ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Justin Tanner on the family traumas of 'Procreation'

The director David Schweizer is rehearsing the large cast of "Procreation," Justin Tanner's new play about, guess what, a hilariously dysfunctional, lower-middle-class clan in a nondescript suburb of Los Angeles. This milieu has been Tanner's rich playground for as long as he's been writing — two decades now.


FOR THE RECORD:
Justin Tanner: An article in Sunday's Arts and Book section about playwright Justin Tanner refers to an actor who appeared in Tanner's play "Voice Lessons" as French Smith. His name is French Stewart. —


Schweizer, a slim, silver-haired man with large, soulful eyes and a mellifluous voice, wants the actors to re-play a scene, going back to "the outburst."

"Which outburst?" asks the actress Patricia Scanlon.

This is a play in which people say things out loud that most family members only think. "You kids have been an enormous disappointment to me," says a mother, calmly and with a smile, to her brood. One daughter describes her mom as "that twisted succubus standing next to you" and later is driven to yell: "You're gonna die first, Mom, get used to it!"

Tanner often directs his own work, which is rife with lightning-fast and overlapping repartee reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. But this time Schweizer has taken the helm, and he is parsing each character's emotional sand trap with surgical precision. Tanner, who is standing in as understudy for an absent actor, looks pained as he watches Schweizer direct the cast.

"I don't like to see how the sausage is made," he says.

In "Procreation," accusations fly like missiles and secrets are revealed about as often as a "Days of Our Lives" highlight reel. In another scene, Andy (Brendan Broms) annoys his gay brother Trey (Danny Schmitz) when he says, "no offense, but gay sex has no place in a house where children live." Trey counters by reminding Andy that he was fired from his high-school teaching job for "banging one of your students."

Andy responds with a quick "That was never proven!"

When the scene is over, Schweizer stares down at his script on a podium in front of him and takes a few moments to find the proper language for his "note." All eyes are on him as he thinks. "Brendan," he finally says to the actor playing Andy, the former teacher, "this is your chance to show that you actually did do it." He waits a moment to let the idea sink it. "Try it again," he tells the actor.

This time Broms injects the line — "that was never proven!" — with a breezy, false-sounding nonchalance, which, indeed, makes the scene funnier.

As painful as it is for the playwright to watch another man direct his work, Tanner is grateful that Schweizer stepped in. To Tanner, 45, many of the play's jokes come at a cost, and he is not eager to have to spend every day at rehearsals.

"This is a play I could not have written when either of my parents were still alive," he says over a Mexican meal at El Arco Iris, his favorite restaurant near to the Echo Park Craftsman house he shares with musician Kristian Hoffman.

He has written about his mother, Sally (she later changed her name to Catherine Heath), before, but never as nakedly as now, in "Procreation." Sally/Catherine died in 2004.

In "Pot Mom," a comedy from 1994, Tanner offered up a sweeter, funnier version of his mom. But, he says, she had "an acerbic wit that wasn't really funny," and usually its target was one of her four children, and in front of company.

"Procreation" features a cast of 13. The youngest of the characters is Gavin, 14, a closeted, witty, overweight kid who is desperately trying to find a toehold in the whirlpool of his manic family.

"I am that fat, bed-wetting kid," says Tanner. "Only I didn't have the self-assurance that Gavin has. I wanted to rewrite history. I was mocked in high school. I had tits. I hated being in my body. I had a horrible Afro and wore broken glasses with tape on them. I was breaking them so often that my parents stopped getting me new ones."

Like Gavin, he was spanked by his mom until fairly late in life, up to the time he was a freshman in high school. "She would say — I only spank you for lying. But I knew that wasn't true, and I lied all the time to avoid getting spanked."

He remembers the feeling he had as a kid when he would come home from school and see his mother's car in the driveway. "My heart would sink," he says. "I knew I wouldn't have just a few moments of peace after school. To this day, I tense up when I'm at home and hear a car pull up and the sound of the door opening."

And yet Tanner manages to make all of this very, very funny. Says Schweizer: "He's in complete charge of his writing gift at this point. So that he can claim all of the pain and frustration and heartbreak he had to survive as a child and convert it into his playwriting voice — which is scrappy, devoid of a shred of self-pity, and very dark," he says, adding: "There is no comic masterpiece that's not deeply painful."

And the play is a family affair in another way. Tanner has always attracted a cadre of actors who are dedicated to him and his work. Some of them, such as Mark Ruffalo, Laurie Metcalf and French Smith, are well known in film and TV (Metcalf and French starred in last year's Tanner play, "Voice Lessons"). "Procreation" includes some actors who have been playing Tanner scenarios for two decades, such as Andy Daley and Jon Palmer. And virtually all of them have been appearing in "Ave 43," an ongoing online soap opera told in short video bursts, written and directed by the playwright. (it can be seen on YouTube.com).

And so the cast of "Procreation" has essentially been working together for a year now. "We're a family, like the Flying Wallendas," says Tanner. "No one thinks I can necessarily get them a paying job in TV, but they like my work because they get to say stuff onstage that is an actor's dream."

Tanner thinks of his troupe rather like the characters in "The Sopranos." "You knew how they would have a party, and it would just be all of them? There would be no outsiders? That's what it's like. It's just us."

So, in many ways, "Procreation" is a homecoming for a Los Angeles playwright who never moved away.

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