The stunning set by Walt Spangler is nearly worth the the entire visit to Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Dying For It. It will give you the willies. Peeling wallpaper and staircases that come from nowhere in one direction and lead to nowhere in another. You can imagine the kitchen being filled with pans that have teeny tiny foot prints in them.
To think of people swaddled by this grime made me squirm. Actually watching them was not much more satisfying.
The production has a terrific beginning with two terrific musicians, Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer, gifting us with a violin and accordion duet that is a nod to all things Russian, for this is where we are – Russia in the 1920’s. The Revolution and World War I have come and gone, and life is not so very good. Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov (Joey Slotnik) is a man down on his luck. He is unemployed and tormented because his wife Masha (Jeanine Serrales) is bringing home the bacon, such as there is. In addition to being miserable, Semyon is MAKING himself miserable, and in this behavior he cuts a wide swath. From the corner of the passageway that is their bedroom he preys upon the nerves of his wife, his mother-in-law Serafima Ilyinichna (Mary Beth Piel) and his neighbors in the rooming house – Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin (CJ Wilson) and Yegor Timoveivich (Ben Beckley).
By accident – Semyon comes across a pamphlet that promises to teach the tuba in 10 days. He leaps into this adventure with the help of a local bar owner (and Kalabushkin’s lover) Margarita Ivanovna Peryesvetova (Mia Barron). When this fails Semyon has reached the end of his rope and decides that the only out is suicide. It would be a gift to him and a relief to all who know him.
Kalabushkin, always on the look out for an opportunity, soon passes this word among his friends and offers Semyon as if he were a side show geek. Soon, the Russian folk who are looking for something to occupy their time, line up like small planes on a runway waiting for an opportunity to become part of the suicide. if Semyon will only include them in his obligatory suicide note, they will be immortal, as will the cause they champion. Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik (Robert Stanton) is part of the intelligentsia and wants Semyon to say what living people cannot. Kleopatra Maximovna, or Kiki (Clea Lewis) is only tethered to the planet by the flotsam of passion and idyllic love – and wouldn’t Semyon like a taste before he dedicates his death to her? Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney) shows up to forecast Seymon’s decent into Hell. Viktor Viktorovich (Patch Darragh) a slog writer who is bordering on being dillusional has hopes for memorializing Semyon in any way that might present itself.
Eventually the crowd goes so large that there is nothing for it but to throw a farewell party. Semyon is to off himself at midnight, so whatever he wants before then is on the house. In addition, funds are collected for his casket, the funeral, and all manner of celebration to flaunt in the face of the government who is not doing such a hot job of taking care of people. Semyon will be a martyr of the highest order.
The Marx Brothers might have pulled this one off. But this cast is not so fortunate. Somehow Moira Buffini has managed to combine both the British and Russian tendency toward verbiage without the precision that makes it worth our while to listen. This production could have been cut by 30 minutes without missing a beat. In addition, the story is almost clownish and completely predictable. Buffini is most successful when she leans toward comedy, where her writing is crisp and incisive. When she moves toward the pulpit or the lectern, the story drags us down.
The direction and performances are as uneven as the writing, with the strongest elements showing up in the supporting cast. Each of these odd balls dwells happily in their singular universe and remains untouched by hovering moons.
This is a play that is begging to be a slapstick comedy but ends up with one foot in that pool and one out. It ends up being suspended – neither here nor there.
Dying for It – By Moira Buffini; adapted from “The Suicide” by Nikolai Erdman; directed by Neil Pepe
WITH: Mia Barron (Margarita Ivanovna Peryesvetova), Ben Beckley (Yegor Timoveivich), Nathan Dame (Oleg Leonidovich/Beggar), Patch Darragh (Viktor Viktorovich), Clea Lewis (Kleopatra Maximovna, or Kiki), Peter Maloney (Father Yelpidy), Andrew Mayer (Stepan Vasilievich/Beggar), Mary Beth Peil (Serafima Ilyinichna), Jeanine Serralles (Maria Lukianovna, or Masha), Joey Slotnick (Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov), Robert Stanton (Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik) and CJ Wilson (Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin).
Sets by Walt Spangler; costumes by Suttirat Larlarb and Moria Clinton; lighting by David Weiner; sound by Ben Truppin-Brown; music by Josh Schmidt; choreography by Monica Bill Barnes; fights by J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Kyle Gates; production manager, Michael Wade; associate artistic director, Annie MacRae; general manager, Jamie Tyrol. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, Mr. Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea, 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Through Jan. 18. Running time: 2 hours.