The ‘American’ way of death 

The laughs begin immediately in the Encore Theatre Company/Z Plays production of "American $uicide," as its two main characters repeatedly wake each other up out of a sound sleep, prompting startled screeches, to pour out their frustrations. Sam’s chronically unemployed; Mary’s an exhausted waitress. The laughs keep coming as Sam gets increasingly agitated and locks himself in the bathroom, prompting Mary to conclude that he’s suicidal and run to the next-door neighbor — Albert, an amateur porn videographer — for help.

But writer/director Mark Jackson, one of the local theater community’s golden boys for his brilliant original plays such as "The Death of Meyerhold," has more up his sleeve than easy yuks. He adapted "$uicide" from a satirical 1929 comedy by Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman, which Stalin banned for its mockery of Soviet life. In his own loosey-goosey version, Jackson mixes classic screwball comedy style (as seen in the rapid-fire, almost rhythmic dialogue between husband and wife) with plenty of current references, so that the play lives in both the 20th and 21st centuries, which seems odd at first, and then natural.

Sam’s presumed suicidal tendencies soon attract attention: Neighbor Albert, seeing a commercial opportunity, creates a Web site, a lucrative raffle and a glamorous Final Event for Sam. Others clamor for Sam to promote their assorted, individual causes with his dying breath.

Thus America’s obsession with fame and fortune spins absurdly, riotously out of control. Along the way, Jackson pokes fun at every American archetype, from nebbishy Sam (a wonderfully woebegone Jud Williford as a sort of Jack Lemmon-y everyman) to a blond starlet (a hilariously flouncing Jody Flader) who — washed up at 22 — begs Sam to die for her comeback.

The director of the national organization for live theater (a brilliantly melodramatic Delia MacDougall) wants Sam’s suicide to dramatize the cause of the dying American stage and suggests that a certain Mark Jackson may get a grant to write a play based on Sam’s tragic life. Even long-suffering Mary (a wan and winsome Beth Wilmurt) gets caught up in the fervor when she realizes her husband’s demise will make her rich.

Other standouts are Liam Vincent as a sly stranger, Marty Pistone as the opportunistic Albert and Denise Balthrop Cassidy as his tough girlfriend. Kudos also to James Faerron’s simple, clever set design and Raquel Barreto’s amusing costumes.

The script could use some tightening, especially toward the end, when the concept’s been stretched to the max. And some slapsticky pratfalls — Jackson’s known for the physicality of his productions — seem extraneous. But altogether, this show is a delight.

American $uicide ***

Presented by Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays

Where: Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 11

Tickets: $25 to $30

Contact: (415) 437-6775 or www.zspace.org

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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