SUICIDE IN B FLAT
By Sam Shepard
October 20 through November 18
You are to be forgiven if the title, Suicide in B Flat, does not ring any memory bells. Written in 1976, and first performed at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Suicide has had only a few revivals of note and has been largely overlooked in lists of Sam Shepard’s plays. Wouldst that Suicide were the great forgotten masterpiece unearthed in the attic. Unfortunately it is more like the polyester brown and orange shirt, or the bell bottom trousers, now topping the pile under which it was buried: Fun at the time, dated now.
Shepard, the quintessential son of the sixties, dropped out of an agricultural major in junior college, went to Manhattan, waited tables in gritty jazz clubs, and followed the mantra of Jack Kerouac, “first thought, best thought.” This artistic antecedent of Blink let Shepard write rapidly, skip rewriting, and create 30 plays that were produced in New York before he was 30 years old. The 60s and the 70’s were the heyday of the Theatre of the Absurd. The story did not have to hang together; that was the point of the absurd; it needed to be bizarre, and the language had to dazzle. That he did well without rewriting.
The subject of identity is important in all of Shepard’s work. In Suicide, Niles, (Nick Toren) is a very successful musician, with an avid fan following. Miles Davis and Bob Dylan were the basis of his character. Niles’ problem is that the very grit of his jazz club beginnings from which his creativity flowed is long past. Idolized by fans he is writing the same thing over and over. It is hard to strike the true tone of the blues when success is follows you every day. Suicide in B Flat, was written at the cusp of Shepard’s prolific experimental phase and the commercial successes lay in his future. Shepard was wrestling his own identity/creativity daemons.
What to do? Along comes Paulette (Cynthia Beckert): Muse? Spiritual leader? Brains of the Operation? She, along with her great bod, has the way to artistic rebirth: he should fake suicide and re discover the anonymity in the underbelly of life to reignite his creative spark … or something like that. Niles follows though still feeling tugged by the accoutrements of success.
The play opens in the basement of Niles’ house; there is a large cut out of a man’s body in the stage floor out of which rises a detective. You know he is a detective by the telltale hat, suit and well trimmed hair. He, and his similarly attired partner, in an absurd version of slapstick detective movies, are trying to figure out what has happened here. It becomes clear that the hole is the police outline of a victim. Amongst the clutter and junk is a box labeled “Send to my Mom when I’m dead.”
The fun, and the best writing in Suicide, is in the relationship between the miss matched detectives, Pablo (Patrick Hurley), the handsome smart one who turns out not to be, and Louis (John Ross Clark) the uneducated one who turns out to be smart … sort of. They are not very good at deducing stuff. They are soon joined by two of Niles’ hippy followers who somehow, unexplained, crawl and wander into the basement. As a matter of fact there is a lot of wandering in and out. And a lot of not explained. Niles and Paulette pass through again and again; she leading him on with her mumbo jumbo. He donns various costumes (read personas including Shepard’s signature cowboy getup); obviously he is still enthralled by his stardom and not quite ready to let go. Each of the six characters has a soliloquy or two, going off on his own variation on the theme, a jazz-like structure that did not ignite.
To try to summarize more is to bump one’s head into the bricks of the absurd. As much as searching for identity is a theme of Shepard’s, Niles’ search is unaffecting. As funny as some of the lines are, it is not enough to pull us in. Well turned phrases evaporate quickly leaving on to conclude that Suicide in B Flat would best be left in the attic, and marvel instead at the breadth of Sam Shepard’s career.