Troubling, but humorous Truth lies somewhere in the middle of Big Death and Little Death
The kids are not alright — and neither is anyone else — in Mickey Birnbaum's bleaker-than-black comedy Big Death and Little Death.
That's not criticism of Catastrophic Theatre's inaugural production, just a description of the play's worldview.
This is one of those edgy, experimental works composed of exactly the elements you'd expect in such an outing. It's cynical, irreverent, nihilistic and surreal — populated by disaffected, death-obsessed teens and destructive, screwed-up adults, all hurtling toward an inevitable apocalyptic conclusion.
For all that, the script boasts its share of mordant humor. Director Jason Nodler and his cast usually make the most of it in a theatrically-charged rendition that maintains interest and often generates its own brand of twisted amusement.
Set in the early '90s, just after the first Gulf War, Big Death depicts a shell-shocked veteran and his family.
Dad has trouble readjusting to civilian life and takes a job photographing car crash scenes. Mom, unhappy with the souvenir Dad presents to her (a handful of blood-soaked sand), spills the details of the affair she had in his absence. Anorexic daughter Kristi rejects the shy overtures of classmate Harley while compiling an album of Dad's ghastly crash-victim pictures. Son Gary falls into a haphazard affair with Miss Endor, his school's guidance counselor, who guides Gary's experiments with sex and drugs in the awkward confines of his car.
Alternating with the present action are flashbacks depicting the day of Dad's return and the family's drive home — a road trip from hell, as it included Mom's revelation of her affair, which led to a calamity the play eventually reveals.
The point seems to be that life is one big car wreck, a succession of little deaths leading up to the inevitable big one — whether for each individual or the entire planet. Everyone is obsessed with death and deterioration.
The insistence that everything and everybody are so gosh-darned awful can seem just as unrealistic as relentless optimism insisting everything is peachy no matter what's going wrong in the world.
Birnbaum's way of couching the negativity can sound a tad sophomoric, too — as when Gary asks "Should I go to college out of state or destroy the universe?" Why would anyone create a construct with those as the only two options?
Fortunately, there are times when Big Death goes for more pointed observation. When Mom welcomes Dad back with expressions of pride in America's good deeds abroad, he sourly responds: "Mostly we kill people." Mom snaps back: "Sometimes you have to kill people to help them!" That's good, solid sarcastic humor.
Birnbaum's comic writing peaks in the subplot of Gary's affair with the guidance counselor. There's a real sense of comic absurdity as Miss Endor cuts short their sex-and-drugs romp with a sudden return to adult responsibility ("Tomorrow's a school day.") Or when she laments "I must be the worst guidance counselor ever."
As director, Nodler keeps everything on a deadpan edge that lets you take the show either as a somber indictment of society or, perhaps, a parody of nihilism in the arts. He's done a good job keeping the succession of vignettes popping with energy and visual surprises. He configures the action neatly on John Gow's impressive setting, which presents all the locales simultaneously, dominated by a crashed van that floats diagonally upstage, and a downstage sofa that periodically morphs into the family's car during that disastrous drive.
Walt Zipprian's Dad at first seems merely out of it but evolves through a succession of silences and outbursts that convey his internal turmoil and rage. Tamarie Cooper brings an air of sour disapproval to the sarcastic Mom, though the role doesn't really play to her unique strengths as a performer.
John DeLoach makes Gary a believable adolescent slacker — sullen, restless, angrily driven one moment and lackadaisical the next. As Kristi, Mikelle Johnson exudes raw energy and intensity that generate some electric moments, though her delivery at a few points gets too shrill and uncontrolled.
Noel Bowers' sensitive Harley is welcome as the script's comparatively reasonable character. Jeff Miller is amusingly unsettling as a mysterious visitor who drops by to purchase the family's pit bull pups.
Elissa Levitt contributes an outstanding characterization as Miss Endor, the funniest role. She veers from a kind of flaky respectability in her school scenes with Gary to unbridled misbehavior and spectacularly bad judgment in their extracurricular escapades — the grown-up remorsefully aware because she knows better but can't help herself. In writing and performance, it's here that Big Death hits a peak of inspired satire, with more original humor and a more specific point of view than the general negativism that characterizes much of the play.