The Woolly Mammoth Theater Company celebrates its 25th anniversary by finally moving into its own comfortable space in northwest D.C. Sadly, the company stumbles out of the gate with “Big Death & Little Death,” a bleak and incoherent new play by screenwriter Mickey Birnbaum.
The sheer act of classifying Birnbaum’s play as a dark comedy demonstrates Woolly’s zeal for pushing boundaries. In this saga about an absurdly dysfunctional family, the little death probably would be those new puppies being eaten by their mother in the opening scene. This is followed by a bigger death, the loss of the mother in a horrific car crash. But the culmination is a really big death — the end of the blasted universe. It’s a regular rib tickler.
Other ingredients include an emotionally bankrupt father just back from the first Gulf War; three teenagers dealing with the problems of adolescence and self-identity; a high school guidance counselor eager for sex with her students; and several other themes, most of them played to heavy-metal music with which teens identify.
There is also the peculiar job of the father (Paul Morella), a photographer who specializes in grisly shots of car-crash victims. And an abortion, too.
The intent, says the playwright, is to characterize people alienated from their families and their culture, and to do so in Woolly’s innovative style. With the theater’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz at the helm, it surely presents all the mayhem intended.
To suggest that Woolly’s fearless format regularly treads a razor-thin line between raucous absurdity and tastelessness is an understatement. Shalwitz will tell you that’s indeed the company’s mission, and he’s right that true tastelessness often marks the biggest success. But there are also times when it really just doesn’t work.