Anthony J. Piccione
- New York Theatre Critic
Whenever I see a play promote itself as a “serious comedy”, I admit that my gut reaction is almost always half enthusiastic and half skeptical. Enthusiastic because I love plays that make me think about serious issues just as much as I love a good laugh, but skeptical because of how challenging it can be to pull off the perfect balance of being hysterical without being too serious, and vice versa. As I was watching the so-called “serious comedy” Suicidal Life Coach, one of several new plays being presented at the Hudson Guild Theatre this summer, I was reminded of why this is how I often react that way.
The play is written by self-help coach R. Kenneth Rich, who says the play is inspired by real life elements of his coaching experiences. Revolving around the story of Fred Sigman, a fictional therapist dealing with depression just as he’s about to get married, the play is marketed as one that believes that over-the-top humor is the best way to deal with episodes of depression and suicidal thoughts. After reading the synopsis for the play, I went in really wanting to laugh and enjoy it. I was expecting an enjoyable dark comedy revolving around the themes of self-help and mental health which it alluded to, but instead, I was treated to a bland and underwhelming mess of a play.
The dialogue is lacking in wit and cleverness, and is instead filled with lazy and cliché punchlines, the occasional awkwardly-written sentence, and at times, moments which could easily be perceived as homophobic, even if that wasn’t necessarily the playwright’s intent. While I was not provided with any background on the play’s development, beyond the fact that director Joe Langworth also served as dramaturge, I was left with a lingering feeling that this play hadn’t been read aloud by actors a single time, prior to this production. I couldn’t help but think that a staged reading with audience feedback, prior to being produced, could easily have solved many of the problems I noticed in this script.
In terms of the cast, while far from outstanding, they seem to do the best they can with the lines they’ve been given. In the lead role of Fred, Michael O’Connor turns in a fair performance that displays the subtle inner turmoil of his character. Brittany Martel proves herself to be the strongest comedic actor in the show as Bella Bello, even though she fails to present a convincing nervous breakdown toward the climax. Another strong comedic actor worthy of note is Jean Garner, who portrays Bella’s mother Maria. The cast is rounded out by Analise Rios as Lynn, Steven Petrillo as Porter Bello, and Aneika Fermin as Jennifer.
None of what I’ve said should be too surprising, though. One of the more noticeable pieces of trivia that came with this press release is that this was apparently not just Mr. Rich’s first play produced in New York City, but apparently the first play he’s ever written at all. Unfortunately for him and his cast and director, his lack of experience shows from beginning to end. Any play that makes me actively regret sitting in the theater for over an hour can hardly be described as a strong first effort from a first-time playwright. To be fair, because Mr. Rich is an inexperienced playwright, perhaps he will grow as a playwright, and future plays we see from him will be better developed. For now, however, his writing is clearly not ready to be seen by New York audiences.
“Suicidal Life Coach” runs at the Hudson Guild Theatre as part of the New York Theatre Festival’s 2018 NYSummerfest on August 27th & 29th and September 1st. For more information, please visit www.newyorktheaterfestival.com/suicidal-life-coach.