My Lovely Suicides does not make a lovely play, but it does make an intriguing, weird and darkly funny one. Its premiere run began last week in a Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern production at Manbites Dog Theater, cleanly directed by LGP’s managing director and actor Dana Marks. My Lovely Suicides has been adapted from her forthcoming novella by Jody McAuliffe, who holds a joint appointment in both Theatre Studies and Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke and who has frequently worked with MDT and LGP and other imaginative local theatre companies since she has been at Duke.

Kleist was a German writer of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. It is not necessary to know anything about him before seeing the play but it wouldn’t hurt because, as director Marks says, the play “skips like a stone” over the river of his life, which boils with incident. Eventually one does catch the drift of the storyline holding the play’s bizarre and dreamlike sequences together, but a little background could make this happen sooner, without erasing the acid-trip quality of the skipping scenes and hinted perversities.

A great deal of the time we are not asked to engage with Kleist the writer (Jay O’Berski) so much as with Kleist the man, who keeps trying to find a partner in suicide. Over and over, he plans his death as an aesthetic act — and an erotic one. Many potential partners refuse him (Gregor McElvogue and Flynt Burton, both in several roles), and the line gets funnier and funnier; when this crazed artist finally succeeds in his quest, you feel happy for him in a twisted sort of way. All this love and death stuff reminded me of Pedro Almodovar’s great early film, Matador, in which Death’s blandishments offer promise of the greatest satisfaction. It is an achievement on the part of the writer, the director, and the actors to make us empathetic accomplices to this ultimate perversity.

But the intellectual core of the play lies in Kleist’s interactions with the older writer, Goethe (Tom Marriott), whom he both admires and hates; their opposing viewpoints and struggles indicate the vast cultural shifts that occur when one way of thinking (Rationalism) begins to give way to another (Romanticism). For this viewer, these scenes provided the most satisfaction.

O’Berski and Marriott, both of whom speak beautifully, are marvelous together, and Marks’ staging of their scenes is especially strong. Marriott as Goethe, bicycling around Kleist while hectoring him through a loud-hailer, perfectly captures the way the past badgers every artist.

The production includes a short film (based on one of Kleist’s books) by Josh Gibson and Shambhavi Kaul; it enriches a minimal set while providing insight into Kleist’s strangeness. Tom Guild did the sound design which, though excellent, sometimes drowned the voices in this acoustically difficult space. Since the play is more talk than action, this is a weakness, but nonetheless My Lovely Suicides is a strong, fortifying tonic in a world of slick, sweet entertainments.

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents My Lovely Suicides Friday-Saturday, Nov. 9-10, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 14-17, at 8:15 p.m. in the Strawbridge Building, 410 W. Geer St., Durham, NC, just across the street from Manbites Dog Theater at 703 Foster St. $12 Wednesday and Thursday and $17 Friday-Sunday ($8 Student Rush). 919/682-3343 or click here [inactive 4/08]. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: [inactive 11/08]. Manbites Dog Theater: Jody McAuliffe: