Cindy Cheung, Curran Connor, William Jackson Harper, Tami Stronach, Paco Tolson, Aaron Roman Weiner
adapted and directed by
Robert Ross Parker
Does the idea of an early Soviet, socially-revisionist Theatre of the Absurd piece sound like fun or torture? Your response to this question will correlate almost directly with your enjoyment of Goodbye Cruel World, the new adaptation at the ArcLight Theatre. It is a frantic, fun piece that races along at a harrowing pace and dares the audience to keep up with it. Goodbye Cruel World is like a Marx Brothers comedy, but one that includes Karl Marx as the fifth brother.
The piece, adapted and directed by Robert Ross Parker, springs from a literal translation of Nikolai Erdmans Samoubiitsa (The Suicide). The original play has an interesting history and one that makes this show even more remarkable. In the 1920s, when the play was written, Nikolai Erdman was famous and the new political play was eagerly awaited. On the eve of the premiere, the show was banned by Stalin and Mr. Erdman was exiled. After World War II, Mr. Erdman returned to Moscow and was employed as a screenwriter, mainly adapting childrens stories to film. His earlier fame forgotten, Samoubiitsa was not produced in the Soviet Union for over 50 years.
Robert Ross Parker has updated some of the dialogue but remains true to the roots of the show. Goodbye Cruel World focuses on an unemployed husband, Semyon, in 1920s post-revolutionary Soviet Moscow. Unable to provide for his family or be the man he aspires to be, people assume Semyon will commit suicide. Their sudden admiration of him convinces Semyon it might be the best idea. Once Semyon decides to commit suicide, he is suddenly popular, and a parade of social movements work to convince him to die for their cause or at least mention them in his suicide note.
Paco Tolson is wonderful as the befuddled and put-upon Semyon. The show doesnt allow time to build character arcs or back stories, so Mr. Tolson draws the audience in with small flashes of understanding or confusion. The frenetic story needs an emotional center, and Mr. Tolson provides it.
Although Mr. Tolson is the most tethered to a single character, each member of the five-person ensemble plays multiple roles. Each has a role that’s played artfully and other roles that are closer to caricature. Their characters define social movements wanting to be credited in Semyons suicide notes and are archetypes from the period: the intelligentsia, the proletariat, the artists, the writers, the church and so on. They swing wildly across the stage, sometimes, staying sometimes just passing through. Two standouts are William Jackson Harper as the member of the intelligentsia with the voice of a preacher and Cindy Cheung as a scene-stealing, scenery-chewing bad actress determined to get a leg up on her theatrical competitors after the death of a rejected lover.
What begins as an interesting look at a dated play grows, over the course of the show, into an engrossing and often hilarious piece of theater.