Worth a shot

Pub date February 21, 2007
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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Sam Small (Jud Williford) is an unemployed man in a fraying bathrobe with a limp Jimmy Dean sausage in his pocket, living off the bacon brought (literally snuck) home by his wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt), a waitress. Sam’s situation, aggravated by his well-thumbed copy of Hamlet, has led him to contemplate suicide.

Albert (Marty Pistone) — right across the hall from Sam and Mary’s apartment 86 in number 69 — is sympathetic. He’s on the rebound from a dot-bomb himself (not to mention a dead wife) but is rebuilding his future by recycling the detritus of a lavish consumer society on eBay and shooting Web-ready video with a well-worn vixen named Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy). Joblessness need be no impediment, Albert proclaims. "Nobody has to hire you, Sam. It’s the 21st century!"

And then the brainstorm: Albert’s entrepreneurial instincts latch on to Sam’s suicidal tendencies to conjure a Web-based raffle for the right to Sam’s martyrdom. Soon various people-cum-causes come calling, and Sam and Mary’s fortunes are on the rise. This is the story of American Suicide, presented by Z Plays and the Encore Theatre Company.

It is also the story of American can-do despair in its most contemporary form: breathing the Internet ether of a post-postindustrial economy and the giddy dreams of the self-unemployed. That the play feels so effortlessly precise makes one appreciate even more the achievement of writer-director Mark Jackson, whose brilliantly staged adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide turns the Soviet playwright’s banned 1929 tragifarce into a piercingly funny satire on the American way of death.

For every individual fantasy in this country rests on the bones of some victim or other. In this case, it’s Sam, the classic American little guy, whose iconic aspects Williford expertly underscores to comic but also telling effect with a Depression-era clip to his speech. Sam’s gotta die, or no dice. But the deal is so sweet even he gets caught up in it.

Our hapless hero even finds himself pursuing a lifelong dream of becoming an actor (lifelong — ay, there’s the rub), which pitches him into the middle of another squalid little tale of diminished lives and desperate schemes. This one involves a washed-up film director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and a 22-year-old Norma Desmond named Chloe Banks (Jody Flader), who’s bent on a comeback via a torrid suicide note from a leading man–slash–lover. Both are played, like all the characters in American Suicide, as delightfully precise caricatures by a very fine cast. This includes Delia MacDougall, whose larger-than-life turn as major thespian Gigi Bolt, a representative of the embattled American theater living down the street from Sam’s apartment building in her car, effortlessly projects to the back rows and back several times over.

The histrionic theme is one of the more self-referential of Jackson’s many original contributions to Erdman’s story line, and he clearly has fun with it. So bright is the suicide scheme’s promise to all involved that not even the scandal-starved Chloe’s willful intrusion into the conjugal poverty of Sam and Mary’s water-stained studio apartment (a principle component of James Faerron’s slick and versatile set design) throws a wrench into the works. Indeed, the hard-bitten note in Mary’s natural sweetness at the outset of the play drops away completely by the time worldly fortune and a life of leisure appear on the horizon. Wilmurt’s excellent and endearing play on the supportive wifey adopts something of the wide-eyed, guileless, endlessly grateful manner of a game show contestant.

Liam Vincent rounds out the terrific cast in the roles of two mysterious men who together push the play’s social critique a notch higher, or lower, into the realm of politics and an ever-encroaching state power.

The issue of martyrdom naturally calls forth from among the other eager suicide opportunists a certain bearded fellow (played with wonderfully dignified comic assurance by Vincent) in Middle Eastern garb. Jackson eschews cheap shots here, instead going for the jugular with some of the play’s funniest dialogue as Sam’s political ignorance (a classic American virtue never too far from an equally classic rapaciousness) before the jihadist prompts the latter to narrate a kind of preschool allegory of anti-imperialism — a story later used for cross-purposes by a shadowy government trench coat (Vincent again) who’d like to use Sam to do something about the dearth of Americans willing to die for ideas. *


Through March 11

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1695 18th St., SF

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