The topic of suicide has never received such a puzzling treatment as in the intricate mystery thriller The Black Book. This head scratcher of a play may be convoluted at times, but it is utterly mesmerizing. At first I may have been annoyed at all the cigarette smoking onstage (don’t those stage sticks come smoke-free?). But fifteen minutes in, I was on the edge of my seat, holding my breath awaiting the next development, not wanting it to end before I could figure out what is going on.
The program helpfully mentions that someone commits suicide every 12.8 minutes in the U.S. That is a staggering statistic that obviously hits home with writer and director Phil Blechman, who asks in both his program and his play, what causes someone to want to murder himself? This final act of violence against oneself is given a very thoughtful dissertation in the philosophical and poetic text of the play.
The narrative hinges on eight characters, all intertwined in the story of college student Archer (David Siciliano), who sets off a chain of events when he leaves a poem on the desk of his poetry professor, Arthur (Gabe Templin). Arthur, disturbed by the contents of this poem, believes it may be a suicide note. Upon the advice of his friend and colleague, Axel (Sean Borderes), he brings the poem to the school psychologist, Julie (Margy Love).
At the same time, Archer is lurking in the shadows, talking to the audience and slowly revealing things about himself and those around him that clue us in to what’s going on. Through these monologues, we discover that he has a sister, C.C. (Antonieta Pereira), who is committed to a mental institution and who mutely wanders on and off stage throughout most of the play. Archer is also involved in an unhappy, unrequited love triangle with his two best friends, Nicole (Haley Dean) and Michael (Joe Reece), an on-again, off-again couple who are clearly not suited for each other.
Aside from Arthur’s poetry workshop, Archer is enrolled in an Abnormal Psychology class taught by Riley (Catie Humphreys), a woman whose past compels her to conduct a class on…you guessed it—suicide. This provides something of a turning point in the narrative, a place where you would stop and say, “Huh? What’s going on?” Things are not as they seem.
The stage itself is almost another character in the play; scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer created one large chessboard containing oversized pieces that are moved around at specific points by the characters. The Black Book plays with patterns and repetition, so you can bet there is logic to the movements. Sometimes jarring but very effective is the sound (Christopher Marc) and lighting design (Susannah Baron). Utilizing voiceovers and creepy music, as well as a very illuminating blacklight, these effects contribute greatly to the overall mood and tone of the play.
The speed of The Black Book is very quick, leaving you almost breathless. Shocking at times, it deals with very heavy themes of mental illness, death and suicide, yet leaves you questioning what these things really mean in the context of the play. As for the original question posed, the one that asks what causes someone to commit suicide, the way the narrative plays out reveals that perhaps there is no answer.