdman's comedy. And it's at that instant, too, that we forget about the evening's laughter, as well as its failings, and simply surrender to its tears.