The Elephant Theatre Company follows the outstanding Anything with an even better world premiere comedy, Gena Acosta’s absolutely fabulous Tooth And Nail.

Like Kaufman and Hart’s classic screwballer You Can’t Take It With You, Tooth And Nail revolves around one of the most outrageous (and outrageously funny) families ever seen on stage, with its humdinger of a second act inspiring nearly as many tears as guffaws.  Under the flawless direction of Lindsay Allbaugh, Tooth And Nail combines the screwball and the heartrending to stunning effect.

You know you’re in for something different from the moment you enter the theater.  Scenes from A Lion In Winter, the Katharine Hepburn/Peter O’Toole classic, are being projected across the walls of Joel Daavid’s Weekawken, New Jersey living room set, the home of middle-aged couple Ellie and Gerald Laney.
It turns out that A Lion In Winter is the Laneys’ all-time favorite movie. They’ve seen it a grand total of 29 times in fact, and have just returned from a screening, though Ellie wonders “Why can’t they show The Lion In Winter in winter?”  (And indeed why not?)  Ellie and Gerald have loved Lion so much that at one time they even called each other “Eleanor” and “Henry,” and the first thing Gerald said when he and Ellie saw it together were “That’s who I’d like to be.”

Ellie is one of those wives who seem to do all the talking, a chatterbox of a woman for whom “Enthusiastic” might well be her middle name. She’s “over the moon” about her impending grandmotherhood, and is planning a dinner party that says, “HELLO NEW BABY!”  “It’s Labor Day weekend,” she enthuses, “and the stars are aligned!”  

Ellie is not a woman who takes “no” for an answer. When sourpuss Gerald tells her he doesn’t feel like dinner, she corrects him with a sunny smile, “Of course you do!”  Ellie is unable to even conceive of someone hanging up on her, so when one of her daughters does just that, she declares in wonderment, “The line always cuts me   off!”  Nothing, it seems, will dampen Ellie’s enthusiastically positive outlook on life.

The Laneys have three 20something daughters. Each was adopted as a preteen (“They had little ones at that place, but they were way in the back.”) and each has grown into an dysfunctional adult. 

Robin is pregnant and unmarried, but engaged to a good-natured pothead named Ted Hamster. Daughter Dylan has broken up with her one-armed (correction: one-legged) boyfriend and the guy she’s now dating is retarded, but “high functioning.”  (“She always helps the unfortunate,” explains Ellie.) Finally, there’s Rose, full of anger and resentment and unable to forgive her dad for something he said the last time they were together.

Ellie begs Gerald to apologize to Rose, but he doesn’t remember “saying those things.” In fact, there are many things which Gerald seems to have forgotten, including his favorite line from A Lion In Winter, despite having seen the film dozens of times.  When Ellie discovers his pills in his pocket instead of “floating inside his  body,” she thinks she may have found the answer. “Take them or you’ll be gone in a year,” she orders Gerald, but he protests that the pills are making him forget things.  Besides, maintains Gerald, it’s his decision to make. “This is not a decision,” says Ellie.  “This is suicide.”

Lest this start sound like a Lifetime movie for women, let me reassure you, Tooth And Nail is absolutely hilarious, and never more so than when the Laneys’ new next-door neighbors arrive for dinner. First to show up is Michael, a bookish sort who arrives bearing an absolutely enormous fake bird of paradise arrangement.  “Aren’t you the cutest thing in two boots!” Ellie enthuses about her visitor.  When she asks about Michael’s wife, whom she’s glimpsed through her window wearing a “kinono,” Ellie learns that Michael’s significant other designs these oversized floral arrangements, and does interpretive dance as a sideline. (Michael tells Ellie that he and his other half met when the art department at the college where Michael works needed a giant fern.) When Ellie learns that Michael’s “wife” is named Julian (“Julian?”) … she doesn’t skip a beat. “I have been backstage at the Ziegfeld and Roy show!” she tells Michael, thereby erasing any fear that she might suffer from homophobia.

First among the daughters to arrive for Labor Day Sunday dinner is Robin, with beanpole Ted in tow, the latter improbably garbed in ski-cap, surfer shorts, and multicolored scarf, knitted for him by Robin, who’s got other scarves to pass out amongst the family.  

Next to show up is a very pissed off Dylan.  “Who the fuck forgot to pick me up at the airport!!!” she screeches, letting out a stream of obscenities which could be the result of this being her ninth day of sobriety.  She tells Robin, “In AA they give us tools to deal with our anger,” to which sis responds with the obvious, “They’re not working.”  

Last to arrive is Rose, wearing a knee-length plastic bag as raingear and sporting a black eye. It seems that the steering wheel of her van was stolen by a pack of retarded Catholic school kids, or something to that order, and she is a mess.

The arrival of Julian (wearing a jaunty mini-cape, carrying a small black handbag, and bearing a basket of goodies for the Laneys) completes the evening’s octet of characters.  Julian reminds one of the line in Legally Blonde, “Is he gay or   European?” Judging from his unidentifiable accent and showy garb, it would seem that Julian is both.

Act One ends with Gerald taking an offstage fall, leading to a Two Faces Of Gerald transformation which the show’s press release makes the mistake of revealing.  I’ll leave it as a surprise, the first of many in a second act in which audience tears flow almost as often as laughter arises, and often simultaneously, witness to Acosta’s play-writing gifts.

Director Allbaugh deserves highest marks for maintaining the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy which Acosta’s writing demands and for bringing out the best in her faultless ensemble of actors.

Lynn Odell is magnificent as Ellie, in what must certainly be one of the most exhausting roles she’s undertaken. With husband Gerald scarcely uttering a word in the first act, it’s up to Ellie to maintain the flow of conversation, and woe be it that she should ever let there be a moment of silence.  Odell is funny as can be without ever being anything but real, and we sense that she’s hiding her worry under a torrent of cheerful words.

As Gerald, Gregory Mortensen spends most of the first act in such a blue funk (which he does beautifully) that it is a joy to observe him in full flower in Act 2. Each of the three daughters is portrayed to perfection: Jennifer Etienne Eckert as the bubbly Robin, Tara Norris as the embittered Dylan, and Kerry Carney as the woebegone Rose.  Josh Breeding is cute and funny as stoner boyfriend Ted.  Tony Foster underplays beautifully as nerdy Michael, which makes Tom Sanczyk’s joyous flamboyance as Julian all the more delightful. A rotating cast of actors appear as Soul Cat and the Sparkle Bombs, and no, I won’t spoil the surprise.

Scenic designer Daavid’s New Jersey wallpapered living room is full of the kind of kitsch that you’d expect Ellie to have accumulated over the years (kudos too to art director Noelle Marie Leiblic.)  There is also fine work by lighting designer Nick McCord and sound designers Matt Richter and Christopher Game.  Sasha Koziak (one of the Sparkle Bombs) provides some sexy/fun choreography.  Best of all is the way Kimberly Overton’s costumes suit every character to a T.

Wayne’s World promised, “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!  You’ll hurl!” Thankfully, Tooth And Nail delivers only the first two … in ample measure. I fell in love with Tooth And Nail, so much so that I’m going back to see it again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if once is not enough for many others in the audience either.

Lillian Theatre, 1078 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 15, 2008
Photos: David Fofi

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