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Procreation by Justin Tanner – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

OH! WHAT A LOVELY PLAY; ALAS, WHAT A DISAPPOINTMENT!

 

picture - Procreation by Justin Tanner - Odyssey Theater - photo by Ed Krieger

 

Theater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published July 29, 2010 

 

Procreation

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?

 

picture - Procreation by Justin Tanner - Odyssey Theater - photo by Ed KriegerIt’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.

 

picture - Procreation by Justin Tanner - Odyssey Theater - photo by Ed KriegerThere 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.

 

picture - Procreation by Justin Tanner - Odyssey Theater - photo by Ed KriegerSchweizer 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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