A grown son attempts to reconnect with his crotchety old man in Ty DeMartino’s first-rate dramedy Finding Fossils, a three-actor one-act which transcends soap opera through the playwright’s gift for believable dialog and a trio of superb performances at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre.

Daytime soap director Gus (Chet Grissom) has only just arrived at his family’s rustic summer home for a Fourth Of July weekend visit when the sparks start flying between father (John Gowans) and son, certainly not for the first time.

First of all, there’s the matter of the New York-based TV director’s professional name, changed (or shortened) from Augustus Monterelli to “Gus Monte” depending on who’s speaking, disgruntled father or defensive son. A casual question from dad Vincent about Gus’s “friend” prompts an angry retort. The word is “husband,” corrects Gus, who then goes on to inform Dad that he and his spouse are about to adopt the six-year-old boy they’ve been foster parenting. Vincent’s repeated insistence on referring to young Aaron as “that kid” prompts Gus to strike back with information he must certainly know will not sit particularly well with his old-fashioned Italian-American dad. Aaron is African-American.

Then there’s the matter of Gus’s deceased mother, whose empty wheelchair on the family porch serves as a reminder that Vincent had defied his wife’s stated wishes to die at home by bringing her to their summer house just before her passing a year ago, thereby depriving Gus and his sister Gia of being present at her deathbed.

Fortunately for father and son, a welcome buffer arrives in the person of good ol’ boy Johnny (Mark Costello), a friend of both and about halfway between the two in age. It’s Johnny who eagerly quizzes Gus about his soap, one which Johnny and his aged, infirm mother watch together without fail. Why is it, wonders Johnny, that when a character poses a question, it often remains unanswered until after a commercial break? What exactly is that vaguely confused look that characters inevitably sport when the soap cuts to a commercial? And won’t Gus please reveal the secret of who exactly is set to be the murderer of the longtime soap diva about to get the axe? As for Gus and his husband’s impending fatherhood, it’s Johnny who greets the news with enthusiastic congratulations, reminding Vincent that the world is no longer as it was when they were Gus’s age.

We have, of course, seen this kind of story before—and even told in a similar setting—in Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond. Like Chelsea Thayer and dad Norman, Gus’s relationship with his father has been prickly from day one. Unlike Chelsea, however, there’s no more Mom to smooth things over between father and child, to translate each one’s feelings to the other in words they can understand. And whereas the father/child relationship was just one aspect of On Golden Pond’s plot, in Finding Fossils it is DeMartino’s central focus, and it is to his credit that the playwright resists facile answers. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be talking about the play’s denouement as you exit the theater.

A playwright’s words are, of course, only as good as the actors who bring them to life, and DeMartino is fortunate indeed that Finding Fossils gets its West Coast Premiere at the Road under the nuanced direction of Suzanne Hunt. Simply put, you won’t find three finer performances than those given by Finding Fossils’ trio of stars. Gowans bravely resists every temptation to make Vincent “nice” or secretly lovable, giving us an unapologetically grouchy old man who is nonetheless never anything less than human. Grissom paints a three-dimensional portrait of a contemporary gay man whose life is not defined by his sexuality, but whose gayness remains an integral part of who he is, and the Road Theatre favorite gets an eleventh hour scene that earns deserved audience tears. Finally, there is Costello’s standout performance as Johnny, one that ought to be observed by every theater major as a textbook example of authentic, in-the-now acting boosted by unfeigned warmth, likeability and charisma that can’t be learned.

Finding Fossils is playing on the gorgeously detailed woodsy set Desma Murphy has designed for the concurrently running The Water’s Edge, and more theaters ought to follow the Road’s example of two shows-on-one set, a winner for both actors and playgoers. Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting is every bit as subtly stunning as in The Water’s Edge. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design makes delightful use of ‘60s Percy Faith-style musak and some realistic effects. Jocelyn Hublau’s costumes and Lila Waters’ props are terrific as well.

Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson are executive producers, and Costello and Tracy Maddox are producers. Kyle Bryan Hall is assistant director. Maurie Gonzales and Carina Winkler are stage managers.

Finding Fossils is the kind of play with which a nit-picker could doubtless find nits to pick, ignoring the cumulative effect of its rich characterizations and sprightly dialog. Add to that the work being done at the Road by Gowans, Grissom, and Costello, and you have an offering well worth a midweek or Sunday evening trip to the theater.

The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 8, 2012
Photo: Chris Goss

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