Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Graceful Approach to A Grim Subject -- Theater Review: Suicide, Incorporated at The Gift Theatre

Theater Review

Suicide, Incorporated
a world premiere play by Andrew Hinderaker
The Gift Theatre, Chicago

I have high regard for the difficulty of writing any play, let alone a very good one, let alone a drama tackling the difficult topic of suicide.

For Andrew Hinderaker--a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists--to do so, in memory of a lost friend, and in turn have the world premiere production of Suicide, Incorporated at Chicago's Gift Theatre earn rave reviews, merit a Jeff Award nomination and extend its initial 6-week run multiple times, is obviously quite admirable.

I felt fortunate to get a ticket to see the show Sunday afternoon, a week before it has to close, as the Gift's tiny Jefferson Park venue continues to sell every seat. The 80-minute drama centers around a fictional business enterprise that specializes in helping those planning to off themselves write better suicide notes.

Although I respect Hinderaker taking imaginative dramatic liberties in having the company's hiring of a new writer--who used to compose Hallmark cards--serve as the jumping off point for a compelling story that intertwines several characters contemplating and/or affected by suicide, I was a bit bothered by the implausibility of the enterprise. Not so much because it couldn't theoretically exist, but because it had three employees and seemingly just one customer. And how much would one really pay to have their farewell statement spruced up a bit?

Which isn't to say Suicide, Incorporated isn't quite worthwhile. I very much enjoyed it and would recommend that avid theatergoers try to see it, this week or in a future staging. Hinderaker is certainly a skilled writer, at a relatively young age, and this is a substantive new work. I wouldn't be giving it @@@@ (out of 5) if I wasn't largely impressed, enlightened and entertained.

But I was a bit less enthralled than the Tribune's Chris Jones--who gave it 4 stars out of 4, although his review also garnered several comments of disagreement--and without meaning to be glib given the subject matter, Suicide, Incorporated just doesn't feel life-changing. Few plays truly do, and this one is better than many I've seen, but coming within the same 8-day span as viewing David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon, it was all the more obvious that Hinderaker's fine piece is a good bit shy of the highest praise heaped on it, at least in comparison to more consummate works.

Not that it wasn't presented extremely well. Though some of the performers are now replacements for original cast members, almost all were quite good, particularly Michael Patrick Thornton, the Gift's artistic director (at right in the photo) who embodied the despondent character of Norm with a combination of poignancy and humor.

Yet at least one of the main characters didn't feel quite right in the personification, which perhaps added to my conclusion that while Suicide, Incorporated is an excellent work, and really quite astonishing for a storefront drama by a new writer, it is not "note perfect." Like the letter that Norm has drafted, the script and staging still have room for improvement, and are even apt to be taken in a slightly better direction.

(Hinderaker's newest play, Kingsville, opens soon at Chicago's Stage Left Theater and has been called "one of the most anticipated shows of the fall.")

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