Mark Jackson’s new play, American $uicide, now playing at the Thick House on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, locks horns with the old saw that it’s lonely at the top. Instead, the message seems to be that when you’re scaling the heights, everybody else is yelling, “Jump!”
Long before Warhol came up with the notion of any and everybody’s 15 minutes of fame, playwright Nicolai Erdman penned The Suicide, a satiric look at the individual in Soviet society of the 1920s, after years of famine, civil war, blockades by the Western powers, epidemics and the wayward New Economic Policy, which tried to introduce a limited form of capitalism into the avowedly Marxist-Leninist state. His play didn’t make it to the stage for over 50 years. Condemned and banned, The Suicide disappeared from sight, and Erdman never wrote another play.
Jackson, who both adapted and directed American $uicide, has garnered a reputation in Berkeley and around the bay for the two plays he wrote and staged for the Shotgun Players, The Death of Meyerhold (a kind of biopic onstage of Erdman’s contemporary, the great Russian man of the theater) and The Forest Wars (which just concluded an extended run at the Ashby Stage), and his guest direction of Oscar Wilde’s Salome for Aurora last year, as well as the productions of his own Art Street Theatre from 1999 to 2004. With American $uicide, he takes what’s become something considered as a kind of deferred classic of a great and difficult era of theater and society, adapting it to the post-dotcom, media-saturated America of three quarters of a century later.
Sam Small (Jud Williford) is an unemployed house husband, frustrated with his asocial nonrole in the world. But while his wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt) slaves as a waitress, Sam has time to act out his frustrations with vague threats of suicide—and time to dream of really acting, that is, becoming an actor. That’s the way to make a bundle, he reasons, and it’s got to be easy.
His career takes off faster than he thinks, due to the loopy cast of characters that surround his bland figure and his wife’s demure normality. Getting a book on acting from the neighborhood Avon Lady, who lives down the street in her car (Delia MacDougall as “Gigi Bolt, of Theater Communications Group”), Sam stumbles into being cast in an independent film meant as the comeback vehicle for both its frightwigged director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and overripe starlet (Jody Flader)—all because he’s threatened suicide, so is seen as desperate, a natural. His web-hustling, across-the-hall neighbor Albert (Marty Pistone) parlays the casting into a stalking horse for something really grandiose, when he appoints himself Sam’s agent, converts the porn site he’s been flooding with videos of himself and new bartender girlfriend (Denise Balthrop Cassidy) to an auction house to sponsor Sam’s suicide by the highest bidder.
“Mysterious men” (all played by Liam Vincent) appear, both a wannabe terrorist and an undercover G-man, trying to convince Sam to banner their ideology as his last words, while Gigi implores him to “die for the American Theater!” And so midnight draws near, everybody wildly dancing and drinking, waiting for the broadcast of Sam’s last words and the opening of the envelope containing the name of the winner—who (or what) he’ll die for.
The script provides the opportunity for many quick, funny bits with the cast of loons that surround Everyman Sam, a few as quick slapstick demonstrations of something like Meyerhold’s Biomechanical exercises (as when Albert scuffles with Sam, trying to keep him from killing himself too early in the game—which Sam had no intention of), others as tableaux of the characters in Raquel Barreto’s costumes (Albert as a louche cop, or his girlfriend as a sad, pink-eared Playboy bunny).
Russian and Soviet drama had (and has) a number of sophisticated techniques--and, more importantly, styles--to realize the stylized performance of ultra-caricatures ... Biomechanics, Eccentrism, Defamiliarized and “alienated” succeeding styles ... all drawn originally from models of popular entertainment, like Commedia Dell’Arte, of which Meyerhold must be counted as one of the modern rediscoverers. These take discipline, and can push past the limits of representation, creating a new kind of satire. “The Grotesque is the triumph of Form over Content,” Meyerhold held forth. Sometimes a joke is more than a joke; it can bend the space around it.
American $uicide allows a crew of good actors to ham it up, in the best sense, overacting a panoply of cartoonish characters to the point of a balloon about to burst. But, amusing as they are, the portrayals and routines are overblown sitcom material—Albert and girlfriend a contemporary and loopier Fred-and-Ethel neighbor couple. Erdman’s original hit a nerve, was banned ... Jackson’s adaptation sports a populist message, just what’s expected, a facile swipe at the usual straw men, reading more like Meet John Doe, Frank Capra’s silver screen vehicle for Cooper and Stanwyck, adapted as a farce.
Stylized pictures of American society that touch a nerve prove unpalatable to the same success machine that devours ringers like Sam and Mary, include those by Poe (a hero for many Russian artists) or the Melville of The Confidence Man. Stroheim made Greed out of Frank Norris’ McTeague, book about a dentist obsessed with gold, boldly caricatured. And Sherwood Anderson peopled Winesburg, Ohio with his Grotesques. There are other examples in films by Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller. American $uicide’s sketches are diverting, but don’t find their way in the tradition of stylized satire, Russian or American.
Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco.
$25-30. (415) 437-6775. www.zspace.org.