Comedian Bill Hicks had a famous routine about people who work in marketing and advertising. Well, maybe “routine” isn’t the right word: Hicks would stand on stage, address the marketers in his audience and then implore them, over and over, to kill themselves.
Hicks, who wore his bad-boy masculinity on his sleeve right up until his 1994 death, saw himself as doing a social good. Marketers are “Satan’s little helpers,” he said, and less of them on the earth would be a good thing. So he evoked the possibility of suicide to further his own goals. And he did it while prowling the stage, dominating the room and cussing like a sailor – in other words, exerting his manhood.
Suicide, Incorporated, a 2010 tragicomedy by Chicago playwright Andrew Hinderaker, is a Bizarro version of Hicks’ thesis: It centers around a company that makes money by drafting suicide notes. The business is Hallmark gone Wall Street, turning a profit by bullishly pushing its clients to perform the unspeakable. The CEO speaks, in an advertiser’s tongue, about cornering the market by targeting those suicide victims least likely to leave notes: Men.
For the No Rules Theatre Company production of Suicide, director Joshua Morgan smartly pushes on that inherent male paradox, the way certain members of our breed can compete and dominate with aggression and confidence but cower with fear at the first sight of the personal and vulnerable. Like Hicks, or the marketers he describes, these characters are fine talking about death as long as they can perceive it as a gain.
Was it this same fascination with the forbidden side of masculinity that provoked Morgan and set designer Steven Royal to present the play with all-sides stadium seating, like a Nationals game or a UFC match? It’s a cool idea, if one that becomes mitigated by the all-white sterility of the set itself, with boxes that act as furniture and doctor’s-office ceiling lights. We half-expect the actors to come out in lab coats.
Stepping up to the plate is Jason (NRTC co-artistic director Brian Sutow), a new employee with an impressive back catalog of birthday cards. Scott the CEO (Joe Isenberg, in a performance that fluctuates between smirk and scream) brings Jason on as his new note-drafter, little suspecting the man is actually an undercover operative who moonlights for a crisis center.
Jason’s got a dark past concerning his brother Tommy (Dylan Jackson) and a mission – to rescue his first client: Norm, played by Spencer Trinwith as a hulking bearded whimperer, clad in flannel and filled with darkness. It turns out all these men are emotional mice when it comes to discussing matters of the self.
Theatre thrives on over-emotion (“how else could we possibly know what people are really thinking?,” the logic goes), but the men who fill the dugout of Suicide, Incorporated brilliantly mute their performances. We sense the sadness but still detect the real-life societal norms that prohibit them from discussion, which makes the play light-years more compelling than if everyone simply projected their thoughts to all four bleachers. They’re hitting base hits instead of showy homers, with the exception of Trinwith, who delivers a protein-packed monologue near the end like he’s chewing on some particularly heartbreaking steak.
Hinderacker already had success with Suicide, Incorporated in Chicago and New York, so the emotional effectiveness of its DC premiere isn’t surprising. His deft balance of darkness and light is remarkable, from jokes about “spring specials” to deep explorations of when, exactly, life might cease to become worth living. If the elements clash a little too roughly sometimes in the No Rules production, whether via composer Jason Waggoner’s blaring action-movie score or an over-abundance of stuttering from the actors, then they do so without sacrificing the work’s emotional lifts and lulls.
This is No Rules’ final show in the not-long-for-this-world H Street Playhouse, which makes the subject matter of a man fighting a losing battle with the forces of death feel eerily appropriate. The company promises it will find a new home soon, so this isn’t really goodbye for them – just the departing of a physical body.
The hand-written notes that plaster the entrance carry a litany of apologies and assurances that the writer is going to a better place. If this is the end, or at least the end of an era for H Street Playhouse, it’s a hell of a way to go.
Suicide, Incorporated runs thru June 23, 2012 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE, Washington, DC.
by Andrew Hinderacker
Directed by Joshua Morgan
Produced by No Rules Theatre Company
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission