'Big Death and Little Death': Woolly's Moribund Humor

Paul Morella and Mark Sullivan are father and son in Woolly Mammoth's too-black comedy.
Paul Morella and Mark Sullivan are father and son in Woolly Mammoth's too-black comedy. (By Stan Barouh -- Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Woolly Mammoth has made a glorious nest for itself in the bottom of an apartment building on D Street NW. With courtyard seating and a convex, lighted back wall that protrudes into a chic, vaulted lobby, the theater is a seductive new downtown anchor for contemporary drama.

It's a thoroughgoing coup for Woolly, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Congratulations are most certainly in order. The space makes a bold claim for the company in the city's cultural future: warm, unfussy, malleable -- a retreat and a treat.

The significance of bricks and mortar in the life of a theater is of course easy to overstate. Woolly got all the way to 25 without a chunk of gorgeous real estate in its portfolio. And as the production with which the company is christening its quarters demonstrates, a beautiful house, when held captive by a boorish tenant, can suddenly feel like the last place you want to be.

Perhaps Woolly was devoting so much energy to clearing away construction debris that it didn't notice the gathering mess onstage. "Big Death and Little Death" is the title of the black comedy that has been chosen to launch the new theater, and it's pretty excruciating. Written by screenwriter Mickey Birnbaum and staged by Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, the play, in an inauspicious world premiere, is a shrill meditation on nihilism in America. For a less inviting way to inaugurate the space, you'd have to fill it with the sounds of puppies being devoured.

Oh, wait. "Big Death and Little Death" has that. The play opens with a guy in stagehand garb (Scott McCormick) dragging out a heavy cardboard box. With a bored expression, he announces the name of the play. Also the time and place: Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Soon a pair of spiky teenagers (Kimberly Gilbert and Mark Sullivan) arrive to deliver the news that the dog in the box has given birth, and it likes to eat its dead offspring.

Cue the sound of a dog swallowing its offspring.

What follows is, you know, a lot of histrionic stuff. Sweating and swaggering, sex and drug-taking, to an intermittent heavy-metal bleat. All this and women dying in car wrecks, men suffocating in submarines, girls using obscenities, boys copulating with their guidance counselors. If only someone had also dreamed up a character with the job of photographing mutilated bodies at accident scenes.

Oh, wait. "Big Death and Little Death" has that, too. Paul Morella is the shutterbug. He's also a veteran of the first Gulf War whose wife (Marni Penning) has been cheating on him. He arrives home through a 30-foot window that opens and closes like a drawbridge. Then he piles into the car with the wife and their disaffected teens and proceeds to smash up the car and kill the wife, either by mistake or on purpose.

The evening lumbers from one juvenile vignette to another, with detours for ruminations on death. It all plays like the last, desperate half-hour of any "Saturday Night Live" after 1985 -- in other words, after the program stopped being funny. The acting is mostly of the shout-it-and-then-shout-it-louder school. Also there is some crying.

Perversity and mayhem surely deserve a seat at the table -- "Cooking With Elvis," for instance, a play as sick as they come that was marvelously brought to life by Woolly last season. Is "Big Death and Little Death" a sendup of the Woolly style? There's a mystery worth unraveling. To contribute a scene-by-scene analysis of your own, kindly go to the chat room at

Just kidding.

Cue the puppies.

Big Death and Little Death, by Mickey Birnbaum. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Set and costumes, Elena Zlotescu; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Neil McFadden. With Scott McCormick, Andrew Wassenich, Michael Willis, Maia DeSanti. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through June 12 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company