Suicide, Incorporated

by John Stoltenberg

I’ve seen some terrific stuff done by No Rules Theatre Company (a precocious fledgling that flits between DC and Winston-Salem). I thoroughly enjoyed its productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Warehouse and Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers at the H Street Playhouse. And I’ve seen company cofounder Joshua Morgan, who directed Suicide, in some brilliant turns as a performer, notably in Theater J’s The Chosen at the Fichhandler. On top of that, the promotion for Suicide promised an exploration of masculinity’s shutdown of men’s emotional honesty and shrink-wrapping of men’s souls—a theme that could not be more pressing.

So I had high hopes.

The play, by Andrew Hinderaker, is set in a fictitious office that offers writerly assistance to wannabe suicides who need a note that shows they cared enough to leave behind the very best. One of the employees is actually an ex-Hallmark scribe, who, unknown to the boss, moonlights answering calls to a suicide-prevention hotline. The boss himself, a bully and an a-hole, keeps a lid on his own sorrowful secret about suicide. And one suicidal customer shows up, named Norm (an Everyman, get it?), whose spillage of inner emotional agony (stemming from erectile disfunction on his wedding night) occurs about an hour into the 80-minute play.

The setup sounds more interesting than it turned out to be.

Part of the problem was all the empty pauses, pregnant with no meaning. A Pinter or a Mamet can pull off pauses that can be eloquent. But when a play keeps sputtering to tiny stops with no clear purpose, you just sense the playwright trying to think up what to write next. And it doesn’t help that the pulsing soundtrack to the blackout scene changes gave them more momentum than any of the scenes.

Then there’s the central problem posed by the premise: that men’s silence about their inner lives is why (as the play tells us) 80 percent of suicides are male. The play’s pileup of pauses, presumably objective correlatives for all that masculine unspokenness, simply did not render that premise dramatically. It only stopped the show. And not in a good way.

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This town needs No Rules Theatre Company, whether it hits or misses. We need the derring do with which it does new work, the enthusiasm with which it embraces audiences, the spunk with which its young artists invent. And now, with the imminent demise of its fine black-box venue the H Street Playhouse (what’s up with that?), No Rules is going to need a new home.

May its migrations to DC find another perfect place to perch.

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UPDATE August 1, 2012: No Rules has a new home at Signature. Congrats!