Remember what it was like being a teenager? When death was cool, and you wore black to make a nihilistic statement, not because it was slimming? L.A.-based writer Mickey Birnbaum does, and he captures those years of acne and anxiety in his comically morbid play, “Big Death & Little Death,” an exploration of what our nation’s youths are up to that makes Larry Clark’s movie “Kids” seem like something from cable’s Nickelodeon channel.
The play is set in the early ‘90s, but not much has changed. Two confused siblings, Kristi (Kimberly Gilbert) and Gary (Mark Sullivan), are into death metal music, futility, drugs and suburban angst.
In Mr. Birnbaum’s dank world, there is a twist. The children were in a car accident that killed their mother (Marni Penning), leaving Gary estranged and inconsolable and Kristi with an eating disorder.
Although they do their best to be unattractive to the world, a neighbor Harley (Andrew Wassenich) has a crush on Kristi, and a misguided guidance counselor, Miss Endor (Maia DeSanti), takes Gary on wild nights of sex, drugs and heavy metal.
You can’t blame the two for their problems. Dad (Paul Morella) has been ripped from the pages of the dysfunctional parent manual. He’s a Gulf war veteran gone bonkers in the wake of various desert slaughters, and he now finds ghoulishly fulfilling work photographing accident scenes.
The wisdom he imparts to his children is not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but “Human + Time = Dirt.” Thanks, Dad. Mom is not much better; before meeting her death, she tells her husband and children about her whiskey sour-sparked infidelities while dad was away at war.
No one seems sane in “Big Death & Little Death.” The children are basket cases, and the adult authority figures are either trolling for sex — like mom and Miss Endor — or messing with your head, like dad and the frighteningly unhinged Uncle Jerry (Michael Willis), who dies in a submarine mishap cursing his favorite nephew Gary over the phone as the oxygen runs out.
When a barking, miserable pit bull (played with belly-scratching vividness by Scott McCormick) is the sole endearing figure, you know this is a play that not just embraces the dark side, but wallows in it.
There is much about “Big Death & Little Death” that makes you feel dirty, but fortunately, Mr. Birnbaum has a way with extreme gallows humor and you often find yourself shocked into laughter.
“Big Death & Little Death” has an unfinished, “let’s throw everything in but the garbage disposal” feel to it, especially toward the denouement. How do you end a play populated with such awful people doing awful things? Christopher Durang faced a similar problem with his sick take on beach rentals, “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” and both he and Mr. Birnbaum come to the same conclusion: They blow up everything.
“Betty’s Summer Vacation” closes with an explosion, and this play depicts the end of the universe, as Gary, Kristi and Harley huddle under a blanket to watch the stars go out one by one.
It’s a bombastic ending — one that uses the big toy box of special effects Woolly Mammoth now has at its disposal in its new theater — but not satisfying from a dramaturgical or emotional viewpoint.
Director Howard Shalwitz tries valiantly to overcome the pitfalls in the script with a slew of theatrical whiz-bangs, and more successfully, with outstanding performances. Miss Gilbert demonstrates, as she did in Woolly’s “Cooking With Elvis,” that she is the master of capturing teen neediness and rebellion, and Mr. Sullivan proves an able foil as her smart, conflicted brother Gary.
Mr. Morella is so convincing as the crazy dad that you want to give him directions to St. Elizabeths. Miss DeSanti gives us a portrait of a different kind of nuts with her drug-snorting, vacuous and empty Miss Endor.
“Big Death & Little Death” could never be construed as a play you can cozy up to. Rather, it leaves you shaken and disturbed by its message that no one gets out of childhood undamaged.
WHAT: “Big Death & Little Death” by Mickey Birnbaum
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sundays. Through June 12.
TICKETS: $30 to $48
PHONE: 202/393-3939MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS