One of the maxims repeated in Mickey Birnbaum’s “Big Death & Little Death” is “Human plus time equals dirt,” and it’s mordantly representative of the play’s focus and dark humor. It’s a flip rejoinder to optimists, but it’s Birnbaum’s achievement that he looks beneath hip teenage cynicism to find the quiet hope hiding there. The Road Theater Company’s L.A. premiere of the play literally rocks the house, with loud if tasty metal music by live band Condemption between scenes. The production could scarcely be better under Larry Biederman’s inspired direction, with a wickedly talented cast who alternate between scary and hilarious, beatific and beaten-down sad.
When Dad (Jeff LeBeau), father of Gary (Sean Wing) and Kristi (Jeanne Syquia), returns home from the Gulf War in 1992, the two teens are excited. Gary wants to hear about military glory, whereas the more fragile Kristi just wants her family back together. Dad’s gift to Mom (Rhonda Aldrich), however — some sand with blood in it — doesn’t go over well: “This is all you brought home from the whole war?” Mom tells Dad about her infidelity while he was away; Dad kills Mom in an “accident.” Scarred by the aftermath, the newly nihilistic Gary takes up with his flirty guidance counselor Miss Endor (Ann Noble), while Kristi puts together a scrapbook of death photos and shyly pursues Gary’s friend Harley (Ammar Mahmood).
Remarkably, in his role, Wing truly seems to live in the moment, and the idea that Gary is thinking and growing and learning is palpable. Syquia is equally fine, but whereas Gary is more philosophical, Kristi is a shivering bundle of hurt neuroses, and Syquia brings the broken heart of this piece to life. LeBeau is very effective as the revenant Dad, with his thousand-yard stare indicating deep damage, but always remembering the man beneath the mask. Noble steals the show as the wildly inappropriate Miss Endor, a party girl who only occasionally remembers her job, in a perf that sizzles with vitality and expert comic timing. Aldrich, Mahmood and Zach Dulli round out a superb cast, and Mark St. Amant is excellent in two smaller roles.
Birnbaum’s writing mixes raw emotion with deadpan humor and then throws a strong dose of surrealism into the mix. If it doesn’t always make complete sense, it doesn’t matter: It works. Biederman stages the play with energy and precision, from the synched strobe lights and music between scenes to the teens hanging onto the edge of a table representing a car in midair. Claire Bennett’s topsy-turvy set, combining a crashed car and a stairway that leads to a refrigerator door, is a wonderful achievement, working for every location in the story, from a sinking submarine to the end of the world. John Eckert’s lighting, which includes a series of light bulbs hanging at differing lengths from the ceiling, brilliantly accentuates the many moods of the play.