Author: Jim Shankman
Description: As the war in Vietnam drags on, three students in an ivory tower are touched by death.
First Produced: 2013
Date Added: 9/8/2013
Keywords: Drama · Coming of Age · Grief and Mourning · Characters are Mostly Young Adults · Small Cast Size
1 Act, 90 Minutes
1 Female, 2 Males
NOTE: Suicide Math is fully protected by copyright law and is subject to royalty. All inquiries concerning production, publication, reprinting or use of this play in any form should be addressed to Rochelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original Production Information
Suicide Math had its World Premiere at FringeNYC 2013 at the Robert Moss Theatre.
Cast (in order of appearance)
Frank: David Gelles
Michael: Jonathan Randell Silver
Lydia: Sarah Shankman
Director: Jake Turner
Stage Manager: Emily Goforth
Technical Director: Isaac Winston
Props and Costumes: Ian Scott
Review by Sergei Burbank
Over the course of the twentieth century the life expectancy of Americans nearly doubled. As generations overlapped and cohabitated to an increasing degree, the social compact between them became more complex, even as it was codified in laws like the Social Security Act. The struggle for resources and supremacy continues to this day, as questions like the funding of that same Social Security, and crowding out expensive older workers in favor of cheaper younger ones, vex policymakers. But these issues are small beer compared to the Vietnam Era, when elder generations seemed hell-bent on the wholesale slaughter, for no apparent reason, of their descendants.
It is within this context that Suicide Math finds Frank (David Gelles) and Michael (Jonathan Randell Silver) as roommates at Princeton in 1972. Frank, a preternaturally brilliant mathematician/proto-computer programmer, is struggling in the immediate aftermath of his best friend’s suicide, while Michael is overwrought about his brother’s deployment in Vietnam. Frank obsesses over the teeming pile of boxes full of punch cards that his friend left behind: while they seem to be a computer program, he is unable to rest until he finds that program’s hidden purpose. Their already upended world is knocked for another loop with the arrival of a drunken and largely undressed Lydia (Sarah Shankman), a Vassar student fleeing a weekend jaunt gone wrong, and trailing her own cargo hold’s worth of emotional baggage.
Gelles’ Frank is a near-autistic doyen of numbers and patterns -- absorbed in his work, yet aware of his social shortcomings. His friend’s self-destruction is baffling in its lack of rationality, and this absence of reason drives Frank closer and closer toward madness himself as he tries to assign a meaning to his partner’s legacy. At the same time, Frank’s, er, frankness allows him to speak bluntly about the patterns he sees -- including the budding romance between Michael and Lydia, and the true nature of the near-constant phone calls Michael shares with his brother overseas. Silver’s Michael is a tightly wound ball of sublimated grief and rage; in contrast to Frank’s lack of emotions, Michael cannot find a means to channel the unbearable burden of his own; the ensuing meltdown is as painful to watch as it is inevitable.
Shankman’s text is a tsunami of process code, German philosophy, and the ample evidence of trauma in the near-maniacal denial of it. The two roommates evince a casual brilliance in their shorthand back-and-forth, and the curse of that brilliance is evident in their inability to reconcile the madness of their world with the knowledge that it could be better -- without any practical means of bringing about such an improvement.
Gelles digs into his mountains of words with a carnivorous vigor that alone is worth the price of admission, and while Silver rises to the challenge when engaged with the right partner, it is Shankman who at times finds herself in over her head by the demands of the script; her game attempts to tackle them, however, are so earnest that the audience is as protective of this broken bird as her new roommates are.
Despite its setting, this play is not for a moment about Vietnam -- or about politics of any kind. It is a raw chronicle of bright but broken people who burn far too brightly to sustain themselves, and far too brilliantly for us to turn away. What makes Suicide Math such an engaging work is that the characters are organically gifted with the ability to describe their cages, even as they are fundamentally unable to escape them. If they swing a bit too quickly from receiving to giving confessions in the play’s denouement, it is eminently excusable thanks to individual feats of linguistic legerdemain and a tight, bright script that does not let up, even for a moment.
reviewed at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival
Excerpt from Suicide Math
When I was in rehab they and they had me on a suicide watch, I couldn’t even go pee by myself. Like maybe they thought I was gonna flush myself down the toilet. But finally one day they said I could go outside and walk around for a while on the grounds and the guy, the attendant, you know, the man in the white coat, he wasn’t really paying attention so I ran into the garden and I hid for a while. And I really thought about offing myself because that was the only thing that made me feel better. Knowing that I could put an end to it when became too painful. If. And then I saw this flower, this bluebell and I picked it and I put it on my tongue to see if I could taste anything and it tasted so sweet. I couldn’t believe it. And in my head I saw a picture of a glucose molecule and I saw the chains and the rings and all that shit and I had this incredible beautiful thought, this one perfectly clear thought: at every moment, in every corner of the world things are working perfectly, all the laws of nature are being observed in every cell of every petal of every flower in every meadow in the world, in every nucleus of every atom in my body, in every electron passing through every wire, and in every electromagnetic wave that flies through space. And I felt like I had stepped outside of time and God had let me see something that people never get to see unless they pray and pray for a miracle and He grants it to them out of the wisdom of his heart and they are graced to see what only he can see.
FringeNYC 2013 Play Collection #1: Four playwrights, Matt Barbot (Infallibility), Nathan Gregorski (Orbiting Astral Bodies), Jim Shankman (Suicide Math), and Matthew Stephen Smith (Nicholas Maeve Marianne) chosen to be part of the FringeNYC 2013 Collection join Martin Denton in a friendly roundtable discussion of their work.