Review: “Big Death & Little Death”

Feb 12

(opened Feb. 10, 2007)

Crowded Fire blazes forth with bleak, funny Death
three stars Apocalypse soon

When the first scene of a play involves dead puppies, you can be sure you’re not headed into the usual dramatic territory.

Such is the case with Crowded Fire Theater Company’s Big Death & Little Death, a 2005 play by Mickey Birnbaum that foretells the end of the world as we know it — and Birnbaum feels fine.

Sort of Donnie Darko mashed up with “DeGrassi High” with a little American Beauty cynicism thrown in for good measure, this dark comedy, which opened Saturday at San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, is angry about three things: U.S. war-making in the Middle East, American suburbia and everything else.

Imagine a heavy-metal sitcom full of doom, gloom and laughs, and you’ll get a sense of Big Death, the story of high schooler Gary (the superb Carter Chastain, an actual high school student at Los Lomas High School in Walnut Creek) and his wretched home life.

His father (Lawrence Radecker) has just returned from the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, and he’s damaged and angry, though he’s able to tell his kids he loves them nonstop.

Something terrible happened to Gary’s adulterous mom (Michele Leavy) during the family’s road trip from hell (at one point the car was flying — don’t ask), leaving him and his sister (Mandy Goldstone) to pretty much fend for themselves.

Gary takes refuge in heavy metal bands — his favorites include Septic Wound and My Autopsy — and his earphones are never further from his ears than around his neck. Sister Kristi finds her escape in a photo album compiled by her father of gruesome fatal car accidents.

At school, Gary doesn’t get a whole lot of support from his nerdy friend Harley (Ben Freeman), who turns into a neurotic mess whenever Kristi’s around. And the school’s career counselor (Tonya Glanz) doesn’t provide much counseling, but she does have sex with Gary and enjoy his drugs — including a bag of mysterious red pills called “bub.”

Sean Daniels, the former associate artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, guides the chaos of Birnbaum’s play through 2 1/2 off-beat hours that skirt the usual sitcom rhythms and find deeper, more troubling places, especially in Act 2.

The play devolves into surreality — cue Mick Mize as the giant pit bull puppy and Michael Barr as the dead uncle calling from the afterlife — as Chloe Short’s suburban kitchen set falls apart to reveal a night full of stars.

Performances are pumped-up and funny throughout, with stellar work coming from the grounded Chastain, whose believable Gary is as humorous as he is heartbreaking. Goldstone is also a believable teen, though her character remains disappointingly under-developed.

With the universe imploding around them, the teenagers finally calm down, and Big Death & Little Death, as its fatalistic title implies, finishes the equation it sets up in Act 1: human + time = dust.

Bleak but undeniable — and somehow strangely entertaining.

For information about Crowded Fire and Big Death & Little Death visit www.crowdedfire.org.

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