‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ Theater Review: Carla Gugino and Company Face Their Own End

Alice Birch’s new play exposes the false escape hatch that is motherhood

anatomy of a suicide carla gugino
Photo: Ahron R. Foster

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that there’s only one self-inflicted death in Alice Birch’s new play. You can read about it right there in the title, “Anatomy of a Suicide,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company after a run at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

While there’s only one suicide, three very troubled women walk through the three doors of Mariana Sanchez’s stark, blue, nearly empty Magritte-inspired set. Carol (Carla Gugino) and Anna (Celeste Arias), have both attempted suicide, while Bonnie (Gabby Beans) is an ER doctor attending to a woman (Jo Mei) who has accidentally cut her hand in a fishing accident. We are introduced to Bonnie last, and while she occupies the space far stage right for the following 100 minutes, it is her story that appears entirely out of place in a play titled “Anatomy of a Suicide” — that is, until the final dramatic moments. There are “suicides” other than self-inflicted physical deaths.

Bonnie’s story galvanizes by being off-center in more ways than one. In addition to their suicide attempts, the two other female characters each become mothers during the course of the play. Bonnie, on the other hand, talks a lot about her own mother and grandmother; and as a lesbian, she feels there’s no chance she’s going to conceive in the usual way — or any other way, for that matter.

Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction creates another equally riveting tension. Blain-Cruz is a master of grand stylized acting, as seen in her recent productions of “Fefu and Her Friends,” “Marys Seacole” and “The House That Will Not Stand.” Here, she bookcases Arias’ flamboyant performance with the tightly controlled ones from Gugino and Beans. It can’t be easy for actors relegated to either the far right or the far left of the stage to perform beside someone given not only center stage but all the big scenes — a taped confession, a gruesome therapy session, a difficult birth. Regardless, Gugino and Beans achieve enormous pathos by keeping under wraps those things that neither Carol nor Bonnie wants from life.

For the audience, it’s a hard-earned empathy. The three stories take place concurrently, with overlapping dialogue that finds the actors repeating the same words but in very different contexts. You may find yourself dropping out of one narrative to follow another more closely, and then deeply regretting having missed something crucial in your self-imposed detour. There are more than a few moments where you’ll want to hit the rewind button. “Anatomy of a Suicide” is a play that makes you work to sort out the details and put them in place. Paying attention has its rewards.

Husbands, fathers, boyfriends and male doctors (Jason Babinsky, Julian Elijah Martinez, Vince Nappo and Richard Topol in a variety of roles) surround these three women, but being men, they inhabit a radically different world. They are denied the false escape hatch that is pregnancy. Birch’s take on motherhood is designed to rankle.