Sep 3, 2009

"Heartbreak" in Queens

Pamela Segall and Laurel Green in Heartbreak Help, Cast Theatre, Hollywood, 1996. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Some of my happiest theatregoing days came in the mid-1990s at Hollywood's tiny Cast Theatre, watching the deft slacker comedies of Justin Tanner, which at their best--and they were seldom less than very good--played a bit like a poppier, less lugubrious, California-fried Mike Leigh. Zombie Attack and Pot Mom were his long-running hits (and no, I'm not the only who thinks the creators of Weeds owe Justin a percentage), but my favorites were Teen Girl and Happytime Xmas. The high point of Tanner-mania was an eight-play repertory extravaganza that ran for months in the fall of 1994. I saw nearly all of them at least twice. I later had the chance to work with and get to know him as part of the Evidence Room's late-night serial The Strip, and Tanner's uncomfortably autobiographical Oklahomo! was the last play I saw in L.A. before my move to NY in 2005 (it will return as a late-night offering at the Celebration this fall, I've heard).

The struggle of his fans in the 1990s--my internal struggle, at least--was to appreciate that what he was doing at the Cast was an end in itself, and thus worth wallowing in while it lasted, which is why I returned so frequently to that welcoming beer garden. But it was hard to resist the feeling that "success" meant productions elsewhere, and indeed Tanner has made some stabs outside his backyard. There have been a number of NY readings, and longtime fan and muse Laurie Metcalf did get Pot Mom done at Steppenwolf. But Tanner remains mostly unknown outside of L.A.

One sign that might be changing: On Sept. 24, the Astoria Performing Arts Center in Queens is doing a staged reading of Heartbreak Help, Tanner's warm four-hander about a women's spiritual retreat in Joshua Tree, which in its original production starred Pamela Segall (yes, the voice of Bobby Hill) along with longtime Tanner regulars Laurel Green and Ellen Ratner.

I'm going to try to make that reading. And it got me thinking: Which New York theater would be a good fit for Tanner? His sensibility falls somewhere roughly between Adam Rapp and Nicky Silver; he may not seem edgy enough for Rattlestick, but he may be too gritty for Second Stage. It would take a place like Playwrights Horizons or the Vineyard or the New Group to go out on a limb and produce him.

In an ideal world, of course, the Signature Theatre would be doing a season of his work. But a reading in Queens is a start.

1 comment:

cinco said...

I want the plays published! I agree Teen Girl and Happytime Xmas are the best. A revival of Teen Girl here in L.A. last year didn't have the magic of the original Laurel Green show you and I saw. I remember Heartbreak Help as being pretty successful, too. Pamela Segall was adorable. Let me know how the reading goes!