Are You Happy?

The stage is divided into three, each section dedicated to a different character at a different point in time. On stage right, Carol (Carla Gugino) is speaking to her husband, John (Richard Topol), for the first time since she slit her writs, took pills, and drank gin in a bathtub with the water left running. A pretty unambiguous attempt to die, and yet she insists it was an accident. “The freezer was full,” John keeps repeating, baffled by her degree of planning.

On center stage, their daughter, Anna (Celeste Arias), recovers from a drug addiction but fails to rid herself of an inherited mental illness. She is briefly stable and falls in love with a documentary filmmaker (Julian Elijah Martinez), but giving birth seems to do permanent damage to her psyche. Finally, on stage left, their daughter, the physician Bonnie (Gabby Beans), manages her depression but maintains a suspicion of others that devastates her romantic life. A charming fisherwoman, Jo (Jo Mei), tries and fails to get Bonnie to open up. Her childhood, and her residence in her family house, seems to haunt any attempt at happiness.

Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide, which attempts to sketch the effect of depression across three generations of women, has the potential to offer keen insights into the nature of depression and its reverberations across time—for example, the fathers often appear in multiple timelines, while the women interact with the adult versions of their children. Unfortunately, the choice was made to excessively bounce between all three timelines. This sometimes creates an aural echo, with all three women repeating the same words or lines one after the other. The device is admittedly effective, but it is not worth the fragmentation it creates in performance. Actors must pause before responding to what their characters have just heard, upsetting the rhythm of their interactions with one another. Frequently, they are meant to be cut off, but the synchronization isn’t quite tight enough and thus the actors halt mid-sentence, creating a brief silence before the next, interrupting line.

The result is a lot of exhausting and bewildering crosstalk. Of course, this may be Birch’s point—depression is inscrutable from the outside—but if that’s the case, then it’s a point made in five minutes rather than one hundred five. Don’t get me wrong: there are things to like here. Mei’s Jo is a welcome jolt of humor and amiability, and Beans well-captures both Bonnie’s stone-faced mien and her quiet, almost imperceptible attempts at vulnerability and connection. Amid the cacophony of voices, however, it is difficult to appreciate such thoughtful work.

Anatomy of a Suicide runs through March 15th at the Linda Gross Theater.  336 W. 20th Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 45 minutes.  No intermission.

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