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Identity Crises 

Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .

Thursday, Sep 1 2005
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Photo by Ed KriegerEven golden rules were made to be broken. High on a list of such revered imperatives would be the 11th commandment, “Write about what you know.” Today, in fiction at least, publishers want novelists to write about who they are, not necessarily what they’ve done. Nothing sells like the Voice of a Generation — unless it’s the voice of a race or, perhaps, the spokesman of a sexual movement. It’s a bit different in theater only because playwrights are chained to an artistic evolution that prevents them from getting branded with a single identity. The young playwright serves up slices of insouciant, louche behavior (bohemia, treacherous roommates, scary families); by the 30s, the same writer begins to shift toward more serious stories about his profession — often, the writing profession. By middle age, many writers begin to lose their way: Either they become obsessed with writing about “betrayal” or profiles of obscure historical figures — or they offer suitably wry commentaries about the entertainment industry that now pays their mortgages. Los Angeles playwright Justin Tanner’s search for a new identity is often as interesting as the laconic repartee for which he’s known. For a long time — a very long time — Tanner was known as a kind of slacker Homer. His low-keyed, shag-carpet comedies portrayed the delusional ambitions and fragile egos of former students, wannabe actors and unemployed moochers in general; set in Silver Lake before Silver Lake became a Marin County enclave, L.A. fables like Party Mix and Teen Girl perfectly captured Generation X’s lingo and hubris. Eventually, as Tanner and members of his Cast Theater company matured, he began writing about actors who weren’t wannabes and people who earned enough money to attend self-help conferences in the desert. His newest play, Oklahomo!, finds Tanner transitioning into a potentially fresh identity at his new home, Burbank’s Third Stage. The result isn’t as funny or humanistic as his early comedies, but it shows his writing as more sure-footed than it’s been in years.Oklahomo! is a play about a play — an X-rated, homosexual send-up of a certain Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that a local playwright is trying to stage. Just as African-Americans have the Chitlin Circuit, gay L.A. apparently has Arthur (Brian Newkirk), a one-man spoof factory whose raunchy adaptations of classic movies and Broadway shows are performed in rundown Hollywood theaters. To stage-manage his new production, he’s hired an old acquaintance, Melissa (Maile Flanagan), and, to direct, his ex-boyfriend, Darren (Tanner). Arthur may be forgiven for not knowing that Melissa has become a nightmarishly born-again Christian, but he only has himself to blame for inviting the mercurial, dictatorial Darren back into his life. Darren, who brays contempt for his company at nearly every turn, tugs at his wavy hippie hair and does little jigs while insulting Oklahomo!’s crew, is the kind of neurotic who complains about being crucified even while he’s hammering nails into colleagues’ palms.His victims here are Arthur’s ensemble members, capably played by Billy Wright, Brendan Broms and Tad Coughenour, although slumming TV actress Janice Owens (Ellen Ratner) and coke-snorting vocal coach Kitty Haber (Mary Scheer) seem impervious to his venom.There’s not very much in the way of plot — even less so than in most Tanner comedies, which tend to pile a series of escalating spats on top of one another until someone snaps by the end of Act 2. The characters don’t develop in their roles through any decision making, except toward the evening’s conclusion, when Arthur must choose whether or not to join a mutiny against his old flame; nor is Darren’s sole straight actor, played by Broms, remotely tempted to discover his inner queer — a process that has become de rigueur in theater. Besides a very short list of witty parody numbers (including the memorable “The Bottom and the Top Man Should Be Friends”), the play’s chief recommendations are its litany of local references (the Coffee Table, this paper’s Lawee awards, Equity’s Michael Van Duzer), which would seem to doom the play to a very indigenous audience.Oklahomo! is about something, however: Tanner. