September 20, 2019

‘Big Death’ evokes the muse of playwrights past

Mickey Birnbaum recently spent a year as an Inge Fellow in Independence, Kan., boyhood home of the late playwright William Inge, best known for his 1950s plays, “Picnic” and “Bus Stop.” Birnbaum’s “Big Death & Little Death,” now being staged at the Road Theater Company in North Hollywood, does evoke playwrights of the past, but it is Thornton Wilder, not Inge, whose work has influenced Birnbaum.

From the apocalyptic setting to the tangled relationship between a death-obsessed son and eccentric father to the hilarious pit bull, “Big Death & Little Death” recalls Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which depicts a dysfunctional family of survivors living at a time of an epic flood and pet dinosaurs.

When told of the comparison, Birnbaum hails Wilder as “an absolute genius,” but says that he “didn’t have Wilder in the back of my conscious mind.”

At a more conscious level, Birnbaum, who was named a PEN finalist for “Big Death,” says that he was influenced by Shakespeare. In Gary (played by Sean Wing), a teenage death-metal head who is the lead in “Big Death,” Birnbaum has created a prince of darkness if not the Prince of Denmark. Birnbaum points out that Gary’s decision over whether to go to college or destroy the universe is not unlike Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” dilemma.

Like “Hamlet,” “Big Death & Little Death” deals with existential angst but of a contemporary variety. The play is set in the Valley just after the first Gulf War. Although that war is often remembered for its quick execution and minimal American casualties, “Big Death” pivots on the return home of the father (played with soulfulness and whimsy by Jeff LeBeau), a Gulf veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Big Death” was first work-shopped in 2001 and marks Birnbaum’s first full-length play, following numerous short plays for the Virginia Avenue Project, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing culture to at-risk children.

Birnbaum may be entering his heyday as a playwright. His second full-length play, “Bleed Rail,” which takes on the subject of slaughterhouses, is being produced in Pasadena at the Boston Court Theater.

Which reminds us that Thornton Wilder did not reach his prime as a playwright for more than a decade. He also initially found success in another medium — novels, not screenplays. Birnbaum appreciates being compared to Wilder. “That makes me very happy,” he says, adding that Wilder was a “radical playwright. We forget that because we’re so used to ‘Our Town’ and ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.'”

Like the avant-garde Wilder, Birnbaum writes of the end of time with humor and originality. Gary concludes the play by saying, “Well, that worked out OK.”

After attending “Big Death,” theatergoers will feel that that is an understatement.

“Big Death & Little Death” plays through July 21 at the Road Theater Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. $25-$17.50. (818) 761-8838.