Procreation by Justin Tanner – Los Angeles Theater Review
OH! WHAT A LOVELY PLAY; ALAS, WHAT A DISAPPOINTMENT!
by Harvey Perr
published July 29, 2010
now playing in Los Angeles at The Odyssey Theater
through August 15
It’s all there, everything you expect in a Justin Tanner play: all those nuttily demented misfits running into each
other and running away from each other, saying the sorts of things one hopes people don’t really say, but saying them in a way that sounds
exactly like the way some people actually speak, being straight with those closest to you while hurting them cruelly and then brushing
everything aside as if its only purpose is to be purposeless, ultimately avoiding what lies beneath purposelessness. Both scattershot and
dead-on, it is also what every Justin Tanner play is: hilariously funny. Tanner knows these people and, just when you think he may have
exhausted every possibility of saying anything you haven’t already heard before about them, he brings what seems like an endless supply of
fresh insights into their outrageous and even wacky behavior patterns. And not only can Tanner write, he writes about the milieu he
concentrates on with unerring comic vitality. So why doesn’t Procreation, his twentieth and newest play, resonate long after you’ve left the Odyssey Theatre with
anything but confusion?
It’s only a guess, but, this time around, Tanner seems to have promised more than he normally
gives. There is an acrid bitterness at the heart of this play that, unfortunately, doesn’t get fully explored, and one senses that something
deeper and more personal lies somewhere between the jokes that gets crushed by the jokes and, worse, gets buried beneath the jokes. And
neither Tanner nor his director, the estimable David Schweizer, seems to have decided on who the play’s protagonists are. Instead of tightly
focusing in on either Hope (Melissa Denton) or her obese son Gavin (Kody Batchelor), who would seem to be at the center of the myriad family
dramas circling around them, the play takes each new character and places every one of them, as they appear, in the center ring of this
circus of dysfunction, and, briefly (because there are, after all, thirteen – count them, thirteen – characters in a play that runs less than ninety minutes), each character keeps the play from really moving
forward. When it stops dead in its tracks for a performance as alive and as exciting as Danielle Kennedy’s swinging ex-alcoholic grandmother
or Tom Fitzpartick’s self-absorbed and Palm Springs-tanned grandfather, the play flies, focus be damned. But that still leaves us finally
not knowing whether to cheer on Gavin or feel pity for Hope, or a combination of the two, at play’s end. The final blackout comes not with
the proverbial bang, but rather with the proverbial whimper.
There is a sly little running gag about Andy Marshall Daley’s bad breath (“What’d you
eat? A shit and onion sandwich?”) and some terrific performances from the usual suspects in Tanner’s gallery of actors, but the dizzying
amount of comings and goings in this overcrowded household makes one feel as if the relationships between Hope’s husband (Michael Halpin)
and her brother (Danny Schmitz) or between horny Brendan Broms, whose wife just left him, and doped-up Chloe Taylor, who is hanging around
in anticipation of a connection, should either be given more room for observation or should be eliminated completely. In a less complex
Tanner play, the casualness of these relationships would be funny and fine, but here they become troublesome and ultimately tiresome. And
whenever the subject of homosexuality is raised, one expects Tanner to get down and dirty, but it just seems as if practically everybody is
gay and either hiding it or acting as if sex were the only thing on a gay man’s mind, an idea that is severely limited even as a comic
target. It puts a damper on how seriously Gavin takes the matter of his coming out.
Schweizer does a beautiful job of keeping so many things happening in what is the
tiniest of the Odyssey Theatre’s three spaces and on getting the feel of a big and rambling
house in these cramped quarters, and he has wisely broken down the fourth wall so that we are almost uncomfortably close to the actors. But
what should really make us uncomfortable is kept far removed from the audience. Tanner, who frequently directs his own plays (quite well),
might have pushed us, if he had directed, a little more into the muck while hitting every comic note and then moving on with speed. But what
is needed most of all is not velocity but slowing down. And it might help if the play itself would do what one had hoped it would do – reach
into its darker corners. That takes slowing down, too. And knowing where the real truth lies.
Procreation is almost there; its
problem is that it hasn't yet found a way to get all the way there. It feels a bit like a promise broken.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Ed Krieger
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