US feels impact of suppressed Soviet play; The Suicide Comedy by Nikolai Erdman. Directed by Jonas Jurasas Starring Derek Jacobi. Translated by George Genereux Jr. and Jacob Volkov.
"The Suicide" introduces Derek Jacobi, the British star, to the American stage as the hero of a Russian comic fantasy of the 1920s. Nikolai Erdman's devastating stire of life under Soviet communism has never been produced or published in the land of its origin. Kremlin commissars suppressed the play and silenced the playwright. Erdman lived until 1970, but he never wrote again.
The resultant loss to literature and drama is abundantly evident in this phantasmagoric tale of a Russian Everyman. The play opens as Senya (Mr. Jacobi) and his wife, Masha, (Angela Pietropinto) lie sleeping in the huge double bed at the center of Santo Loquasto's many-doored, multilevel setting. Unemployed for more than a year and tired of living off his wife's earnings, Senya decides to make his fortune as a concert tuba player. His first encounter with that bass horn of the oompahs is one of the play's funniest scenes. Discovering that he will require a piano to guide him in scale playing, Senya gives up and decides to kill himself.
Before long, a clutch of acquaintances and strangers are vying to get into the act -- not to take Senya's place, but to urge that his final act be dedicated to their particular causes. The would-be beneficiaries include an intellectual, a writer, a Marxist postman, a butcher, a pair of fading beauties, a cleric, and an upstairs neighbor.The neighbor sells chances on whose cause should be chosen. In appreciation, his newfound admirers honor Senya with a sumptuous banquet. Speeches and arguments climax with his telephone call to the Kremlin to tell the authorities that he has read Marx and doesn't like him. When the switchboard hangs up, Senya announced: "The Kremlin is afraid of me." What happens thereafter can be left for Mr. Jacobi and company to reveal.
This second work of a dramatist whom Maxim Gorki called "our new Gogol" is rich in comic observation and ultimately in pathos. As Senya, Mr. Jacobi gives one of those performances that seem more like being than acting. The portrayal grows and deepens as Senya moves from querulous impatience over his lack of employment to a concern with deeper issues of life and eath and turns from thoughts of self-destruction to life affirmation. As this superb actor delivers them, Erdman's eloquent pleas for the rights of the individual are at the same time fervent, exultant, and filled with heartbreak.
Under the direction of Soviet emigre Jonas Jurasas, the surrounding cast amimates as well as populates the stage of the ANTA intellectual. Miss Pietropinto and Grayson Hall (Senya's mother-in-law) make up the distaff section of the household. Besides a company of energetic musical gypsies, who miraculously appear and disappear throughout the proceedings to perform Richard Weinstock's score, "The Suicide" benefits from the bravura histrionics required by the surreal situation. Other principal roles are played by Laura Esterman, Clarence Felder, Carol Mayo Jenkins, John Cristopher Jones, David Patrick Kelly, William Myers, Mary Lou Rosato, David Sabin, and Chip Zien.
Mr. Loquasto's elaborate setting, atmospherically lighted by F. Mitchell Dane , heightens the spectacular impact of "The Suicide," as does the complex flow of movement devised by Ara Fitzgerald. The physical production involves ladders and firemen's poles as well as the movable doors and platforms. The table for Senya's banquet rises on a stage elevator and then becomes an enormous teeter-totter, undulating to the weight of opposing arguments. The version at the ANTA originated at the Trinity Square Repertory Company of Providence, R.I. It is a major theatrical event.