THE SUICIDE -- At the arena through February 22.
"Empty! "Harmful!" -- Josef Stalin The Kremlin With this endorsement (slightly distorted here, as such tributes generally are; the actual quotation is "My Closest comrades consider it empty, even harmful"), a banned-in-the-U.S.S.R. comedy, "The Suicide" by Nikolai Erdman, is belatedly enjoying an American vogue. It's at Arena Stage for the next four weeks, and other productions were done last year in New York (starring Derek Jacobi), Chicago, New Haven and Providence.
Erdman, whose first play, "The Mandate," was a success in 1925, next wrote "The Suicide," which the theatrical master Constantin Stanislavsky submitted directly to Stalin in the hope of heading off censorship. It then went into 18 months of rehearsel, we are told, and was closed by censors during dress rehearsel in 1932. Erdman is thought to have been exiled in connection with this event, but in 1954 he was again heard of as winning the Stalin Prize for a screenplay.
This history might lead you to expect a frighteningly powerful indictment of the Stalin era; but unless you believe that a public admission of the existence of unemployment and poverty discredits a society, the strength of the reaction must be attributed to a general tendency to suppress.
"The Suicide" is about a cantankerous man exasperated as much by living on his wife's income as by his own joblessness. Family fears actually plant in his mind the idea of committing suicide; the decision attracts a variety of people who want him to declare the act a protest in honor of their favorite causes -- politics, art, love and so on. It is therefore much more of an indictment of protesters than of officialdom, and the ultimate point, that life under any conditions is better than no life, mocks the oppressed, not the oppressors.
Arena has wisely chosen to present this as a Soviet sitcom.
People rush madly about in mistaken frenzies, nod eagerly at all manner of nonsense, and keep falling for the running joke. The stage setting by Tony Straiges, which has a variety of doors, stairs and levels, is not so much a Kafkaesque maze as a complicated route for funny entrances and exits. Auxiliary characters -- notably Stanley Anderson as a lecherous neighbor, Halo Wines as his girl friend, Robert W. Westenberg as a Marxist mailman, Robert Prosky as a prosperous liberal, and Suzanne Costellos and Leslie Cass as the anxious wife and mother-in-law -- all have little comic set pieces.
Richard Bauer's performance in the leading role is also silly-funny, but in the end it transcends the roughly hewn satire and makes a convincingly cyncial point about the smallness of human nature. The grandest gesture of which this hero is capable is telephoning the Kremlin to declare, "I've read Marx and I don't like Marx!" while his normality dicates that he be one of those who never ask "What are we fighting for?" but only "How old are they drafting this year?"