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Anatomy of a Suicide

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 18, 2020

Julian Elijah Martinez and Celeste Arias
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Alice Birch's Anatomy of a Suicide is making its U.S. premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, after a critically acclaimed production at the Royal Court in London in 2017 and winning the Susan Smith Blackburn price in 2018.

Exploring the phenomenon of "inherited suicide" and the effect of matriarchal suicide on subsequent generations of women in the same family, Anatomy of a Suicide is actually three plays being performed simultaneously with constantly overlapping dialogue for 105 intermission-less minutes. How you respond to the piece may hinge on how you respond to Birch's use of this provocative theatrical device.

On designer Mariana Sanchez's spare, institutional set divided into three sections with five doors, we meet Carol (Carla Gugino) and John (Richard Topol). Carol is being discharged from a hospital after attempting suicide. Her wrists are bandaged and she's telling John she never wanted to get pregnant and that she's furious that she now has to stay alive at least until their unborn child is old enough to be self-sufficient. That unborn child turns out to be Anna (Celeste Arias), who has fallen in love with an African-American man, Jamie (Julian Elijah Martinez). They have moved in together and will soon face the prospect of parenthood when Anna discovers she's pregnant with a little girl. We finally meet that little girl in the grown-up guise of Bonnie (Gaby Beans), a successful emergency room physician ambivalently pursuing a romance with another woman, Jo (Joe Mei), while struggling with the legacy of Anna's suicide in the family house Anna left her, which she's unable to sell.

The acting by the principals is wonderful, as are the contributions of Jason Babinsky, Ava Briglia, Vince Nappo and, especially, Miriam Silverman who all play multiple supporting roles in the three simultaneous plays. All three generations of women's stories are compelling and Birch makes her case for the theory that depression and suicidal ideation can be transmitted from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Put another way, a parent taking their own life can unwittingly and subconsciously give their children a kind of tacit approval to do the same one day. A parent's suicide can, unfortunately, lead to their child making the same decision. The legacy of inherited depression is well documented, and it's doubtful anyone in the Atlantic's audience hasn't been touched by suicide or someone struggling with a mental illness.

The problem with Anatomy of a Suicide is that it doesn't delve any deeper into generational suicide than illuminating the problem. Birch offers no insight into possible treatment and, more importantly, she offers no hope for the future. The result is a play that's brutally depressing and, with its overlapping stories and dialogue, irritatingly tedious to watch.

Anatomy of a Suicide
Through March 15, 2020
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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