“The performance includes fog, gun shots, smoking, brief nudity, and copious use of the word ‘f**k.’” Thus reads a disclaimer on Woolly Mammoth’s website regarding Stupid F**king Bird, which returns to the theater after its 2013 world premiere and subsequent eight Helen Hayes Award nominations. Bird is playwright Aaron Posner’s irreverent, darkly comedic take on Chekhov’s The Seagull—and in case the title wasn’t a tip-off, this is not your garden-variety piece of theatah.
Bird, directed by Howard Shalwitz, focuses on seven people: Emma (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her lover, Trig (Cody Nickell); Emma’s brother, Sorn (Rick Foucheux); her son, Con (Brad Koed), and his aspiring-actress girlfriend, Nina (Katie DeBuys); Con’s friend Dev (Darius Pierce); and the bitter Mash (Kimberly Gilbert), whose hobbies involve penning nihilistic ballads set to ukelele music. The characters’ relationships are tangled: Emma is jealous of Nina’s youth and dismissive of her son’s grand creative ambitions; Nina is attracted to Trig’s fame (and he to her “perfect breasts”); Dev is in love with Mash, who in turn pines for Con; and Con is stymied by his love for Nina and his need for creative fulfillment. Each character is an archetype—the aging star; the famous cad; the tortured artist—and represents a different facet of the playwright’s personality: hubris, insecurity, cynicism. But they’re also people, flawed and foolish, and the uniformly excellent cast embody them in a way that feels lived-in enough to make every passive-aggressive argument and on-again, off-again romance believable. (Foucheux is especially enjoyable as the wry psychiatrist with near-superhuman patience for the foibles of those around him.)
Though Posner’s take echoes Chekhov’s story in many ways, a familiarity with the source material isn’t necessary to enjoy this production. It’s a masterpiece of meta, from the audience interaction (“The play begins when someone says, ‘Start the f**king play,’” Con says to the crowd before the house lights dim) to the third-act scene change, which happens with lights up and the audience still in their seats, to the way the story eventually eats its own tail—or tale, as it were, in the form of Con writing a play about all the events the audience has just witnessed. Even the set design (by Misha Kachman) hangs a lampshade on the conceit, featuring pop-art portraits of Chekhov that Con addresses directly at one point.
Posner tackles both grand subjects—as when the characters yearn for fame and originality and significance—and smaller ones, which are at times uncomfortably relatable, as when they comment wistfully on how much easier life would be if you could force yourself to return someone’s love for you. But for a play that packs in several broken relationships, a suicide attempt, and lifetimes of disappointment, it’s frequently very, very funny. The characters have all the navel-gazing tendencies so often attributed to millennials, but with an edge of eloquent, elegant cynicism you won’t find on BuzzFeed. There’s even a “literally/figuratively” play on words that brings to mind one of the animated show Archer’s best running gags. The play’s earlier and later sections roughly approximate the arc of life from your twenties to your thirties. The first half is all striving and uncertainty and a burning need to establish oneself. And the second? It’s settling—or seeming to, though that roiling current of dissatisfaction is just under the surface.
In a 2012 interview with Washingtonian, Posner said that theater “doesn’t do as much as it needs to. It’s too pale and small in its ambitions.” His Bird is ambitious, to be sure—it takes on the state of contemporary theater and the idea of creativity as a whole, and the layers of meta commentary form a hall of mirrors through which the specters of success and failure, life and death, become increasingly warped. This production may not have the solutions to the issues it touches on, but it has enough wit, inventiveness, and humor to ensure you’ll be thinking about them long after.
Stupid F**king Bird is at Woolly Mammoth through August 17. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($35 to $75) are available online. Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.