The beginning of Thomas Bradshaw’s 2009 one-act “The Bereaved” — the first of Bradshaw’s many plays to be produced locally, thanks to Crowded Fire Theater — seems like a domestic comedy.
Husband Michael (Lawrence Radecker), a low-wage-earning, unambitious adjunct professor, is fiddling on his computer. Lawyer wife Carol (Michele Leavy) stomps in after a busy work day.
The two immediately start squabbling about who should be taking out the garbage. “You’re a retard!” they shriek at each other, upping the ante of a scene that had seemed mild enough.
Bradshaw, a playwright who may well be an acquired taste, is about to subvert all your expectations.
Carol and Michael switch topics, to discuss how to deal with the probability that their teenage son, Teddy, has been masturbating — at school. In the classroom. When Carol displays Teddy’s semen-stained shorts, we know we’re out of sitcom territory.
Things escalate. The couple snort coke, and then Carol suddenly dies — but not before bequeathing her best friend, Katy (Denmo Ibrahim), to Michael. Katy’s a psychologist. She can help maintain the family in the style to which they are accustomed, which includes endless lines of coke and an expensive private school for Teddy.
By now, “The Bereaved” is starting to feel like a cross between a black comedy and social satire.
As the play continues, the principal characters — not just the hastily married Katy and Michael, but also innocent but horny Teddy (Josh Schell) and his cheerfully slutty, coke-addicted girlfriend (Olivia Rosaldo) — make disastrous life choices, with no bad repercussions whatsoever.
For the provocative Bradshaw, nothing is too politically incorrect, too exaggerated or too, well, repulsive, to bring to the stage. (Be prepared for lots of fairly graphic and very kinky sex acts.)
The family drug dealer, Jamal (Reggie D. White), who loiters on street corners in Harlem, is one more character in the unholy mix.
“The Bereaved” is a departure for Crowded Fire, a company that’s known for producing stylistically experimental, intellectually challenging works. This play is neither. For me, Bradshaw’s comic touch failed to tickle the funny bone, and the social commentary, such as it is, seems superficial.
But the reliably professional Crowded Fire, under Marissa Wolf’s tight, crisp direction, has turned in a polished show with excellent acting and production values. Maya Linke’s scenic design in particular is compact and elegant, and Brendan Aanes’ urgent, jittery sound score perfectly suits the material.
The Bereaved: Presented by Crowded Fire Theater