“What are you writing there? Are you reviewing? You're a bit late!” Daniel Kitson teased a young man seated in the audience scribbling away at the January 16th matinee of The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, Kitson's one-man show that opened at St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO 10 days earlier as part of the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival. (For the record, this mile-a-minute monologue that made audiences swoon at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival plays through the end of the month, having outrun the UTR festival. And also for the record, this critic has a good excuse for tardiness, having just arrived back in NYC from Europe.) “You review away,” the bearded and bubbly, disarmingly charming standup comedian and actor continued. “But the critics have spoken. And it's a hit!”
True enough. But most of the gushing praise for Interminable Suicide has come from the British Kitson's own homeland—which is not to knock the show or U.K. journos, but to acknowledge my nagging suspicion that for audiences whose palate is not decidedly English the response will be more lukewarm. To Kitson's credit, he couldn't care less whether his piece plays in Peoria (he even refuses to substitute the word “attic” for “loft” since he trusts that we're linguistically adept enough to make the English-to-American translation in our heads), though the cultural disconnect runs deeper than mere words all the way down to values. At its heart, Interminable Suicide is a celebration of the mundane experiences that keep us alive, of the common working-class existence. Which is something that forever-aspiring Americans, myself included, can intellectually admire if not quite emotionally grasp.
Indeed, the joy of watching Kitson comes from the performer's own (very British) love of language, and his boyish enthusiasm for wide-eyed discovery and weaving tales. In an unfussy, brightly lit, theater-in-the-round setting, wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans and eschewing all props save for a small notebook that he flips through from time to time, Kitson transforms the act of storytelling into a rollercoaster ride, his linguistic acrobatics slowing down only for the occasional stammer. (He also kindly suggested to the critic he'd earlier chided that he “may want to use the word 'courage'” to describe his speech impediment, before cheerily encouraging him to “Express yourself!”) In a throwback to a radio-days era, the flexible Kitson makes his audience work aurally to keep up with his ADD style. Lacking any de rigeur cinematic element (or even any visual distractions at all), we're forced to follow along on this oral high-wire act solely with our ears.
And with all the rambunctious passion of Quentin Tarantino at a pitch meeting, Kitson leads us on a deceptively simple journey that begins with his shopping for a house outside London, but grows increasingly suspenseful as he finds a stash of letters in a loft, acquires them, and slowly pieces together what he refers to as a “jigsaw puzzle.” He's hoping to uncover the essence of a long-dead stranger named Gregory Church whose single-mindedness in penning suicide notes kept him alive and writing for decades. Of course, finding the “real” Gregory Church is really uncovering ourselves, as a portrait of any human being only emerges through what we attach—and don't attach—meaning to in his or her life.
Kitson points out that in all his suicide notes Church could not stem the tide of “extraneous information.” He sees his challenge as sleuthing out those “crucial sentences in the middle of largely redundant letters,” which parallels the actor's own performance. We ourselves must stay alert to catch the 10% of poignancy buried beneath the 90% humorous banter. As Church's letters become an obsessive art project, Kitson's delving into those letters becomes his own obsessive art project, and the mechanics of speech rise far above any emotional epiphanies. (Kitson is thrilled to find that Church's phrase “desperate tunnel” actually refers to the dead man's carpal tunnel syndrome—and is, in fact, not a metaphor for his suicidal state!) Obsession keeps us alive even as it threatens to kill us. Living becomes a spiteful act. Church and one of his pen pals start to address each other with increasingly “inventive and offensive” nicknames, and Kitson declares that Church has threatened suicide “in essence to win an argument.”
But when the letters begin to take on the structure of a juicy novel, Kitson is forced to remind himself (and us) that real life does not play as tidy as fiction, according to a neatly conceived, three-act structure full of earth-shattering revelations and characters that change and grow. It's the repetition of daily activities that make us who we are. Thus Church's “interminable suicide” becomes a synonym for living. The deeper truth is that Church connects to others by making visible his desperate longing to truly connect, is driven to typing out old-fashioned letters by the same human impulse that fuels Facebook. Life is an ongoing search for that elusive needle in a haystack. The hope of finding it is what keeps us all turning the pages until the end.
For tickets to see The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Chruch, click here.