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The Prisoner of El Centro Avenue

Off the stage, Tanner has comfortably embraced the mother he had once wished dead. Sally Tanner, who changed her own name at the same time her son changed his, is now a Muslim, teaching quilting and supervising a halfway house for the mentally ill in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like her former husband, she enjoys watching her son's plays, but she doesn't believe they accurately reflect what was going on in their house on Columbine Drive. "Criminy!" she exclaims. "The family shudders when we see his plays. One time I came out of the theater and heard someone say, 'My god, I wonder what the writer's home life was like?' I said, 'Nothing like this!'"

Tom Tanner eventually returned from Alaska to live in Salinas again and is also very much back in his son's life, working for him as vice president, secretary, treasurer and chief financial officer of S.J. Tanner Inc. "I try to do as much routine paperwork for Justin," he wrote in response to a query, "so that he can spend his time creating new plays . . . I am very proud of Justin and what he has accomplished."

On opening night Coyote Woman's 300 moments come together to form a broad and eminently funny play. Jonathan Palmer, who during the reading process seemed to be stuck with an extremely unsympathetic role as Janet's stick-in-the-mud boyfriend, Cliff, turns his part into an unadulterated crowd pleaser. Likewise, Andy Daley's swinger character, Bill, who seemed too improbably over the top during the readings, all but steals the a show when it's performed before an audience. The true scene thief, however, is Thea Constantine as Janet's whorey, chain-smoking, Stoli-swilling alter ego, who comes to life with the full moon. Watching her work the enthusiastic house, one cannot help but wonder how difficult it must have been for Laurel Green to accept, so many months back, the decision that her character - and lines - would be cut in two and shared with another actress.

Coyote Woman will get good reviews, but it is clear that for all the time and effort that went into it, Tanner's latest work lacks the generational sweep of a play like Party Mix or the coming-of-age tropes of Teen Girl and Intervention. The psychological inflexibility of its characters (several of whom are outright caricatures), combined with two Grand Guignol endings, make this an evening in sitcom entertainment. Sitcom is no sin, of course, but neither is it a substitute for genuine comedy, which on some level asks its audiences to think about what they are watching; furthermore, here it represents a reversal of Tanner's development, which had been working toward more complex characters who undergo transformations as the result of 90 minutes of conflict, and not just because at some point the play needs to end and everyone has to go home. Even Tanner's direction italicizes the lack of communication between his characters rather than the deeper irony of their failure to listen to one another.

Yet Tanner sees things in Coyote Woman not necessarily apparent to theatergoers. "I feel that this holding on to adolescence in my plays has been a fear of success, and Coyote Woman was about letting go of this fear," he says. "I guess I want to write plays for adults now, and not about roommates, friends and drugs."

Gibson agrees. "I think he grew up a little on this play," she says. "I think he had to wrestle with some stuff. He's always written for very young people, but he realized the actors he was using are older than they used to be. He was having psychological problems and resistances. Each play gets more difficult for him, and I think that's the way it ought to be."

Coyote Woman, strictly speaking, is Tanner's 13th play, although, since he won't count his first two, pre-Cast/Gibson plays as real works, he puts it at No. 11. He is currently winding down the final year of his three-season contract with Universal TV, but to date only one script has been filmed, for My So-Called Life. "I think the reason nothing's gone on the air," he says by way of explanation, "is because they don't figure Diana into the equation. If they were smart, they'd hire both of us." Today Tanner looks forward to writing a new play and to entering into other projects with Gibson. "One of my goals is to make movies together," he says. "That's when we're really going to make money, and I know we're going to do this eventually. Diana really likes movies."

Justin Tanner, who came so far, so fast, has what other playwrights can only dream of - a theater devoted entirely to his own works. And though the self-doubts that haunt him increasingly make the address on El Centro Avenue seem more like a prison than a monument, he has raised a family of actors and associates here that sustains and supports him in ways his blood family never did. Above all, he has Diana Gibson.

"For better or worse," Tanner says, "she and I are meant to be together, because no one has a better insight into my work as she, not even me on a good day."

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