That this play, which premiered last year at the Gift Theatre in Chicago, can swing so completely from rote to riveting represents one of the biggest surprises and successes of the Roundabout Underground program of which it's part. Since Roundabout Theatre Company launched the series in 2007 to give new and emerging writers a high-class outlet, it's produced a couple of outstanding shows and a couple of duds, but all have been fascinating. Hinderaker's certainly is that, but it also ranks as the most daring to date, due in no small part to its author's masterful facility with showing how the extraordinary derives from the ordinary.
The ordinary here starts with the premise, which tells you everything and nothing about where Hinderaker is going: "A man takes a job editing suicide notes so he can save his customers' lives." If already your mind is filling with visions of a tense initial interview, scenes depicting the drudgery of the life-or-death work, and confrontations between the caring and the (apparently) heartless, that's exactly what you get. The first scene finds Jason (Gabriel Ebert), a former Hallmark writer who left under mysterious circumstances, at the conclusion of his interview with Scott (Toby Leonard Moore), the founder and president of Legacy Letters. Scott isn't sure Jason's right for the job, so can Jason convince him? Just let him at this one note written by Perry (Corey Hawkins), and improve it with two quick flicks of his pen, and...
I know, I know. And things don't much improve when Jason gets home (after scoring the job, of course) and has a vaporous conversation with his brother, Tommy (Jake O'Connor) that instantly starts you wondering whether he's dead and the inspiration for Jason's sudden career shift. (He is.) Jason departs immediately for his night gig, which he cares about a great deal more. There's some reference to working on phones, so you're positive it must be something like answering phones at a suicide hotline. (It is.)
Don't worry: These are not spoilers. Hinderaker places all of his cards on the table by the third scene or so, when Jason meets his first client, Norm (James McMenamin), and is faced with putting his beliefs — whatever they are — to the test. What follows is a simple series of variations and explorations on already established plot points, with no worthwhile new information introduced within the final hour or so of the 85-minute running time.
Yet the play is never remotely undernourished. Hinderaker, director Jonathan Berry, and the superb cast inspect each character and event as with an electron microscope, and present five lives that are astoundingly complex and full. (A sixth actor, Mike DiSalvo, fills what is essentially a walk-on role as a cop who keeps his eye on the office's operations.) You become so involved in their dreams, fears, and flaws that even their most mundane words and actions take on towering significance; before long, you're convinced that watching them arguing over the menu at an Italian restaurant would be captivating.
Take, for example, the layers of irony and subtext coursing through a flashback scene, in which Jason agonizes over Tommy's last night alive. We know by that point that the brothers' parents died young, and Jason was Tommy's sole means of support through much of school and college. But seeing how they interacted, what they said to each other, what they didn't, and what they didn't have to, changes the scope of everything else. O'Connor does some of his best work ever here, thrusting an unshakable facade over anguish we (and, to his shame, Jason) cannot imagine, and providing a haunting glimpse at what the final moments of existence feel like from the inside out.
Jason unites them all, threading through every scene his messed-up psyche and self-defeating methods of dealing with loss. But Ebert goes well beyond the script's precepts, finding the darkness and the playfulness within this man who's lost his own reason to live. He doesn't reveal all (or even most) of this right away: He starts standing tall and straight and crisply dressed (in one of costume designer Jessica Wegener Shay's many stylish suits), and progresses to slumped shoulders and slob-casual attire; but there's no gimmickry about his transformation. Hinderaker tells you so much about who Jason is, and Ebert portrays him so honestly and starkly, that you believe every bit of it.
Suicide, Incorporated is awash in such details, but to divulge too many more would be to dilute their impact as they make themselves known in the course of expanding this "familiar" story well past the boundaries of the theater's walls. Like the other excellent Roundabout production upstairs, Sons of the Prophet (by Stephen Karam, whose Speech & Debate inaugurated Roundabout Underground four years ago), this play is gorgeous and unsettling, a powerful depiction of how humanity's misplaced emotions can suppress its vital spirit — and how coming to terms with that can help dispel the grief and strife that are capable of ending our lives before their time.