Suicide Ghost Writers 

A conceit doesn't have to be plausible to work.

Suicide, Incorporated

Suicide, Incorporated

On the principle that anything is possible, I did a Google search. But there doesn't seem to be a real-life model for Legacy Letters, the business imagined in Andrew Hinderaker's play Suicide Incorporated, that helps would-be suicides craft that final statement that says it all. There is a "suicide note generator" on the bad-taste comedy site porkyjerky.com: you type in your name, click on a reason for killing yourself ("inferiority, destiny . . . McDonald's"), and it spits out something stupid. There's also a Legacy Letters Project that turns out to be a rather sweet effort to encourage older people to share their wisdom with kids. And of course there are sites where you can read farewell messages by people who've already done themselves in. The notes from regular folks tend to be petty, pro forma, confused, or outright crazy. But a few by accomplished artists made me wonder if the recipients might not be just a little bit proud to have inspired them. I was especially struck by Sara Teasdale's valedictory poem to the lover who left her, which says that when she dies "I shall be more silent and cold hearted / Than you are now."

But no, I couldn't find anybody offering editorial or ghost-writing services for the suicidal. Which suggests something about why, for all its good and even excellent points, Suicide, Incorporated doesn't work.

Receiving its world premiere in an exceedingly sharp 70-minute production by the Gift Theatre, Suicide, Incorporated concerns Jason, a former greeting card copywriter for Hallmark—and the creative force behind "I have no words to tell you how sorry I am," with the inside left blank—who lands a job at the start-up owned by an abrasive, insanely driven young suicide-note entrepreneur named Scott. From the start, Scott is suspicious of Jason, worrying that he's a plant from some suicide prevention organization sent to undermine the business. He's not far off, either. Early on we learn that Jason's a sort of freelance agent provocateur: thrown for a loop by the suicide of his younger brother, Tommy, he's determined to use his new position to save at least one client from a self-inflicted death.

Hinderaker is a talented, entertaining, canny playwright who handles the narrative aspects of the play with great finesse, keeping the pace up and interest high by reeling out each new disclosure at precisely the right moment. He's able to play the office dynamics at Legacy for comic effect even as he sets us up for a serious dramatic wallop. And he's got an ear. I was impressed at how well he communicated Scott's mind-set as a businessman trying to get his company off the ground. Scott may be a monster—but he comes off as an authentic, textured one.

And yet I couldn't shake the voice in my head asking nagging little questions like: Is Legacy Letters a legal enterprise? And doesn't the business plan assume an awfully high degree of rational conduct—finding the service, paying for it, participating in a consultative process—from a market segment that's lost the will to live? And what about the lawsuits when family members find out that Legacy abetted the death of a loved one? Given that the business is in its infancy and we only see one client, a guy named Norm, why is Scott hiring? How does Jason spend the 90 percent of his workday that doesn't involve Norm? And so on and so on. The thing just seemed implausible.

Obviously, there's something silly about demanding plausibility from a play centered on a suicide-note-writing service—and I wouldn't have done it if Hinderaker had, say, located the action in a dystopian future or framed it as absurd comedy. But Suicide, Incorporated gives every indication of being a straight-out, more or less naturalistic drama set, as the program specifies, in "the present." Since there are no suicide-note writing services in the present, the onus falls on the playwright and the Gift to make the conceit work and stop the voice in my head. They didn't.

They did, however, make it awfully easy to pretend the voice wasn't there. Director Jonathan Berry and his six-man cast create as appealing, amusing, and affecting an implausibility as I can imagine. Ed Flynn's Scott has a mama's boy softness that somehow leavens his mean nerd aspect, and Mike Harvey's feckless, sweet Tommy makes us feel the loss of him. But Michael Patrick Thornton steals the show as the client Norm. In this and other Gift productions, Thornton displays a peculiar isness that few actors can claim. As Zen as it sounds, he projects a sense of complete being onstage. Thornton is confined to a wheelchair, which probably contributes to the effect by keeping him more stationary than the actors around him and drawing focus to his upper body. But he's made extraordinary use of this circumstance. To watch his Norm simply think something over is to experience a full, fraught piece of a life.   

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