THE SUICIDE by Nikolai Erdman; adapted by Richard Nelson from a literal translation by Xenia Youhn; directed by Gene Lesser; setting by Tony Straiges; costumes by Marjorie Slaidman; lighting by Hugh Lester; music by Robert Dennis; with Richard Bauer, Suzanne Costallos, Leslie Cass, Stanley Anderson, Halo Wines, Robert Prosky, Randy Danson, Robert W. Westenburg, Terrence Currier, Annalee Jefferies and Charles Janasz.
At Arena Stage through Feb. 22.
Is there anything in our little federal enclave more sublimely funny than Richard Bauer? There is not, and let posterity record that this judgment comes in the immediate aftermath of a presidential inauguration.
Doubters are urged to inspect the latest evidence of Bauer's skills -- namely "The Suicide," a lost-and-found Russian satric comedy of the late 1920s grandly unveiled this inaugural week at Arena Stage. The play is a wild blend of brilliance and disarrary that is likely to have you laughing one minute and yawning the next, but when the action focuses on Bauer, "The Suicide" is absurdly lovable, deeply moving and utterly riveting. Bauer's characte, Semyon Semyonovitch Podsekalnikov, is a Muscovite given to sudden and voluminous tirades -- against his wife, his mother-in-law and the author of a tuba-instruction manual, among other targets -- and Bauer has a marvelous way of spilling these tirades out mouthful by mouthful, like a nervous Niagara Falls.
True to the title, "The Suicide" is about Podsekalnikov's decision to take his life, which leads to what may be the funniest scene of all -- Bauer's bed-bound flight to heaven, crying "Hosanna! Hosanna!" as his wife and mother-in-law struggle to rouse him from a drunken stupor.
His discontents begin with twin injuries to his pride -- being unemployed and being supported by his wife (presumably a possibility born with the revolution). His spirit unbroken, Podsekalnikov pins his hopes on a new career as a tuba player, mapping out a concert schedule and calculating his income to the nearest ruble before he can play a note -- indeed, before he has touched a tuba -- and then exhausting the family treasury to buy such an instrument. But when his program of self-study comes around to learning the scales, he is appalled to find that the instruction manual calls for a piano on which to learn them first. Needless to say, the pianoless Podsekalnikov is left with only one out. Suicide.
Before he can act, however, word of his plan spreads, and he is beset with pleading visitors. It's not the idea of suicide they question, but the text of his proposed suicide note and its closing line: "I blame no one."
"What a waste!" exclaims Aristarkh, a spokesman for Russian Liberalism and the first of Podsekalnikov's visitors (vigorously played by Robert Prosky in a proper pre-revolutionary greatcoat). "Where is your social conscience?" Aristarkh wants to know. "At such an important point in your life as death, one must not forget one's duty . . ." Living men can't speak out, he explains, so he begs Podsekalnikov to commit suicide in the name of liberalism. Others follow with their own equally urgent causes to advance via his suicide note.
Playwright Nikolai Erdman was exiled and forgotten soon after the government terminated "The Suicide" on the eve of its opening. The play's suppression is probably a less surprising historical fact than that both Stanislavski and Meyerhold, the foremost Russian directors of their day, thought it should and could be produced. Meyerhold, in fact, rehearsed it for more than a year before the cancellation.
The play is clearly anti-Soviet and somewhat more ambiguously Anti-Marxist. It looks skeptically at the whole Soviet view of the individual's submersion in the revolutionary cause -- or any cause -- and one of its most entertaining characters is a mailman (another fine performance by Robert W. Westenberg) well-steeped in socialist realism. "Tolstoy wrote about everything, and who reads him any more?" he points out. "I'm a mailman and I want to read about other mailmen." The same character, in his spare time, sends accusatory letters to the authorities signed "35,000 Mailmen" -- that being his "pen name," as he explains when someone questions him about it.
Since its rediscovery, "The Suicide" has been produced widely and often (although never in the Soviet Union), and it enjoyed a brief run on Broadway earlier this season with Derek Jacobi. The Broadway version was cluttered with physical gimmickry, including cuckoo-clock-like gyrations and intrusions involving sprits, gypsises and seemingly endless row of doors -- all beautiful to behold but rather demeaning to the text.
At Arena, director Gene Lesser has dared to see if the play itself can hold an audience's attention. While the geography of Tony Straiges' two-tiered set gets confusing and distracting at times, and while several of the supporting performances (particularly the women) are rather monotonously stylized, the total result has much more integrity, more humor and more power. In its simpler fashion, this production is just as pleasing to the eye as the Broadway version, and far more so to the ear thanks to Richard Nelson's smooth and lucid translation and Robert Dennis' unusually substantial incidental music.
Besides Bauer's splendid performance, "The Suicide" offers another satisfying display of Stanley Anderson's comic skills, and of the smooth, mutually respectful way these two fine actors work together. The opening scenes, with Anderson playing a neighbor trying to dissuade Podsekalnikov from suicide (even before the thought has occurred to him), recall Bauer's and Anderson's brilliant two-man show of last spring, "Emigres."
Unfortunately, Anderson cuts a lower profile in the second act, which may have something to do with that act's tendency to sag and meander. The play itself is also to blame, however. I would not go so far as Stalin, who described "The Suicide" as "empty, even harmful" (on the say-so of his "closest comrades"), but Erdman's sentiments have a certain muddled, hazy quality to them that somtimes also infects the structure. Of course, he might have done some rewriting if he had been able to see "The Suicide" performed.