Just as you can roughly split the world of rock 'n' roll into people who prefer the Beatles and people who prefer the Rolling Stones, you can split the world of theater between people who prefer Chekhov and people who prefer Shakespeare.
It's a false dichotomy, of course, but a useful one. Shakespeare people tend toward the roiling extremes—castles and whorehouses, lewdness and murder, thundering storms and ominous forests, crime and punishment, good and evil. Chekhov people are found in the drawing room—with nuance, dry wit, a quieter sense of desperation. Chekhov is the Beatles, Shakespeare the Rolling Stones.
Local playwright Brendan Healy is a Chekhov person ("Yeah, I'm not really a big Shakespeare fan," he says with a laugh) and his new play Suffering, Inc. spills over with Chekhovian problems: financial trouble, fear of getting old, unrequited longing, boredom. It takes place in the present-day office of New Life Capital, but every line is lifted—literally—from a Chekhov play. (Or almost every line. In a few rare instances, Healy let himself rearrange individual words and phrases, such as the name of the company. Capital is a major theme in Chekhov, as is the longing for "a new life." But the exact phrase "new life capital" doesn't appear in any of his texts.) The result is transfixing—Uncle Vanya meets The Office.
Suffering, Inc. is a world out of time, a mixture of workaday business talk—over the phone, between employees—that wouldn't sound out of place in any downtown skyscraper, punctuated with brief explosions of poetry and gallows humor:
Michael: Have you paid the interest?
Alexander: Not yet.
Michael: Don't forget that in two days, the interest has to be paid.
Sonia: Well, here I am again, to try and get some work done.
Ivan: Human life is like a flower gloriously blooming in a meadow...
Ivan: Along comes a goat, eats it up—no more flower.
Irene (on the phone): Give me twenty-three hundred, and in one week I'll make twenty thousand for you. Yes. Buy it in her name and transfer the debt.
People criticize Shakespeare for being bombastic and hysterical, and Chekhov for being flat and dull. But Healy uses Chekhovian flatness to draw us deeper into Suffering, Inc. There's no stage or stage lighting, just a room full of office furniture, computers, bottles of Purell, fluorescent lights overhead, and office chairs for the audience—the performers and audience are on the same plane. As Healy writes in his program notes: "If you've ever worked in a cubicle, you've performed in a Chekhov play."
The flatness of the dialogue sounds so familiar, it's almost boring. There are no samovars, no 19th-century Russian anything, and there are lines like: "If we convert the receipts into interest-bearing bonds, then we will receive four to five percent."
But that flatness accentuates the play's odd and magical moments: the office manager who ages decades in the course of the play's work-week, the blooming of office romances, the seething rage of the old man fired a week before his pension kicks in, and the sales pitch we hear the characters delivering over and over on the phone: "Are you nervous? Worried? Depressed? You've got to scrape and save. Where has it all gone? Let's talk business." Which itself is a sharply insightful, 19-word distillation of Chekhov's entire body of work.
The performances are appropriately restrained, though occasionally a little rough around the edges. Megan Jackson plays a "senior estate specialist" as imagined by Ayn Rand; Ricky Coates plays New Life Capital's resident accountant and yoga enthusiast who rides his bike to work; Adria LaMorticella plays the young, terminally lovelorn receptionist.
Building a play out of found, appropriated text is risky business—it often looks like laziness. But Suffering, Inc. springs Chekhov's darkly comic, quiet desperation from the musty shackles of the Russian gentry and gives it immediacy. The poet laureate of angst and bankruptcy has more to say about the way we live now than you might think.
ACT Theatre is running a different world-premiere script about angst and bankruptcy—a new adaptation of Double Indemnity, the 1935 crime story by James M. Cain about an insurance agent who falls for a wealthy woman and conspires with her to murder her husband for the dough.
Longtime Seattle actors David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright wrote the script. (Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder previously adapted it into a cornerstone film noir in 1944.) As director Kurt Beattie points out in his program notes, Double Indemnity was radical in its time for having no good guys: A bored, lusty insurance salesman named Walter Huff gets all tangled up with the wife of an oilman, as well as her lusty daughter and her daughter's no-good boyfriend, Nino. All of the characters are self-interested jerks—though not all are homicidally self-interested. Written during the Great Depression, Double Indemnity is a moral (not economic or structural) indictment of greed. While the characters in Suffering, Inc. wring their hands about money, the characters in Double Indemnity reach their hands around each other's throats for it.
The adaptation is lucid, hitting all its marks about what the characters do and why they do it. As the insurance agent Huff, John Bogar glides around the stage with the casual amoralism that saturates Cain's original story, successfully giving the wisenheimer tone of the '30s and '40s some naturalistic ballast so he never tips over into caricature. Carrie Paff as the wife gives a similarly even-keeled performance, though she occasionally lapses into a breathy voice that seems less about the lines than about imitating femmes fatales of the 1940s. Overall, Double Indemnity is middling. It doesn't bring any new juice, fresh revelations, or tension about the source text or the film. It's just a thoroughly adequate recitation of a classic American crime thriller.