Goodbye Cruel World
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 23, 2010
I don't know much at all about Nikolai Erdman, a Soviet playwright whose work was mostly banned until the fall of Communism. If his other plays are anywhere near as smart and entertaining as Robert Ross Parker's current adaptation of his 1928 work The Suicide, then I want to learn more now.
Parker calls his version Goodbye Cruel World, and he's directing its world premiere for Roundtable Ensemble at Arclight Theatre. It takes a few minutes to get your bearings, but once you do you realize that this is dark comedy as a kind of circus: Parker blends social satire, classical absurdism, and very contemporary self-referential performance art to create an antic world in which to tell Erdman's razor-sharp tale.
The story revolves around Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov, a man whom chronic unemployment has not brought down—not yet. When his wife and mother-in-law complain about his lack of motivation, he informs them that he has a Plan: he is going to learn to play the tuba (because he has acquired a book called "Teach Yourself Tuba—For Fun and Profit"). This scheme doesn't work out quite as expected, however; and soon Semyon determines, after having it suggested to him by his neighbor Alexander Kalabushkin, that he should shoot himself and put himself out of his misery.
Little does Semyon know that Kalabushkin has ulterior motives. Soon Semyon finds himself visited by Aristarch Dominikovich Gran-Skubic, self-proclaimed representative of the Russian intelligentsia:
ARISTARCH: I am here to stop you before it's too late. You're shooting yourself? Excellent. I support you. Wonderful news, please shoot yourself. But, I beg you, don't be selfish. Suicide must be a public service. It's not all about you, open your eyes!
Turns out that Gran-Skubic wants Semyon's suicide to be a public protest against the humiliations suffered by his (not so long-suffering) class. And—here's Kalabushkin's brilliant stroke—it turns out that others, representing other strata of Soviet society, want to get their mitts on Semyon as well. We meet, quickly, a postman, a butcher, an Orthodox priest, and two actresses, all of whom want Semyon's death to resonate with the importance and authenticity of their particular causes. Erdman, via Parker, takes the old saw by John Kenneth Galbraith about Communism to its logical extreme: man exploits man even as man ends it all.
Parker doesn't update Erdman's play, so the direct targets of Goodbye Cruel World are Soviet institutions. This does not mean that the play has no teeth (see Galbraith quote); Parker adds swipes at lots of 20th century theatre styles and wraps the whole thing in a smart, fast, hilarious package that owes as much to his own work with the Vampire Cowboys as anything else.
At the center of the excellent six-person cast is Paco Tolson as Semyon (and a few other characters); he's a terrific everyman, at once put-upon and swaggering, vain and frightened out of his gourd. William Jackson Harper is sensationally good as Gran-Skubic and Curran Connor is deliciously slimy and vaguely malevolent as Semyon's neighbor Kalabushkin (both Harper and Connor also take a few other roles, too). Aaron Roman Weiner is very funny in a variety of guises—the butcher, clad in a blood-encrusted apron; the meek mailman who believes in the Cause, whatever the cost; and a decrepit old woman who lives in Semyon's building. Tami Stronach and Cindy Cheung show their versatility by each playing one of the glamorous actresses and also Semyon's drudge-like wife and mother-in-law (again, among other roles).
The show's pace is fast and furious and the fourth-wall-breaking moments, which include most notably live sound effects played by whichever member(s) of the ensemble aren't needed for a particular scene, are great fun. If you think thought-provoking theatre that's literally about important issues like life and death, economics, politics, and the social contract can't be wildly entertaining, well, here's Robert Ross Parker to prove you wrong.