Suicide in B-Flat

Center Theater Ensemble

By Jack Helbig

When my brother killed himself two and a half years ago, he wasn’t calling for help, he was calling for change. He hated his life, hated his job, hated who he was, who he had been, who he was becoming, who he hadn’t become. And if the confused, rambling letters he left behind can be believed–most of them written in the precious minutes before the heroin made him too relaxed to write–he really thought that he would survive his death, that his exhausted junkie’s body would crack like a chrysalis, from the back of his neck to the small of his back, and out would slowly emerge first the head, then the arms, the body, the legs of a better version of himself, beautiful, glistening, with wings so he could flutter through space and time toward that great glowing globe of light he told me he saw when he got high.

Bill Helbig would have understood the spirit behind Sam Shepard’s 1976 “mysterious overture” Suicide in B-Flat, would have gotten what Shepard was driving at in this beautiful, dreamlike, nonlinear play about a jazz composer who hates his life so much that he kills himself–or perhaps fakes his own suicide–and about the people he leaves behind who try to piece together what he did and why. This is such a strange, sad, fascinating work that, like the best of Shepard’s other plays, it defies easy explication.

What does it mean, for example, that Niles, the suicide, walks through the apartment unseen by the detectives and friends who’ve gathered there, poking through his past and looking for answers? Is Niles a ghost? Is Paullette, the woman who accompanies him, a spirit-guide of some sort? Has he really, as Paullette hints, managed to escape his life and transcend his world? Shepard offers plenty of such questions, plus a few others. The body found does have Niles’s fingerprints, yet Niles speaks of having killed someone. Does this denial indicate just how alienated he’s become from himself? Is Paullette really, as she implies, capable of powerful magic? Even the ending, which parodies the clear-cut conclusions of detective novels, is not what it seems. Likewise Niles’s confession–“Someone was killed here for sure. I saw him face to face. I saw his whole life go past me”–begs the play’s central question: whose body is it in Niles’s apartment?

As if this question really mattered. As in the best mystery dramas, who killed whom matters far less in Suicide in B-Flat than the whys and hows and whats that get stirred up–in the characters and the audience–as these matters are slowly resolved.

In the revealing, Shepard is up to his old boyish, sneaky tricks, mixing whimsy and anguish, comedy and tragedy, grab-ass playfulness and stark emotional honesty to create a work that, like Unseen Hand and True West, seems sweet and silly and funny right up to the startling moment when the playwright grabs your face and forces you to see what’s on the end of your fork. In True West this moment comes in the final tableau–two brothers at each other’s throats–when you realize how much these two have allowed their infantile, deadly earnest sibling rivalry to poison their lives. In Suicide in B-Flat the moment comes earlier, when Petrone, a fan of Niles, talks about the day he saw the great jazz artist walking through the city and followed him, enchanted to see the man whose music took away the “awful, empty loneliness” of his life and made him “whole again.” Petrone follows the composer for a while until Niles turns and confronts him: “Are you following me?” Petrone admits he was but explains, “It’s just that I recognized you and–” Niles interrupts: “You recognized me? How could you recognize me when I don’t even recognize myself?”

In two short sentences, all the pain pulsating in the play’s subtext shoots to the surface. In Shepard’s work, facts are slippery, and you can never count on his world behaving with Newtonian regularity, but the emotions expressed are true and pure, the only things you can believe in.

Niles hates his life so much he doesn’t even recognize it as his own. Yet he’s trapped. His friends and fans cling to him, needing him to stay because they know that without him they cease to exist, either as people or as characters in a play (about a famous man who might have committed suicide). The detectives investigating the suicide need him, dead or alive, to justify their existence. Even we in the audience need him; the moment he leaves the stage, the play ends.

It speaks volumes about Shepard’s gifts as a playwright that he can maintain the drama’s ambivalence, never resolving its conflicts. The two strongest opposing emotions–the fans’ “Please stay” and Niles’s “I want to go”–resonate throughout Suicide in B-Flat. So do other paired feelings, expressed by a pair of arguing musicians and a pair of bickering detectives, even down to opposing views of jazz: Petrone likes Coltrane’s improvisations, while Pablo prefers the safer sounds of the big bands. These emotional stalemates are what Niles hopes to escape, one way or another.

In bringing this admittedly difficult play to life, director Dan La-Morte does a creditable if not particularly inspired job. The casting is for the most part good, though the performances have that still-creaky, underrehearsed quality, which made me wish I were watching the show four weeks into the run when everyone was finally up to speed. Lanky, gloomy Robert Maffia makes a great solemn composer. Every sentence he speaks in his grave, gravelly voice seems to say, “I’m tired of this world.” The considerably more lighthearted Mila Bergman, substituting for Ann Noble in the role of girlfriend/spirit-guide, plays well off him. Bret Grafton also turns in an admirable performance as the down-and-out musician Petrone. In the negative column is Kevin Mullaney’s schlocky, cartoonish performance as the detective Pablo. In a role that demands precision, both in movement and delivery, Mullaney is all over the place–gesturing wildly, going for laughs he fails to get, and never quite convincing us he’s a police detective or that he and his partner care about the case at hand.

But I feel odd complaining about the performances in a show that moved me as much as this one did. Even with its occasional slow moments–most of them in the first half–LaMorte’s Suicide in B-Flat touched me more deeply than any other play I’ve seen this summer. I catch myself going over LaMorte’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes merely amusing stage pictures–as when Niles, holding a skeletal umbrella, promenades around an imaginary New York with Paullette on his arm. Or I catch myself musing again over Shepard’s rich, poetic dialogue.

And even when I’m not thinking explicitly of this production, I believe I have LaMorte and Shepard to thank for the image that keeps coming to me of my brother, ten years ago, smiling his unsettling Cheshire smile as he makes a cheese and bacon sandwich and whistles through his teeth the M*A*S*H theme song, “Suicide Is Painless.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from “Suicide in B-Flat” by Dann Carney.