A “family meeting” is convened in order to solve their current financial crisis in Crowded Fire Theater’s The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw. The cast includes (from left) Lawrence Radecker as Michael, Josh Schell as Teddy, Olivia Rosaldo as Melissa and Denmo Ibrahim as Katy. Below: Schell and Rosaldo take a trip to Harlem for a visit with Reggie D. White as Jamal. Photos by Pak Han.
You know you’ve got your audience right where you want them when they’re laughing at the rape fantasy being played out – rather graphically and violently – on stage. It’s easy to imagine an audience sitting in wide-eyed horror as the scene, which also involves black face, goes to some surprising places.
But by this point in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Bereaved, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House on Potrero Hill, we’ve come to expect the outrageous, the politically incorrect, the shocking.
This is the first fully staged Bradshaw play in the Bay Area, and by some accounts, it’s his tamest. Clearly a provocateur with an affection for farce and parody, Bradshaw is like Molière writing for HBO. Or Skinemax, er, Cinemax. He mashes up the foreboding darkness and twisty surprises of a Pinter or an Albee with the shiny, happy pace of a 30-minute sitcom. The results are wildly amusing and, yes, even a little shocking.
But to what end the shocks? That’s a question you don’t really have time to think about until the 65-minute play begins careening toward its abrupt conclusion.
Until then, director Marissa Wolf keeps a steady hand as she makes outrageousness seem somehow every day. Like the dad (Lawrence Radecker) doing lines of coke off the dining room table and then talking to his 15-year-old son (Josh Schell) about the excessive amount of semen the parents are finding in the young man’s underwear when they go to do the laundry. Or the worldly-wise 15-year-old girlfriend (Olivia Rosaldo) who instructs the son, while she’s trying to take his virginity, that cocaine’s hard edge can be smoothed with alcohol or Valium – if he has any.
It all seems so practical when people are as unfiltered as Bradshaw’s characters seem to be. When mom (Michele Leavy) is in the hospital and may not survive, she does two things: she reads the Tao Te Ching and, in the event of her demise, she arranges for her husband to marry her best friend (Denmo Ibrahim). That’s good news for the dad and the friend, who immediately embark on an intense and explicit voyage of sexual discovery.
The play’s funniest and ultimately most incisive character turns out to be drug dealer Jamal (Reggie D. White), who’s got an exaggerated pimp roll because he knows that’s what his customers, mostly rich white kids, expect. He’s a savvy businessman and does what he needs to do to play the role of the Harlem drug dealer in support of a sophisticated life that is the opposite of the mean streets.
Playwright Bradshaw’s plot heads into Breaking Bad territory, with the practical family dealing with a financial crisis and planning for the future. Their choices are, of course, outrageous but within the context of the play, perfectly reasonable. It’s just the ending that doesn’t satisfy.
We get the strong impression that everyone left alive – oh, yes, there’s death and mayhem – is more than capable of taking care of herself or himself. They’ll keep making bold choices, and the consequences will continue to be minimal. Or they won’t. (shrug) Life goes on. Or it doesn’t.
As fun and startling as The Bereaved can be, it doesn’t land with much weight. The satire’s got zip but little sting. There’s no emotional connection with the characters or their actions, but there is an interest in what crazy thing they’ll get up to or whose butt we’ll see in the next scene. There’s no final shock or twist or joke. Just drug-happy, highly sexed characters moving on in life, having sex and enjoying their drugs. Maybe that’s really it – the 21st-century American dream in all its underwhelming glory.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Crowded Fire Theater’s The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw continues through April 27 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or www.crowdedfire.org.