Heading into opening night of Dying for It at Artistic Home, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Moira Buffini’s adaptation of The Suicide, a 1928 satire by Soviet playwright Nikolai Erdman that was banned by Joseph Stalin. Frankly, the subject matter sounded a bit niche—or maybe I was just feeling rusty on Soviet history after seeing Steppenwolf Theatre’s Describe the Night, a complex historical drama that requires close attention to tie its time-hopping storylines together.
Dying for It
Through 4/23: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Sat 4/8 4 PM; no performance Sun 4/9; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, 773-697-3830, thedentheatre.com or theartistichome.com, $35 (students/seniors $20)
I certainly wasn’t expecting an absurd comedic parallel to Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, but that’s what I was pleasantly surprised to find in Monica Payne’s staging of Dying for It. Admittedly, these are strange bedfellows to mention in the same sentence, but both stories feature a suicidal protagonist—one up against an avaricious capitalist in sleepy Bedford Falls; the other living in an urban slum under an oppressive regime—whose brush with death leads to a renewed sense of the beauty of ordinary life.
Buffini’s leading man, 27-year-old Semyon (Daniel Shtivelberg), ekes out an existence in a cramped apartment with his wife, Masha (Kayla Adams). Chronically unemployed, Semyon is depressed about the constant struggle to find work and feels unmanned by depending on his wife’s income. It doesn’t help that his acerbic mother-in-law, Serafima (Kathy Scambiatterra), lives next door, always ready with a biting criticism. When he disappears after a fight with Masha, Semyon’s family and neighbors are convinced he’s ready to top himself; eventually, he comes to believe it, too.
An enterprising neighbor, Alexander (Todd Wojcik), spreads the word about his pending suicide and sells tickets to townspeople who want an audience with Semyon. A disillusioned member of the intelligentsia (John LaFlamboy) hopes to make him a martyr to protest the regime. An embittered priest (Patrick Thornton) wants to use his death to scare the godless masses back into his church. A flamboyant flirt (Brookelyn Hébert) swoons at the thought of him dying of love for her. Like backbench politicians vying for the endorsement of a disgraced former president, each pleads their case before the hapless Semyon, hoping to make his death a symbol for their pet cause.
From the first scene on, the cast’s performances are over-the-top caricatures, and the ridiculousness only ratchets up as the play goes on. But this style suits the farcical script. Kevin Hagan’s narrow set design reinforces the lack of privacy as neighbors eavesdrop on each other from a communal staircase and pop in and out of Semyon and Masha’s window via the fire escape. And before his parade of eager visitors begins, there’s an especially funny scene in which Semyon tries to learn the tuba from an instruction manual written by a pompous musician.
We may not get a cathartic Capra ending—this is Soviet slapstick, after all—but there are some unexpectedly tender moments when Semyon realizes who is truly in his corner. So go for the laughs; stay for the life-affirming message beneath the buffoonery.