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A Short Play about Dying: Suicide, Incorporated at the H Street Playhouse, May 30-June 23

Andrew Hinderaker’s play, Suicide, Incorporated, has its imperfections, but the No Rules Theatre Company does an excellent job of presenting the black humor and sorrow with a fine, moral sympathy.

Suicide, Incorporated, is an audacious but flawed play, opening last week in at the H Street Playhouse after having made its mark in productions in Chicago and New York City. It takes on some challenging subjects: suicide, the inability of men to express emotion, and the effects of both. The play kicks off as a broad farce, bringing to mind Neil LaBute at his most glib and heartless. We are introduced to a trio of characters:

1. Scott, who owns a different kind of greetings card company, played by Joe Isenberg (who resembles a cross between Ethan Hawk crossed with a smarmy Morgan Spurlock);
2. Perry, Scott’s sole employee, played by Adam Downs (who, oddly, plays his role as camp);
3. Jason, an applicant to join Scott’s company, played by Brian Sutow (carrying an effortless gravitas that I’m guessing he didn’t have in Shear Madness).

Scott manically sells the idea of making a killing finding profit – building a business, complete with franchises! – by helping those who have decided to kill themselves write more eloquent suicide notes. He spins his business plan, quoting numbers – 38,000 suicides a year, 80% of successful suicides by men – and the chronic inability of men to express their feelings. Surely, there must be an angle!

This dizzyingly-paced opening – sort of a “How to Succeed in Hell without Really Trying” – goes by so fast, I hardly had time to absorb the enormity of what Scott is doing. Jason gets the job, and we meet his brother, Tommy (a mesmerizing but understated performance by Dylan Jackson), commenting sarcastically on the events as they unfold, and Norm (played by Spencer Trinwith, in a sneakily powerful performance) – the first customer we meet in the flesh.

The effective yet spare sets, designed by Steven Royal, consist of a series of mobile, low, IKEA-like modular desks with fold-out benches rearranged to show the office, Jason’s home, and a coffee shop. The early rapid pace of the play, and manic set changes between scenes, replete with low light and loud music, work to prevent the audience from reflecting on the questions that keep piling up. The excellent acting by this engaging cast, dishing out blackly comedic dialog, keeps everything clicking along – until the action wears each character through to their bleak core of sorrow.

The more we find out about the characters’ back stories, the more we realize none of them should be where they are. They are all trying to solve problems long gone by in exactly the wrong way. Scott’s efforts to infuse the blankest of human endeavors – suicide – with literate, poetic gravitas can only serve to hopelessly confuse the emotions of all involved.

Scott drifts out of the action (and Perry – well, his entire role in the play seems a bit pointless) as the focus shifts to the trio of Jason, Tommy and Norm. Here, the writing and acting hits a truly emotional stride. I found myself caring deeply about the characters, yet dreading the inevitable resolution. And yet, nothing is inevitable about this play. I have qualms about the ending – it’s not how I envisioned it, certainly – but I can have no doubt that I was engaged fully. I recommend it, if only to spark a discussion – well, that and to see some fine acting by a talented group of actors.