I Have a Symptom

Death is good business in Moira Buffini’s Dying for It, a “free adaptation” of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 The Suicide.  Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov (Joey Slotnick) is an out of work Soviet who, somewhat accidentally, decides to kill himself.  The once unpopular schlemiel is now barraged by a horde of obsequious vultures who want to seize upon his upcoming death for their own gain, his inevitable note their Holy Grail: highlights include an alcoholic priest, Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney), who wants Semyon to attribute his misery to the decline in religiosity, the disgruntled closet classist Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik (Robert Stanton), who would rather it take the vilification of intellectualism as its banner, and the writer Viktor Viktorovich (Patch Darragh), who sees himself writing Semyon as the emblem of the Russian character.  In fact, the only people who seem to care about Seymon are his wife, Maria “Masha” Lukianovna (Jeanine Serralles), and his lecherous but good-hearted neighbor, Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin (C.J. Wilson).

Mr. Slotnick, curly haired and slightly balding, is a perfect Semyon, self-hating enough to declare suicide but still squirreling away enough of a sense of self-worth to be able to enjoy all the attention it brings him.  Mr. Stanton, towering over his party-loving companions, is also quite good, and is hardly able to get through a sentence without using the word “intelligista” and disingenuously assuring Semyon that the two are “equals.”  And Mr. Darragh, with the hair and beard to play The Princess Bridegroom, is quick to assure us he has been published nine times, and has about as much fun in this narcissistic performance as we do watching it.  But Mr. Wilson is the emotional core here: weary, hulking, he continually and sincerely accuses himself of being a “worthless dog” and is the only character who seems to be aware of the consequences of his actions.  His problematic romance with Margarita Ivanovna Peryesvetova (Mia Barron) is the only source of genuine happiness and understanding in Dying for It.

Ms. Buffini, whose Dinner is surely one of the greatest plays of the aughts, is a master of comic misdirection.  The premise, of course, is ideal for satire of the “worker’s utopia,” of the politics of religion, and of the value of a dead body versus a living man, and the play veritably relishes in monologues about demon rape and phrases like “penile imperialism.”  But what is so powerful in here is that Ms. Buffini never stops treating her characters like real people, she never allows the quiet tragedies to be drowned out by the ideas screaming for our attention.  She also never allows us to be sure exactly whose tragedy she is writing.  When the curtain falls, the reaction is not a knowing chuckle but frozen awe.

Dying for It runs through January 18th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY.  2 hours 10 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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