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Uneasy goodbyes in play 'Suicide Incorporated'

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PETER SANTILLI | November 2, 2011 09:30 PM EST | AP

NEW YORK — Saying goodbye isn't always easy. It can be a long, drawn-out process.

Saying goodbye forever requires a special kind of deliberation.

In Andrew Hinderaker's strange but gripping drama "Suicide, Incorporated," a struggling writer finds employment at a firm that capitalizes on the most desperate of clientele, helping people find the right last words before there is nothing more to say.

The engaging one-act play, which opened Wednesday at the Roundabout Theatre Company's 62-seat Black Box Theatre, is difficult to embrace at first, beginning with its boldly morose title and preposterous central metaphor – an editorial service for people who need help composing suicide notes.

Hinderaker's breezy dialogue lends itself naturally to humor, despite a subject that doesn't exactly elicit giggles. At times the script feels irreverent and comical, before abruptly reminding us that suicide is no laughing matter.

Ultimately, "Suicide, Incorporated" is able to overcome these apparent handicaps and mixed messages thanks to the richness of its characters, who are hard to resist caring about, and an impressive ensemble of talented, young actors.

Gabriel Ebert leads the way as Jason, the firm's newest employee who brings to the table a cumbersome load of emotional baggage. Ebert's steady intensity and simmering anguish make him eminently watchable and believable in the role.

The young writer is hired grudgingly by Scott, the firm's cold and cruel director, played with decadent wickedness by a slickly attired Toby Leonard Moore. Scott watches the neophyte like a hawk, correctly suspecting that his intentions are misdirected by a conflict of interest.

James McMenamin is unsettlingly convincing as, Norm, a despondent, heartbroken client who recently lost his wife and job. Before long, it becomes clear that Jason is more interested in saving Norm's life than helping him craft his own epitaph.

Under the strong direction of Jonathan Berry, "Suicide, Incorporated" has the feel of a production that has been nurtured and finely tuned over time. Berry returns after directing the play's premiere production at the Gift Theatre in Chicago.

Daniel Zimmerman's set is a study in economy, making smart, efficient use of the Black Box's small stage and providing elegant segues between scenes.

The lighting design of Zach Blane is subtle but evocative, creating hauntingly poetic silhouettes. It also highlights the stark difference between Jason's brightly illuminated office life and the relatively dim atmosphere of his home, where at the end of a hard day, the warm glow of dusk seeps through venetian blinds, casting bold slats of shadow across the stage.

Before long we discover that each of the principal characters – including the Jason's office rival Perry (Corey Hawkins) and his brother Tommy (Jake O'Connor) – have had some life-defining, personal experience with suicide.

Hinderaker's play, which runs through Dec. 23, is at times drippy, and understandably so, considering its solemn topic and everything that goes along with it.

But his characters are successfully brought to life in this well-cast, well-directed play, which in the end is as much about personal regret and redemption as it is about the language of suicide.