Suicide, Incorporated

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: There’s little pep at ‘Suicide, Incorporated’
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

As business plans go, Scott’s will surely never make the case study annals of Wharton. Hanging out a shingle for a company that writes suicide notes for those seeking grammatical assistance as they end it all, Scott has not only chosen a decidedly boutique enterprise but also one that is guaranteed to attract absolutely no return customers.

The idea fares little better in the theatrical marketplace, at least as it’s elucidated in No Rules Theatre’s dramatically inert “Suicide, Incorporated.” The one-act play by Andrew Hinderaker is the product of the forced marriage of sketch comedy and earnest, social drama. Alas, the premise doesn’t get much of a boost from director Joshua Morgan, who, despite the loud music punctuating the scene transitions, fails to elicit from his cast much in the way of pulsing energy.

The 80-minute piece, performed at the soon-to-be vacated H Street Playhouse, loses momentum almost as quickly as the conceit is established. Joe Isenberg’s cartoonishly sleazy Scott, a neurotic bundle with greased-back hair -- and isn’t he just the sort of person to whom the suicidal would turn? -- hires the placid Jason (Brian Sutow) to be one of Legacy Letters’s sales associates. Ah, but Jason has a convenient secret. By night, he volunteers for the natural competitors for Scott’s client base: a crisis hotline.

This might be fun if it weren’t so lugubrious. (It’s a given that the concept is absurd, but an idea of what exactly the company’s service entails and what its letters sound like would help.) Guilt-ridden Jason harbors other motives for seeking work at Legacy Letters, revealed in his hallucinated conversations with his brother Tommy (Dylan Jackson), who reminds him at every turn how impossible it had been to get Jason’s attention at an earlier, life-or-death juncture.

Hinderaker received encouraging reviews for the piece when it was produced in Chicago and off-Broadway. Although there’s a triteness in the plotting -- more than a sufficient cadre of characters contemplate offing themselves or remain traumatized by a suicide in their lives -- you can see how a bracing edge might lift up the fairly tautly written scenes. But Morgan’s production, staged in-the-round on designer Steven Royal’s clinical-looking, all-white set, dulls the drama’s pep.

While Isenberg’s oleaginous Scott provides some zip -- and Adam Downs is commendably servile as Scott’s verbally abused underling Perry -- the performances by Sutow and the others are far too bland. A lengthy speech by a troubled Legacy customer, portrayed by Spencer Trinwith, is supposed to outline the troubled spirits of those inclined to destroy themselves. Unfortunately, the interlude succeeds only in stopping the show cold.

No Rules is a young company that, programmatically, is still in an exploratory stage; its promising presentations this season of “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers” and Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss” showed the more compelling directions the troupe might be headed. For the trickier tone changes of a play such as “Suicide, Incorporated,” however, No Rules needs to consult a more reliable manual.

PREVIEW: Play tackles male suicide
By Jess Righthand
Friday, June 1, 2012

Suicide does not discriminate. It has been estimated that more than 30,000 Americans of both sexes and all races, sexual orientations and ages take their lives each year.

But nearly four times as many men as women are counted among them.

That imbalance is something that’s not talked about as much as playwright Andrew Hinderaker thinks it should be. And he believes not talking -- or at least not talking openly and honestly -- is at the heart of the issue.

“To me, there’s a bit of a misdialogue,” says Hinderaker, whose play “Suicide, Incorporated” is being produced at the H Street Playhouse by No Rules Theatre Company this week. “It felt like this was a conversation that I wanted to have and particularly wanted to have in tandem with this question of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a man in this country.”

Hinderaker’s 2008 play -- about a farcical company called Legacy Letters that helps clients write their own suicide notes -- is the creative byproduct of having had a close male friend and mentee at a Chicago-area university commit suicide unexpectedly.

“What was very clear was that this was a guy who was masculine in a lot of archetypal ways,” says Hinderaker, who cites his friend’s large stature, athletic prowess and leadership role in a fraternity as a few examples. “But it became apparent afterwards that he felt like he would be making himself weaker to ask for help.”

Communication -- or more often, the lack thereof -- is a major theme in “Suicide, Incorporated.” The dialogue is subtle, often deliberately skirting what feels like an increasingly agitated well of emotion bubbling beneath the characters’ facades.

The show also can be funny. Workplace antics that recall interactions between Michael and Dwight in the TV series “The Office” supply welcome levity. And Legacy Letters client Norm (played by Spencer Trinwith) has a gently self-flagellating sense of humor that disarmingly reveals his inner turmoil. In other words, the seriousness of the subject matter goes without saying; the humor, however, not only makes the show more palatable for audiences but also drives straight to the heart of the material.

“You see so much theater -- or maybe I see so much theater -- where it’s like they’re dealing with heavy subject matter and you walk in and the actors are like, ‘Death,’ ” says No Rules actor and co-artistic director Brian Sutow, who first suggested the company add “Suicide, Incorporated” to its season. “We don’t walk around with our feelings spilling out of our mouths. It’s not realistic, it’s not inviting, it’s not entertaining, and most of all it’s not true. And this humor is about what’s true for these characters.”

To get a deeper sense of the truths behind the characters’ lines, the cast did significant amounts of research and brought in a psychologist. “He brought up the fact that part of what’s hard for men is that they often communicate through action,” Sutow says. “And then when they commit an action that they end up regretting, it’s so easy to then further alienate yourself and create this sort of monster of self-image that you’re then unable to destroy.”

The world of “Suicide, Incorporated” can be difficult to be immersed in day in and day out. But the actors have a long history together and with director Joshua Morgan, beginning with their days attending the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Nearly everyone on the cast has been affected by suicide in some way, and cast members agree that knowing and trusting one another helps them cope with the emotional heft.

It can be so easy, Trinwith says, to dismiss suicide as a thoughtless, selfish act. But there is so much more to it that too often goes unsaid. “This is not a sentimental play,” Trinwith says. “And I really appreciate that sort of writing. . . . This play is a conversation starter. After the play is when you really get to have the conversation about it. And I think that’s what’s so important about a play like this.”