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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

Mom can get plastered, turn ugly and ruin the house at her birthday party. My work is done.— Hope
(L-R) Michael Halpin, Melissa Denton and Kody Batchelor
(Photo: Ed Krieger)
If reality shows tackled such a topic — and they probably do or will — producers should pit the members of two majorly screwed up families &mdash siblings, parents, kids and grand-kids if applicable &mdash against each other with a significant prize at stake (a lifetime of therapy?). The first contestants in this dysfunct-off should be the Westons, Fordhams and Aikens of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and Ruby's brood (no last names) of Justin Tanner's newest dark comedy Procreation now in its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre. Let the booze flow; let the Xannex roll.

As original a voice as Tanner is and has been in a career that's produced 20 plays, here's betting he saw and digested Letts's play before putting pen to Procreation. Family foibles (gulp!) often make for the ripest stage fodder, and if even 1/10th of what goes down in the 80 minutes of Procreation is "semi-autobiographical," then the protean Tanner (whose previous efforts run the thematic gamut from Pot Mom to Oklahomo to Voice Lessons) is lucky both to be alive and to be in possession of two lifetime's worth of dramatic material.

Osage County was Tennessee Williams writ modern, epic and nearly operatic in its darkness. Procreation, under the very steady hand of David Schweitzer and an unusually large cast, will have audiences laughing while they cringe; the two reflexes are pretty much inseparable. So awful and yet cheerfully miserable are the children of Ruby, so clueless and so damned and so pitch perfect is the conundrum that Tanner faces them with that their awfulness is popcorn addictive.

Schweitzer's cast, a lucky 13 members strong, is so dead on in look, in tone and in intent that we don't need a scorecard nor do we shrug when an ex-boyfriend drops in with 10 minutes left for a cameo. It can be no easy task to teach seven or eight actors a unique means of shivering in "Eew!" induced horror. These players do it, and a whole lot more. They are playing their characters straight, boils and all, no sympathy requested (or, in many cases, deserved). It's not surprising that many of these performers are veterans of Tanner's plays and of his web series, Ave 43. They know the Tanner dance.

The occasion is a family reunion for the birthday (number unspecified) of matriarch Ruby (played by Danielle Kennedy), a reputed drunk and by all accounts, a rather awful parent. In this regard, she's got competition. Her daughter Hope (Melissa Denton) and Hope's husband Michael (Michael Halpin) are hosting, albeit not graciously. Hope doesn't believe in cleaning; newspapers, magazines and food containers grow like algae. They resent shelling out for the liquor and are at wits end over the girth of their 15 year old son, Gavin (Kody Bachelor) who gets whipped with a belt when he mouths off and wets the bed. Gavin is the only third generation we meet. Hope and Michael's twin daughters are off at a choral competition, and brother Timmy is in the hospital with a broken neck after a car accident. Tellingly, nobody wants to go visit him.

Hope's siblings have their own problems. Sister Deanie (Patricia Scanlon) is on edge and clearly miserable. Her husband Bruce (Andy Marshall Daley) hasn't had a job in years and is racking up parking tickets and calls from bill collectors. Plus, everyone makes jokes about his awful breath. Brother Andy (Brendan Broms) is freshly separated after he got drunk and soiled his couch (again!). Right back in the game, he sets his gonads on Alison (Chloe Taylor), the teen-age drug dealer who has given a ride to Hope, Deanie and Andy's brother Trey (Danny Scmitz). Trey is gay and will use his sister's living room couch as a trysting spot.

Ruby, when she arrives in the world's tackiest denim jumpsuit (great unaccredited costume work), might actually be the clan's most, what? progressive character. She sports a facelift and a new husband Perry (Jonathan Palmer) who is half her age and potentially an oily con man who's patronizing to every person he meets. Perry and Ruby have a couple of pieces of juicy news the specifics of which will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say, those aforementioned unique cringes will be put to use.

Playwright Tanner may see himself as Gavin, an attention starved misfit in a family of misfits hiding under the table in the dark and watching as dirty secret after dirty secret sees the light of day. In a different playwright's hands, much of this might seem cruel or hugely self indulgent. Here, the monstrousness of the remarks, circumstance and general behavior are richly comic. We are, as previously noted, to take these characters and their problems seriously, but violence is never threatened and these characters seem to face the spiraling toilet bowls that has become their lives with a certain stoicism and amoral abandon. Since they do not ask for approval, it's easy enough not to give it to them.

The grimness has a light at the end, if a faint one. While Michael may be sanctimoniously stingy and Andy too on the skids to help, relief for Deanie and Bruce (who are most desperately in need) arrives when the siblings father Lawrence (Tom Fitzpatrick) is brought in from Palm Springs for a kind of intervention. Yes, even with this clan occasionally a family member can help. Tanner also makes a point of showing that, as messed up as they themselves might be, the play's outsiders (Alison and Trey's pick-up Chris) seem to have stronger and healthier family ties than Ruby's family. Unless either of their last names were Weston, they could hardly be worse.
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Procreation by Justin Tanner
Directed by David Schweitzer
Production Stage Manager: Brande Crockett Cast: Kody Batchelor (Gavin) Melissa Denton (Hope) Michael Halpin (Michael), Patricia Scanlon (Deanie), Andy Marshall Daley (Bruce), Brendan Broms (Andy), Danny Schmitz (Trey), Chloe Taylor (Alison), Danielle Kennedy (Ruby), Jonathan Palmer (Perry), Gary Holland (Chris), Tom Fitzpatrick (Lawrence), Cody Chappel (Kent)
Set and Lighting Design: Gary Guidinger
Sound Design: Kristian Hoffman
Running Time: 1 hours 20 minutes with no intermission
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
From July 16 to August 15
Fri. @ 8pm, Sat. @ 7 and 9:30pm., Sun @ 7 pm
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on July 24 performance.
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