All’s funny with ‘Big Death’ 

Early on in Mickey Birnbaum’s black comedy about contemporary American family life — and our angst-ridden times in general — two teenagers watch as their dog eats one of its newborn puppies. The play ends with nothing less than, well, the destruction of the entire universe. In between, it’s a fast, funny, frightening and utterly engaging journey, as staged by Crowded Fire Theater Company in this top-notch West Coast premiere.

"Big Death & Little Death" (it’s up to the audience to determine which is which) follows the adolescent struggles of Gary and his sister, Kristi. Dad, recently returned from the Gulf War, hangs around the house in combat boots, talking in nonsequiturs and acting weird. He’s brought back a souvenir: a handful of sand and blood. Mom, who was hoping for a nicer gift, wastes no time in informing him she was unfaithful while he was gone.

Gary, a death-metal fan, is seduced by his guidance counselor, a craven junkie. Gary’s nerdy best friend, Harley, has the hots for Kristi. Meanwhile anorexic Kristi storms around in a cloud of anger and resentment, her most cherished possession a gift from Dad — a photo album of cadavers.

There’s also a family car trip that ends in disaster, a humanoid pet dog, visitations from a grimly nihilistic dead uncle and more. Playwright Birnbaum is inventive and hugely entertaining in the way he explores love and, of course, death in all its shapes and sizes.

This is one of the best productions I’ve seen by Crowded Fire, which always focuses on challenging new material. Director Sean Daniels (recent California Shakespeare Theatre associate artistic director) infuses the two-act play with a comic sensibility and youthful vigor, wisely eschewing complicated set changes and keeping the scenes moving briskly for maximum impact and momentum. Yet he knows when to slow things down for Birnbaum’s carefully shaped quieter moments.

In a tight, finely tuned ensemble, Carter Chastain is particularly impressive, utterly natural and understated as the continually nonplused Gary. The others too are terrific: Tonya Glanz as the sexy guidance counselor, Ben Freeman as the bumbling Harley, Michele Leavy as determinedly cheery mom, Lawrence Radecker as the tightly wound father, Mick Mize in a goofy dog costume and Michael Barr in a variety of small but carefully limned roles. Mandy Goldstone as Kristi easily captures her character’s sullen neediness, but her delivery is so rapid-fire and mumbled as to be often incomprehensible. However, that’s only a minor glitch in a show that’s as tightly crafted and beautifully realized as this one.

Big Death & Little Death ***½

Presented by Crowded Fire Theater Company

Where: Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 4

Tickets: $10 to $20

Contact: (415) 439-2456 or www.crowdedfire.org

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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