Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Druggie teens, death metal, and, yes, dead puppiesWoolly Mammoth serves up all three and plenty more in Big Death & Little Death, the blacker-than-Borknagar comedy Howard Shalwitz has picked to open the company’s enviably slick new space downtown. And if you’re a thoroughly mud-stuck stick, then indeed, you’ll probably shut down not long after screenwriter and playwright Mickey Birnbaum introduces you to Woolly’s latest decidedly dysfunctional family: Mom’s dead, Dad (who may or may not have killed her) makes a living taking gruesome car-crash photos, and the kids are…well, discontented is one exceedingly mild way to put it. But if you’re more the type to snicker at the morbidly obsessive overstatements of a Cannibal Corpse lyricif you’re loose enough, perchance, to picture yourself chortling while a stoner teen and the dingbat guidance counselor he’s banging stumble wasted through the thickets of post-Enlightenment philosophyyou’ll be willing to hang with Big Death long enough to discover that for all its surface irony, all its scorn for the ugliness and narcissism of modern life, it’s anything but nihilistic.
Granted, it’s also anything but great. For a while, Birnbaum and director Shalwitz deal drolly enough in a kind of merry misanthropy, a bemused, shrugging takedown of a culture that’ll casually hand a teen a gun but tends to be stingier with meaningful attention. Kristi and Gary (Kimberly Gilbert and Mark Sullivan) are adolescents scrambling to stay bonded in a family that went nuclear a year or so ago, after a disturbingly different Dad (Paul Morella) got back from a desert war to discover that Mom (Marni Penning) had kept her home fires a degree too hot while he was away. In increasingly hallucinatory action shot through with flashbacks suggesting how badly Dad handled that discovery, Birnbaum’s adolescents keep trying to connectwith each other (awkwardly), with their deeply fucked-up father (achingly), with anybody who’ll listen to their touchingly inarticulate attempts to communicate their sense that the world is nothing but entropy and that their place in it seems vanishingly small. After intermission, thoughafter it’s become clear that the author is mourning his characters’ alienation as much as he’s mocking the cold-hearted consumer society it’s rooted inthe merriment grows strained and repetitive as the offbeat narrative that sets up that alienation tips over into a bit of sci-fi silliness that dodges the hard questions about how they might start knitting ourselves back together. Ultimately, Big Death loses its way, meandering toward a conclusion that feels simultaneously underthought and overoptimistic.
Give ’em credit for style, though. Shalwitz finds striking ways to realize some of the script’s cheerfully tasteless demandsan early moment involving one of Dad’s highway-fatality photo shoots finds Scott McCormick and Maia DeSanti in a hilariously agonized sprawl across the four-story windowpane that dominates Elena Zlotescu’s otherwise unshowy set. (Whoops: Otherwise unshowy, if you don’t count that smashed-up sedan suspended above the action, a constant reminder of the claim that “everything’s an accident.”)
Zlotescu’s costumes are entertainingly apt, from the kids’ studded bracelets and Slayer T-shirts to Mom’s happy-homemaker outfits to the howler of a pit-bull getup for McCormick. (Yes, he plays a dog. It’s Woolly, after all.) Colin K. Bills contributes an extraordinarily expressive lighting design, creating bedrooms and hallways on a bare stage with just a corridor of clean white light and scattering whole galaxies amid the exposed rigging of the open wing space. And Neil McFadden’s efficient sound design does only what’s necessary, wisely and amusingly leaving some of the most basic effects, including all of the barking, to the actors.
They, too, throw themselves at the play with gusto. Sullivan, Gilbert, and Andrew Wassenich (as Gary’s endearingly nebbishy sidekick, who’s got the awkward hots for Kristi) together get more mileage out of teen angst than a whole season of Joan of Arcadia. Morella can be both frightening and funny as the all-but-immobilized dad they keep having to come to grips with: One of his first lines, returning from the war, is “At one point I caught fire,” and Morella’s abrupt, eagerly awkward attempt at chitchat sets the tone for the rest of the proceedings. And DeSanti’s a deliriously loose presence. “I must be the world’s worst guidance counselor,” she moans after a drug-fueled postcoital confession that scares the crap out of poor Gary, and you laugh because she’s rightand because you like her anyway.
