Playwright: adapted by Robert Ross Parker from The Suicide, by Nikolai Erdman. At: The Strange Tree Group at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $25. Runs through: July 22
Banned by Stalin in 1928, Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide belongs to a literary genre dating from Gogol and Chekhov, its plot premised on a humble citizen suddenly thrust into a position of prominence, followed by the community's response to this aberration. Under Czarist regimes, the plight of a commoner forced out of his proper sphere provided the comedy, while Soviet-era insiders snickered at the rapacious buffoonery of the authority figures surrounding the hapless victim. The humor of this situation nowadays tends to be lost on American audiences, who prefer their underdogs ultimately triumphing over the Big Shots.
Young thespians often attempt to compensate for this culture shock by playing their material as road-runner farce. This facile solution is manifested in the first few minutes of our production, during which unemployed schlep Semyon Podsakelnikov wakes in the night to bicker loudly with his wife and mother-in-law, continuing through the expository scenes, as Semyon's family and friends offer him comfort only exacerbating his misery. Eventually, their harsh assessments inspire him to threaten suicide, whereupon he is beset by strangersideologists searching for martyrs, actresses seeking publicity, poets and writers in need of topicsall looking to turn his imminent death to their own advantage.
Sometimes a single character can change the tone of an entire show. Just when we have resigned ourselves to another hour of run-in-circles-and-scream slapstick, executed amid the Brechtian motifs mandatory to dissident European art (albeit rendered extra-comical by such self-referential flourishes as hand-cranked title cards and an outhouse labeled "The People's Toilet"), there enters Aristarch. He is a philosopher of the Intelligentsia, played by Signal Ensemble's Joseph Stearns, whose unexaggerated text-based delivery reminds us and his fellow cast members that satire is always funnier when presented with straight facesironically, the very precept at the foundation of the Strange Tree Group's reputation for interpretive originality.
The reasons behind this stylistic reversal remain a mystery, but wherever the responsibility lies, opening-night playgoers owe a debt of gratitude to performers capable of finding exactly the right pace and volume to rescue what could have emerged an enervating classroom exercise. Their precise timing and unflagging agility lend freshness to even such threadbare gags asyawn!actors in multiple roles swapping wigs and costumes in full view of the audience.