Melissa Denton, left, Danielle Kennedy and Jonathan Palmer star in Justin Tanner's El Niño.EXPAND
Melissa Denton, left, Danielle Kennedy and Jonathan Palmer star in Justin Tanner's El Niño.
John Perrin Flynn

Justin Tanner Returns After 7 Years to Tackle Middle Age and Trump's Base

After 30 years and more than 20 produced full plays, it’s impossible to deny the comic genius of Justin Tanner. The hilarious, familiarity-bred venom that the veteran Los Angeles playwright’s bickering but ultimately big-hearted suburban California misfits reflexively spew at one another has proved to be the stage’s most prodigious laugh generator since Neil Simon.

And if that genius is of the situational, dysfunctional-relationship kind, El Niño, Tanner’s new comedy at Rogue Machine, comes as a reminder that it is grounded in an ironic hyperbole that is purely theatrical. Call it the Tanneresque — the sense of peripheral and mostly offstage chaos that torques his plays with a palpable unease felt by the audience but is always just beyond the ken of his risibly self-absorbed and unreflective characters.

Those with a long enough memory will recall it in Changing Channels, Tanner’s 1988 professional debut, as the mounting clutter of castoff garbage ludicrously inundated the living room of a family of TV-sedated Salinas slackers.

El Niño, which marks the playwright’s return to the L.A. stage after a nearly seven-year layoff, is positively shot through with the Tanneresque. It is found in the weird weather suggested by the play’s title and in the thundering monsoon whipped up by designer Brian Gale’s sound and Christopher Moscatiello’s lights. But it is also present in the dire economy that has conspired with the rain to temporarily reconstitute Tanner’s storm-tossed, backbiting middle-aged children under their aging parents’ roof.

Maile Flanagan is the hapless Colleen, the 48-year-old family trainwreck, who has returned from Salinas to the Highland Park nest of set-in-their-ways retirees June (the fine Danielle Kennedy) and Harvey (Nick Ullett) after finding herself homeless in the wake of her most recently imploded relationship. An unemployed — and unemployable — Uber driver and former pulp science fiction author, the zaftig Colleen is beset with a host of psychosomatically suspect ailments that are as likely rooted in her battered self-esteem as they are in her surplus weight. Now, after a week of Colleen being encamped on Harvey and June’s living room couch, surfing TV and stuffing herself with snacks, nerves are frayed over a welcome already overstayed.

Nick Ullett, left, and Maile Flanagan in Justin Tanner's El NiñoEXPAND
Nick Ullett, left, and Maile Flanagan in Justin Tanner's El Niño
John Perrin Flynn

The sparks truly begin to fly with the entrance of Colleen’s anal, over-controlling older sister, Andrea (Melissa Denton), newly returned from a package tour of Morocco. Though disgusted by the country’s cuisine, religion and culture, the trip did net Andrea a romantic catch in the form of the supercilious veterinarian and animal-euthanasia specialist Todd (a riotously insufferable Jonathan Palmer), an equally xenophobic and intolerant fellow traveler.

Plot complication — along with more than a few outlandish coincidences — ensue when the rising waters flush up Colleen’s abandoned manuscripts from the flooded basement just in time for her to meet Kevin (Joe Keyes), June’s bête noire of a lonely, sci-fi geek next-door neighbor, whose dying cat has been keeping her up at night. For Colleen, he’s a match made in heaven and a cure for her writer’s block; for Todd, he’s a business prospect; for June and Harvey, he’s their best hope for unloading a difficult and unwanted dependent.

Joe Keyes, left, and Malie Flanagan in El NiñoEXPAND
Joe Keyes, left, and Malie Flanagan in El Niño
John Perrin Flynn

Director Lisa James delivers a tightly ratcheted and nicely composed staging on designer John Iacovelli’s wryly rendered, “faux Craftsman” set. But it is the practiced precision of an expert ensemble, mostly drawn from Tanner’s unofficial stock company (the only new face in the cast is the well-used Ullett), that provides the bulk of the comic delights. Kennedy’s ill-tempered June is a psychoanalyst’s dream of a self-centered maternal nightmare. And Palmer and Denton’s oil-and-water love match is a relationship made in comedy hell.

But for Tanner fans, the play also reveals the playwright taking on the issues of middle age with a unforgiving ferocity. Age-related ailments, both imagined and real, get played for big laughs amid a veritable pharmacopeia of prescription meds. By the end of the play, the characters begin to take on the wizened aspects of that original Tanner family from Changing Channels, now stumbling into late life as the uncomprehendingly bigoted California Trump core. And that provides El Niño audiences with an oddly reassuring sense of schadenfreude.

Rogue Machine, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., East Hollywood; through April 2. (855) 585-5185, roguemachinetheatre.net.

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