So: Funny? Mostly. Irreverent? Definitely. Revelatory? Hardly. But as a playfully analytical bit of artillery aimed squarely at the way we live now, Big Death & Little Death is a quintessential Woolly Mammoth play, from promisingly offbeat start to messily fantastical finish. If anything, what it’s sending up is the smug certainty that there’s nothing at all to hear in the cry of a voice that doesn’t quite know how to phrase what it wants to say.
Try, if you can manage it, to see Of a Sunday Morning in the middle of an apocalyptic thunderstorm like the one that punctuated the Charter Theatre’s premiere of Richard C. Washer’s play, which like Big Death sometimes seems like a set of ideas in search of a plot. Cautionary dramas about Big Brotherly theocracies and the curtailing of free thought have a certain built-in frisson, especially in this city and this age, but thunderclaps and the threat of flooding add oomph to just about anything.
Sunday Morning finds the disoriented Susanna (a nicely subtle Lee Mikeska Gardner) waking up to discover she’s the target of a faith-based initiative. Someonejust who will become disturbingly clear soon enoughhas informed on her to Ives (a perfectly weaselly Ray Ficca), an apparently corrupt cleric who’s keeping her locked up in what seems to be a temple basement and who keeps insisting ominously that he just wants to help clear up Susanna’s unorthodoxies before they attract official attention. The presence of a malfunctioning artificial-intelligence Archive (played with appropriate blankness by an unblinking Tricia McCauley), together with references to “the old city” and the recently completed wall that seals it off from the temple precincts, firmly establishes the setting as a dystopian futurebut passing remarks about “radically altered” lifestyles and the “unfortunate but necessary” measures necessitating them make the milieu feel all too recognizable.
That’s all promising enough, but Washer’s script feels a trifle coy as it goes about dropping the clues that bring its various pieces, well, not together, exactly, seeing as how the picture of what’s happened and what’s happening never entirely resolves. But then the play’s a little overstuffed: Among a heaping handful of other things, Of a Sunday Morning concerns itself thematically with mothers and sons and apron strings, fathers and sons and footsteps, and women and men and power, and its allusions include glances in the direction of the Bush dynasty, the Biblical resurrection narrative, and any number of scandal-mired televangelists. And that’s before it opens the door to Orwell and Arthur C. Clarke and Joseph McCarthy.
Still, Charter’s Keith Bridges has done a fine, unpretentious job getting the show up on its feet, and the company has lived up to its reputation for mounting substantial-feeling productions on a small budget in an even smaller space. It’s worthy work, worthily explored.
I drove out to Olney last weekend wanting to laugh my fool head off: Lend Me a Tenor is the one Ken Ludwig show with a rock-solid reputation, a hit from the moment it hit London’s West End and a farce with a record of good business at the box office. Best I could manage was a chuckle or three: Turns out this is standard-issue fare from the author of Shakespeare in Hollywood and updater of Twentieth Centurywhich is to say it’s a reasonably well-built series of slammed doors and mistaken identities, accompanied by not especially funny bits of dialogue.
The setup: Commendably improbable. An opera impresario in ’30s Cleveland finds himself short one world-famous tenor when a mix-up involving sleeping pills, an overeager fan, and a jealous wife leaves the singer looking very much like dead. Enter the impresario’s assistant, unsuccessful wooer of said fan (who’s the impresario’s daughter, by the way) and wannabe singer: Promoter and assistant agree that the latter will stand in for the “deceased” tenor in tonight’s Otello, which conveniently enough requires blackface and elaborate costumes. It’s a triumphbut before they can capitalize on it, the tenor regains consciousness, and shortly there are two tights-clad men dodging ambitious sopranos, dotty opera-guild dowagers, and starry-eyed hotel staff.
The production: swankJames Kronzer’s set is a claret-and-cream deco dreambut ultimately a trifle flabby, although pacing and timing will undoubtedly get crisper as the run continues.
The cast: perfectly capable, with particularly fearless over-the-toppings from Paul Jackel’s hammy tenore, Julie-Ann Elliott’s outraged sposa, and Evan Casey’s ambitious bellhop.
The author: one whose success, now that I’ve seen his calling-card show, perplexes me more than ever. Fair warning, Ford’s Theatre: Programming Ludwig’s latest as a season-opener may be good box office, but come September you’re gonna have one itchy herd of critics on your hands. CP