nytheatre.com review by Hieu Tran
August 15, 2004
Jonathan Karpinos, the author of Suicide/Joke, calls his play an “unnerving comedy.” To a great extent that's true, but I would also like to add that it is enormously engaging, equally compelling, and more dramatic than comedic—though there are plenty of laughs, well-earned, throughout the show.
Under the expert, lively direction of David Chapman, who gets each actor to speak in a naturalistic locution that is distinctly the playwright’s own, we are introduced to the world of Amanda (played with jaw-dropping accuracy by Megan Ketch), a fifteen-year-old girl who defies convenient description. She is the product of a broken family: her father, Chris (Sean Williams), is a Vietnam War vet who sometimes spaces out in the middle of conversations and seems to be making up the rules of parenting as they become necessary. He takes his daughter to a bar one night, partly to defy the contemptuous expectation of her mother (Emily Shoolin) that a weekend with dad is always a weekend of pizza, movies, and homework. At the bar the two meet up with Chris’s old friend and fellow veteran, Larry (Matthew Kinney), a pool shark who hustles people out of their money on a nightly basis. Amanda is offered glasses of White Russians and chances to see Larry get into a fight with one of the men he’s hustled. Her response to all this? Inexplicable. Her reaction is a constellation of minute, interactive responses and emotions: one-part awe, one-part acceptance; concern, caution, indecisiveness.
It was at this moment that I realized that Suicide/Joke was not going to be a cookie-cutter melodrama; nor was it to be a painfully chic absurd comedy. The play is too perceptive of, and honest toward, its characters to fall into the trappings of either genre.
Even the short-lived, casual encounters between Amanda and Josh (played with affecting insouciance by John McGrew, who also composed the ethereal but contemporary music for the play) offer more dramatic resonance in their combined twenty minutes of stage-time than half a dozen other more carefully “thought-out” and long-winded relationships you might see on TV or in the movies. The two meet at a party a week after Amanda’s trip to the bar, and Josh doesn’t so much hit on her as just start up a conversation. What happens thereafter, and Amanda and Josh’s response to it a few days later, strike at an unnerving truth with which many teenagers can identify—and which most of their parents would try hard to deny.