For those of us who came of artistic age in Los Angeles during the 1980’s and 90’s, the CAST Theatre was a vibrant home to a wide range of plays and players. But no voice caught the zeitgeist of the era like playwright Justin Tanner.
LITTLE THEATRE is Tanner’s semi-autobiographical exploration of his beginnings as a playwright, his creative partnership with Andy Daley, and, most importantly, the deeply fraught bond with his self-proclaimed writing mentor, Diana Gibson who ran the theatre.
Gibson was a true original. A monstre sacre of epic proportions, everyone who worked in or around the 99-Seat Theatre world had two or three jaw-dropping stories of encounters with her. While she didn’t suffer fools, she had little patience with the geniuses either.
Tanner is not interested in a documentary approach which he telegraphs by changing the names of the characters. Justin is James, Andy is Danny, and Diana becomes Monica. The three meet on the fateful day that James reports to the theatre to work off his DUI community service hours. After proving his ineptitude for office work, James surprises his cynical co-workers with a script that Diana recognizes as viable with her advice and coaching.
Seemingly overnight, James’ plays are selling out and keeping the theatre afloat. Soon Hollywood is calling, and that’s when their egos begin to clash. Diana feels that she’s responsible for James’ success, James feels trapped in Diana’s web, and Danny has an idea for a Zombie show that he wants to write with James.
Lisa James directs the play with the breathless speed and clarity of a farce, but she finds some telling moments beyond the laughs. Zachary Grant’s James easily channels the loopy innocence of the young James. But the heart of his performance lies in wordless moments when we watch the play of thoughts and emotions cross his face. As Danny, Ryan Brophy is lovable, dedicated, and seems to be the only character with a connection to the real world.
But neither of the young men stand a chance against Hurricane Monica. Jenny O’Hara carefully calibrates her performance in a role that could easily become shrill and over-the-top. We might not know who hurt this woman or why she lashes out with such vehemence, but O’Hara’s convinces us that, despite her toxicity, Monica’s turbulent gift was to nurture and inspire.
Like John Iacovelli’s brilliant resurrection of a pre-internet, small theatre’s office, Tanner’s play is a little messy and unfocused. But it’s consistently entertaining.
Rogue Machine at Matrix Theatre Wednesdays – Saturdays 8 PM, Sundays 3 PM through January 8