It seems a shame that a play as funny, offbeat, smart and provocative as David Greenspan’s “Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain” is only seeing its second time in production in its West Coast premiere.
The good news is that San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, both known for their dedication to new and adventurous material, have created a co-production that runs, proudly, with the show’s wacky themes and tones. It also manages to present a simultaneously outrageous and realistic portrait of a dysfunctional Jewish-American family.
According to program notes by Traveling Jewish Theatre artistic director Aaron Davidman, playwright Greenspan, who portrayed the character Harold in “Dead Mother’s” only previous staging at New York’s Public Theatre in 1991, has offered rewrites and assistance with this new production. Directed by Thick Description’s Tony Kelly with depth, imagination and almost a choreographer’s eye, the consistently engaging, sometimes perplexing show cleverly mixes sitcom and avant-garde sensibilities, to great effect.
It’s the story of two brothers — Daniel (Gabriel Martin), who’s planning on marrying chatty Maxine (Deb Fink), and Harold (Liam Vincent), who’s unhappily married to Sylvia (Dena Martinez).
The semblance of a plot revolves around Daniel’s attempt to fulfill Maxine’s pre-wedding demand to have her old Uncle Saul (Corey Fischer), the man who raised her, meet Daniel’s mother, Shirley.
What Maxine doesn’t know is that Shirley is dead.
Instead of telling the truth, Daniel enlists Harold to do the seemingly impossible: Dress up and pretend to be Shirley for the meeting with Daniel’s bride-to-be and her uncle.
Harold agrees and things go well, at least for a while. Maxine and Saul seem to buy Harold’s act, but trouble does arise when the guys’ dad, the alive and well Melvin (Louis Parnell), unexpectedly shows up to the party. (“Nice” cake and cookies are being served.) The story summary is but a mere drop in the bucket of mayhem, merriment and madness the show offers.
Characters spin off into seemingly unrelated, but evocative tangents, and each actor has at least one terrific monologue. All are superlative, but Vincent, as Harold (and Shirley) deserves special mention, particularly for his dead-on evocation of a Jewish mother, which he does with no costume change other than the addition of a simple strand of pearls.
As in any good theater piece, there has to be a Greek scene, and Greenspan has written a doozy, complete with a well-endowed man in a toga doing an unspeakable thing with a sheep.
Perhaps not for the conservative of heart, “Dead Mother” is a wild ride; those ready for a theatrical thrill will want to hop on.
IF YOU GO
Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain
Where: Traveling Jewish Theatre, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes Feb. 17
Tickets: $31 and $34
Contact: (800) 838-3006 or www.atjt.com