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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Mark Jackson's American $uicide, An Incisive Observation on the American Media

Also see Richard's reviews of The Birthday Party, Karen Mason and Pleasure + Pain

American $uicide
Denise Balthrop Cassidy, Beth Wilmurt
and Marty Pistone

Mark Jackson is one of the hottest playwrights in the Bay Area, and each play he writes is received with great anticipation. The 35-year-old has penned the insightful The Death of Meyerhold and The Forest War, both performed by the Shotgun Players. Last year, Berkeley Repertory presented his revised version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, which was a great critical success. Jackson is able to combine brainpower, passion and devilish wit in all of his plays.

Mark Jackson's latest endeavor is a perceptive commentary on American society's fascination with the media. It cleverly puts down movies, television events, and even the World Wide Web. The farce is a liberal adaptation of Nikolai Erdman's 1929 politically charge play The Suicide, which was banned by Stalin during rehearsals. The Russian playwright was arrested and exiled for "slandering the Soviet reality" in 1933. He never wrote another play. The Russian play has become a world classic and is currently the fourth most produced play in Russia.

The provocative American $uicide is also very reminiscent of Frank Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe, where in a newspaper finds an average American Joe and convinces him to commit suicide at midnight on a specified date for the fame and glory of a cause.

American $uicide has some of the wildest over-the-top characters that you will ever see. The madcap and fast-paced first act reminds me of those wonderful a 1930s comedies with very crazy situations. The center of attention is the despondent Sam (Jud Williford), who has been unemployed for the last year. He loves sausages (an important element in the first act) and reads Shakespeare's Hamlet for recreation. His hard-working wife Mary (Beth Wilmurt) is the breadwinner of the household. She works as a fry cook at a restaurant that features mostly fried foods so she is able to put "sausages" on the couple's table.

Sam and Mary's neighbors and best friends are Albert (Marty Pistone) and Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy). Albert is a sleazy porn producer and he is currently putting up a website to show his porn films. Margaret, who has a part time job as a bartender, is his leading lady. She appears in several naughty outfits well-suited for these films.

Gigi Bolt (Delia MacDougall) makes a hilarious appearance as a woman who lives in a car down the street and apparently sells books about live theatre. Sam buys a book on acting that starts with the phrase "Don't act," and he decides to become a great actor like Ashton Kutcher. He auditions for a role in a schlock "indie" film that Max (Michael Patrick Gaffney), a wild and crazy producer, is making starring bubbleheaded ego-driven Hollywood starlet Chloe Banks (Jody Flader). The audition does not go well.

Sam soon realizes he is literally worth more dead than alive and, with the help of Albert's website that has now been changed to the official website for Sam's theatrical aspirations, a far-fetched scheme is devised for the man to kill himself in the name of the highest bidder. Sam's suicide would be broadcast on the web and on television at midnight on a set date. Hollywood gets involved and Sam finds himself caught between the wishes of shadowy government agents, determined film starlets, a mysterious Middle Eastern man, and even his wife.

American $uicide's second act is a complete change of pace from the frantic hilarious first act. A mysterious man (Liam Vincent) from the Middle East visits Sam on a park bench. This man looks strangely like a member of the Taliban (he even likes Osama bin Laden). The man wants Sam to die for his cause.

Sam and Albert's scheme slips out of their control as the clock counts down the minutes and everyone is asking the question, "Will he die for me?" This last scene, suggestive of the old television Laugh In series, is deadly serious as the characters dance about the stage. Each dancer is spotlighted for a short conversation while the other dancers remain motionless.

Mark Jackson also directs this two and a half hour production. He has assembled a brilliant cast of actors who are superb in their roles. Jud Williford (ACT's Happy End, A Christmas Carol) is perfect as the unhappy man. He has the wonderful look and speech of a person who is understandably confused. He does a hilarious bit when he translates the famous Hamlet soliloquy, "To be or not to be," into a modern idiom of today's language.

Delia Macdougall (many regional productions) is brilliant as Gigi Bolt, the "lover of live theatre." She expounds with grand theatrical gestures, and she voices the tradition of live theatre. She is very reminiscent of such wonderful hammy actors as the late Constance Collier or Sir Donald Wolfit of the British stage.

Michael Patrick Gaffney (Five Flights) gives an unrestrained performance as the over-excited independent producer and director. He looks and acts like Austin Pendleton on uppers. This is some of the campiest acting I have seen in years.

Marty Pistone (actor at the Stanford Summer Theatre Festival) gives a grand performance as the sleazy porn producer and Sam's agent. He reeks with slime when he talks about Sam's upcoming death. As his partner Margaret, Denise Balthrop Cassidy (productions by Word for Word) gives an effective performance and looks good in those sexy porno costumes.

Beth Wilmurt (Salome, 4 Adverbs) give a luminous performance as Sam's wife. Her mousy attitude toward Sam and the others is perfect. She looks and acts like a person who has slaved over the grill, frying burgers all day, and just wants to get away from the hum drum of everyday life.

Liam Vincent (Five Flights, Hunter Gatherers) once again gives a commendable performance as the Middle Eastern Taliban. His actions and diction are outstanding. His telling of the parable of a "duck and chicken" is captivating.

Mark Jackson has created a brilliant, wild and wonderful first act; however, the second act could be tightened. The last scene involving the dancing is exhausting in its length. This sardonic farce is unlike anything you have ever seen. It's certainly risqué, attentive and a powerful piece with a wild and uproarious first act.

American $uicide is being presented by Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays at the Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco through March 11th. For tickets call 415-437-6775 or visit www.zspace.org.


Photo: Clayton Lord


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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