No one in Los Angeles makes theater quite like Justin Tanner. His one-act comedies are the theatrical equivalent of a midnight cult movie, blending the zany, the edgy, the gay, and occasionally the downright bizarre with a charm very much their own. The best of Justin Tanner’s plays, like last year’s marvelously manic Voice Lessons (which won Laurie Metcalf StageSceneLA’s award for Comedic Performance Of The Year) or Teen Girl, Tanner’s salute to the John Hughes oeuvre, are a sure bet to garner critical raves and audience cheers. Even minor Tanner, like the current revival of 2004’s Oklahomo! (not a spelling error), is guaranteed fun.
I first caught Oklahomo! (Tanner’s tribute to bad 99-seat theater) in 2005 and enjoyed it quite a bit, though its under-an-hour running time made it a not-quite-full evening of theater. I couldn’t help thinking, “It’s only nine o’clock and already time to go home?” No such complaint can be made about Oklahomo!’s late-night engagement at the Celebration Theatre. In fact, late night and Oklahomo! seem a match made in heaven, and though I haven’t yet seen the Celebration’s main stage production of Women Behind Bars, I’d guess that the two go together like peanut butter and jelly—sticky, gooey, and full of nuts.
Oklahomo! is sure to resonate with anyone who’s ever seen or been part of the creation of “waiver” theater in Los Angeles. Following an overture of songs from the real OklahomA!, we find ourselves at the first rehearsal of a gay-themed take-off on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, one set in a seedy leather bar in Silverlake.
Meet Oklahomo!’s cast of characters:
Arthur (Tanner himself)—Oklahomo!’s director, a man whose previous hit spoofs have included 12 Angry Bottoms, Tranny Get Your Gun, and Oliver Fist. When asked why he’s working with his ex-boyfriend (aka the scriptwriter and would-be star of Oklahomo!), a magnanimous Arthur explains that he’s doing it as “an act of kindness to a former lover.”
Darren (Tad Coughenour)—Arthur’s ex, and the writer of Oklahomo! According to Arthur, Darren’s been keeping busy since their breakup “tearing up the floor over at Fisters, getting fucked every night.” Darren was inspired to write Oklahomo! after a traumatic experience with a bunch of homophobic teens at the Starbucks on Larchmont.
Melissa (Chloe Taylor)—the company’s stage manager, a pretty young thing who found Jesus just last weekend. Thus, when Darren arrives at rehearsal a few minutes late, Melissa tells him not to worry. “I had my Bible with me,” she tells him, “so I wasn’t alone.” There’ll be no mention of the Zodiac or clowns when Melissa is around. “They’re both pagan,” she elucidates.
Vance (Guilford Adams)—the cast slacker, though no slacker in the erection department. Always willing to tell you how many inches he’s packing, Vance proudly announces that he’s semi-erect at all times. No wonder he gets to play a top man in the show’s big production number, “The Bottom And The Top Man.”
Janice (Abby Travis)—an honest-to-goodness Ovation award winner, a feat which prompts Melissa to comment, “I can’t believe Janice is even doing this level of theater.” When complimented on how good she looks today, the actress reveals her slimming technique. (“I had a tapeworm.”) Lesbian Janice isn’t too thrilled about her character’s name. “So when did it become Aunt Feller in the script?” she wonders. “Why don’t you just call her Aunt Cuntface?” (Writer and star eventually settle on Aunt Lez.)
Patrick (Jonathan Palmer)—the sole straight member of the cast, a tall, balding gent who arrives at rehearsal on Day One fresh from a one-night stand in Koreatown, “and I came here without showering.” (All right, maybe not so fresh.) More than once, Patrick lets it be known that though amenable to enacting the script’s man-on-man kissing scene, he will not take his costar’s tongue down his throat.
Kitty (Danielle Kennedy)—the show’s “second-rate hunt-and-peck accompanist” (and middle-aged mother of a special needs child). Kitty is now 200 pounds lighter than she used to be, and proudly announces that she sold all that excess skin to burn victims.
Clay (Cody Chappel)—the twink brought in to replace Darren in the lead role of Whorey, Darren having gotten a bit long in the tooth for the role. (“I think you’re perfect for the part—ten years ago!” Arthur tells the now ex-Whorey.)
As for Oklahomo! (the musical within the play), it features such memorable takeoffs on the R&H originals as “Oh, What a Beautiful Penis” and “The Bottom and the Top Man Should Be Friends,” the latter featuring lyrics like “Butt men bounce on the leather daddies” and “The other guy likes to fill that hole.” Agnes de Mille’s famous dream ballet is now “The Butt Ballet,” and the Box Social has turned into the Cock Social.
As Oklahomo! (the play itself) continues in a series of brief scenes, a walkout will be threatened, an attempt at religious conversion will be made, songs and dances will be rehearsed, a reconciliation will be proposed, pot will get smoked, coke (aka Cousin Carol) will get snorted, a nervous breakdown will be had, an ass will get plowed, a foot will get broken, and the Grim Reaper will strike. All this in less than sixty minutes.
One of the biggest pleasures for me in this return to Oklahomo! was seeing new (and often very different types of) actors take over the wacky roles Tanner has written. In fact only Tanner (looking nothing like his long-haired, bearded doppelganger of the 2005 production) and Coughenour are returning, and Coughenour, having outgrown the role of Clay, now assumes the role of Daren.
Tanner is exactly the bundle of manic energy that one would expect the real-life writer/director of Oklahomo! to be, and Coughenour fits just as comfortably into Darren’s tattooed skin as he did into Clay’s. Palmer, whose dramatic work in A House Without Walls gained him praise on StageSceneLA a few years ago, proves himself an excellent dry comedic actor as the “no-tongue-allowed” Patrick, and current Ovation nominee Kennedy is a hoot as the raspy-voiced Kitty. Travis makes a particularly strong impression as Janice, both as comedienne and singer.
This incarnation of Oklahomo! marks the reunion of Teen Girl stars Taylor, Adams, and Chappell. As ultra-perky born-again Melissa, the terrific Taylor proves her versatility in a role which is a far cry from her Ovation-nominated turn as Teen Girl’s punk ex-babysitter. It’s also about as different from one-of-a-kind Tanner regular Maile Flanagan’s 2005 performance as Melissa as Laurel was to Hardy. As he did in Teen Girl, Adams proves himself a unique comedic talent, and Chappell once again excels at mixing sweet with quirky.
Since Oklahomo! takes place inside a small theater, the bare bones of the Women Behind Bars set work fine, with only a few chairs and a table brought on as they would be for an actual rehearsal. Lighting by Matthew Denman does the job well, and includes a “special rape light” for a “special rape” sequence.
Though Oklahomo!’s under-60-minute running time is just long enough for a 10:30 show, the play could still benefit from an extra song-and-dance or two, as it would be fun to see more of the musical-within-the-play. Also, the show’s downbeat ending is, well, kind of … a downer.
Still, with as talented and uninhibited cast as has been assembled here, and with writer/director Tanner’s odd but entertaining sense of humor center-stage, Oklahomo! ends up great fun, the perfect “after party” for anyone who’s just spent time with those Women Behind Bars.
Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
November 27, 2009