It’s been a battering couple of weeks, what with abandonment, abduction, desperation, murder, genocide, and pandemic – all but the last one happening on New York stages. So although I saw it a week after it opened, I’ve waited until a little more than a week before it closes to think about “Anatomy of a Suicide,” a play that is without question an exercise in virtuosity for both playwright Alice Birch and director Lileana Blain-Cruz, with a cast that deserves kudos. But it was a show that made me wonder whether I needed a break from theatergoing.
In three successive two-person scenes, we meet three different women who are each in distress, clearly self-destructive and in denial to the point of being delusional.
In the first, Carol (Carla Gugino), with her wrists bandaged, insists repeatedly to her husband John (Richard Topol) that “it was an accident.” John humors her at first until he finally bursts out: “You took a razor and you slit your wrists, you slit up your fucking wrists, you ran a bath and you drank gin and you took pills, and you left food and you tried really fucking hard to die, Carol.”
“I’m sorry,” Carol replies.
“We took vows,” John says.
“I know,” Carol says.
In the next scene, Anna (Celeste Arias) apologizes to Dan (Vince Nappo) who turns out to be her doctor. She tells Dan she senses that he is annoyed but doesn’t understand why, even though, as Dan finally bursts out, she’s an addict who stole from him, and she plied his 15-year-old brother with drugs and then sexually abused him. Anna doesn’t seem to notice that she has broken her wrist.
In the third scene, Bonnie (Gabby Beans), who is a physician, is treating a patient for a wound caused by a fishing hook. The patient, Jo, flirts with her, and finally asks:
Do you want to grab a drink?
“You’ve had a lot of painkillers,” Bonnie answers. “You shouldn’t drink anything alcoholic for a while.”
“Wasn’t really what I was asking,” Flo says. Bonnie, we eventually learn, tries to cut herself off from all human contact.
For the rest of the play, these three women’s despairing stories unfold simultaneously on stage, Carol on stage right, Anna in the middle, Bonnie stage left. The dialogue sometimes overlaps, but there are often well-coordinated pauses or mute stage business that often allow the characters from each scene to speak without competition.
Whether the set-up allows the audiences to absorb what the characters are saying is a different matter.
Eventually, we are meant to grasp that Carol is Anna’s mother and Anna is Bonnie’s mother, that these are three generations of women, and that the scenes are taking place in real time in different decades. It’s true that the design, especially Kaye Voyce’s costumes. subtly bolsters the perception that we’re watching different time periods. The first clue that the women are related also happens fairly early on in this 100-minute play, when the actor playing John (who, remember, is Carol’s husband) visits Anna carrying a Get Well balloon. She calls him Dad.
But here was one of my problems. There are ten actors portraying a total of 25 characters. I just assumed for longer than I care to admit that in the second scenario Richard Topol was playing a different character, not Carol’s husband..
British playwright Alice Birch established her exquisite ear and her distinctive voice in New York four years ago at the age of 29 with “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” The play was experimental in form, but it was often funny, the dialogue felt spot-on, and, if it was unsettling, a feminist take full of rage, it ultimately offered what felt like solid insight into the way men and women communicate with one another.
What is the insight about suicide in Birch’s new play? I had to struggle so much just to figure out what was happening on stage from moment to moment that I failed to detect any larger understanding, other than maybe suicidal tendencies are passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Is that even true?
There was an insert in the program listing three organizations “if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health” (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, NYC Well, and Crisis Text Line) – which was the only trustworthy information I came away with from the theater, certainly the only thing of tangible help.
“Anatomy of a Suicide” won the 2018 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a most prestigious award recognizing excellence in a woman playwright. I could marvel at the stage machinery the way one marvels at the erudition of the author of a crossword puzzle that stumps you.
But shouldn’t a play be more than a puzzle?
Anatomy of a Suicide
Written by Alice Birch; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Sets by Mariana Sanchez, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lights by Jiyoun Chang, sound by Rucyl Frison, projections by Hannah Wasileski, wig, hair and makeup by Tommy Kurzman
Cast: Celeste Arias, Jason Babinsky, Gabby Beans, Ava Briglia, Carla Gugino, Julian Elijah Martinez, Jo Mei, Vince Nappo, Miriam Silverman and Richard Topol
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $76.50 to $96.50
Anatomy of a Suicide is on stage through March 15, 2020