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the playwright appears as three of Oklahomo!’s characters — the shrieking director, Darren, who continually puts down the L.A. theater scene and everyone he holds to be stupid enough to believe in it; the sensitive but self-deceiving playwright, Arthur (“This is not camp!” he cluelessly says about his work); and even the passive-aggressive outsider, Melissa.It’s your reaction to Darren that determines whether or not you enjoy Oklahomo! Darren, unflatteringly described by another character as having put on weight, is so abrasively over the top, so bitter about his theater experiences while boastful about his spotty “industry” work, that you either hate him (and this play) right off the bat or you’re completely taken in by them. There is no chance for him to grow on you, and even his more vulnerable moments do nothing to mitigate his basilisk countenance. And he’s played by the playwright — who for the first time is appearing onstage in the role of a gay man. Is it really surprising that the opening night’s program notes erroneously listed Tanner as Oklahomo!’s director, instead of Lisa James?If you look (or, rather, listen) beyond all the shouting, score settling, puns and in-jokes, you can find the quiet story of a playwright searching for a new role for himself. Justin Tanner began as a wise kid who wrote about the foibles of his generation and, as that generation aged and dispersed, discovered he could not write about the same people, now simply older. His swipes at theater may betray a vestigial juvenilia, but they also seem a necessary bridge burning and a recognition, however unconscious, of the need to move on artistically. What that could be remains to be seen. Airsick: Trying to understand the state of contemporary British women Emma Frost is starting where Tanner was nearly 20 years ago, although her 2003 debut play, Airsick, sets its sights on describing the condition of the U.K.’s 30-somethings. Emma Frost — the name sounds like a character fallen out of the pages of Dickens or, at least, Ian Fleming. Her very British play, receiving its U.S. premiere at the Rogue Theater Company, is about an emotionally brittle sculptor named Lucy (Laurie Schaefer), who was born on the same day in 1968 that the theory of cosmic black holes was announced. Those vast, invisible vacuums are Frost’s organizing metaphor, a fact she and director Noah Blake are not afraid to remind us of every few minutes, from the frequent intrusion of “black hole” sound effects to the playing of numbers by the rock band Hole during scene changes, of which there seem to be several hundred. The black holes in Lucy’s life are all male by gender: her ineffectual, dipso dad, Mick (a nuanced and sympathetic portryal by Richard Leighton); her opaque New Yorker boyfriend, Joe (Josh Levy); and an international drifter from New Zealand named Gabriel (Eli Mahar). Mick is one of those cockneys who is given to ruminations, especially about a failed marriage; Joe, a risk-management wonk who’s immigrated to live with Lucy in London, is an American character written by a Briton, which means he is a vulgar, conquest-driven thug — a man whose soul wears a permanent 5 o’clock shadow. Only the laid-back, mildly randy Gabriel seems to understand and appreciate Lucy — though it’s prudent to remember that he’s a New Zealander. Lucy’s true soul mate is her girlhood friend, the sex-hungry Scarlet (Jolie Curstinger), whose clothing choices say come-and-get-it more than come-hither.Actually, I was confused by Scarlet, or more precisely, by where Scarlet lives. Perhaps it’s because she always seems to be in the process of dressing that I assume she’s at home wherever the scene happens to occur — Mick’s flat, or Lucy’s, or her receptionist’s desk at something called Destiny Weekly. Even more than Lucy, Scarlet has been scarred by childhood sexual traumas, which she recounts in a series of chirpy monologues, and, before long, we begin to wonder whose play this really is. This astigmatic focus on characters is perhaps Airsick’s biggest flaw, although it also suffers from the gamut of first-play gaffes — the use of phone calls to dispense with exposition, and a large number of blackouts.Still, Frost’s play is an honest work attempting to understand the emotional state of contemporary British women, and there is nothing insincere about her characters’ ambivalence toward sex or their discomfort with family ties. The Rogue Theater Company may have bitten off more than it can chew here, but it too demonstrates a commendable willingness to tackle the new and unknown. Like Tanner and Frost, it’s in the process of defining itself, which should make hopeful witnesses of us all.OKLAHOMO! | By JUSTIN TANNER | At the THIRD STAGE, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank | Through September 23 | (818) 842-4755 AIRSICK | By EMMA FROST | At the ROGUE THEATER COMPANY at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave. | Through September 25 | (323) 969-4794

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