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Exposing an L.A. Secret : Justin Tanner--the man who gave the world ‘Zombie Attack!’ and ‘Pot Mom’--is just happy to be writing plays. But, hey, a little global attention wouldn’t hurt.

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<i> Don Shirley is a Times staff writer</i>

If you call the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, the man who answers the phone may very well be the same guy who writes the plays. And directs them.

Besides being a remarkably prolific playwright-director, Justin Tanner works part-time in the box office for the Cast--which consists of two small theaters, one seating 99, the other 65. He does the spreadsheets on the receipts from his own shows.

Eight of those shows are going up at the Cast in the next two weeks--seven revivals and the brand-new “The Tent Show,” under the umbrella title “The Collected Plays of Justin Tanner.” If you order a ticket to one of them, the playwright himself might respond with a “cool.” Or a “groovy.”

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Tanner, who just turned 30, is L.A.’s coolest, grooviest playwright. Listen to the titles of the pop comedies, all post-1988, included in the Tannerfest at the Cast:

“Teen Girl.” “Pot Mom.” “Bitter Women.” “Party Mix.” “Happytime Xmas.” And then there’s “Zombie Attack!,” L.A.’s longest-running show, with more than 380 performances.

The snappy titles alone are enough to sell tickets, according to Diana Gibson, Tanner’s producer and proprietor of the Cast. Only Tanner’s early “Still Life With Vacuum Salesman” exceeds his two-word title rule, and its moniker was Tanner’s second choice--adopted only after the dollmaking Mattel Corp. threatened legal action over the original title, “Barbie and Ken at Home.”

Yet Tanner’s titles are hardly his only claim to fame--and their cartoonish sound may mislead some potential fans about what Tanner does. He usually writes on a small, realistic canvas--generally about domestic life in his hometown of Salinas or the young, single apartment dwellers of L.A.

“I want to write about tiny, minor betrayals and victories,” he said during an interview at his apartment in Silver Lake. Despite the titles, Tanner’s work isn’t “high-concept.”

Among those converts who were initially put off by the titles is director David Schweizer, who staged the current mainstage play at the Mark Taper Forum, “The Waiting Room.” Schweizer skipped Tanner’s plays for years, he said, “because I thought they were student, goofball comedies.”

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Schweizer said that when he finally went to his first Tanner play, “Teen Girl,” “I was bowled over. At the root is the fact that he has a really good ear for how people talk and relate to each other.” Yet Tanner isn’t merely a tape recorder in Schweizer’s view--”He has one of the most completely developed voices I’ve run across. His sensibility is sly yet tender. His work isn’t soothing or sentimental--he has a feisty vision. But it’s also very humane. He has compassion for his extremely fragile, dubious characters.”

Schweizer also lauded Tanner’s direction. “He has an amazing sense of rhythm. Everything about a Tanner play seems impeccable. The actors are perfect. The cruddy set is perfect. The way he choreographs his actors is like Preston Sturges on acid.”

Alan Ayckbourn and Moliere are other writers to whom Tanner has been compared by L.A. critics. For the moment, however, he remains very much an L.A. writer--almost an L.A. secret. His plays have never been staged by anyone else--or outside Hollywood. Except for two early plays that he now virtually disowns, his work has never played any theater other than the Cast. Even within the L.A. theater community, such bigwigs as the Taper’s Gordon David son and the Odyssey’s Ron Sossi have never seen Tanner’s work.

Tanner is rhapsodic in his praise for the dramaturgical and moral support of the Cast’s Gibson and the financial as well as creative support of Andy Daley, his collaborator and set designer since college days, who has become Gibson’s partner at the Cast. Their work together has brought Tanner writing jobs on two feature films and one TV episode--but those industry jobs have been largely unhappy experiences, and he said he’s much more comfortable at the Cast.

S till, Tanner, Gibson and Schweizer all say that Tanner’s work is ready for larger venues and wider exposure. Ironically, noted Schweizer, “the lack of obscurity and artiness” in Tanner’s work may delay his arrival on the national scene, which sometimes prizes complex and splashy work over the intimate and the immediately accessible. But if Tanner breaks through, Schweizer foresees a day when resident theaters all over America will want to do his plays in their “young people’s comedy” slot.

Tanner has mixed feelings about those prospects. “I want to be like Alan Ayckbourn, with a check coming in the mail every day,” he acknowledged. But, he added, “I need to get national attention first”--on his own terms. He rejected an offer for his yuppie/horror spoof “Zombie Attack!” to be done in New York by someone who was approaching it “as pure camp. Eventually I’m going to have to let go of my plays, but I’m not going to have my New York debut blown by some stylist director.”

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And if that prevents his work from getting wider exposure, so be it. Even if other productions never take off, “I’d still be doing this,” Tanner said. “I have no illusions that this will make me famous.”

Making sense out of his life, not fame, is Tanner’s main motivation, he said: “Ever since I decided to write plays, I knew what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. That relieved me of a burden that many people have.” It’s probably no coincidence that as his plays have become better and won more acclaim, they also have become more hopeful.

Tanner didn’t decide to write plays until he was at Los Angeles City College. But when he was only 6 or 7, his mother Catharine Heath recalled, he wrote a story as an Easter present for her in which “the Virgin Mary had an Easter egg in her tummy. It was so archetypal. It was stunning for such a small child.”

Heath was a strong mom, Tanner said--”a very powerful guru type who ran the house” and also taught costume design at Hartnell College, a community college in Salinas. Young Justin began acting at Hartnell--while in the sixth grade, he appeared in “The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail.” As a teen-ager, he often socialized with his mother’s faculty friends. They would come over to the house, and Justin would cook dinner and play the piano.

Not for nothing is Tanner’s most recent hit titled “Pot Mom”--his own mom grew marijuana in the back yard until, she said, burglars “kept breaking in, and all they’d take was my stash.” But Heath is hardly the slacker who’s portrayed in “Pot Mom.” She spent a year in Hollywood as a costume designer for pop groups while Justin was in junior high. Now 55 and living in Redwood City south of San Francisco, she attended graduate school at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and now runs a group house for mental health patients. A Catholic convert at age 18, she became a Muslim eight years ago. Perhaps some day Tanner will write a play called “Muslim Mom.”

Tanner said his father Tom Tanner, an accountant, was generous and supportive of him in his youth. Although his parents split when he was a teen-ager, his father gave each of the four kids $3,000 to live on--which came in handy, for Tanner’s mother had just kicked Justin out of the house.

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Tanner was a troubled teen-ager. He loathed the scene at North Salinas High. “I was reviled,” he recalled. “My brother had gotten saved by Jesus in a bad way and went around spreading the gospel. By the time I got to high school three years later, my head was slammed to the lockers just by association with him.” Tanner said he and his brother still have a strained relationship.

In his junior year, Tanner talked his parents into letting him leave school in order to pursue his musical career. It seemed plausible--Justin was a precocious classical pianist and had toured Europe singing with a jazz chorale while in junior high school. Nonetheless, he soon concluded that “practicing piano six or seven hours a day was far worse than going to high school. I was basically just screwing around Salinas,” he said, when his mother kicked him out.

His father’s initial $3,000 lasted a year. Tanner considered taking a job at Foster’s Freeze. But then a better idea occurred to him. An acquaintance had been accepted into the Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College. Tanner didn’t think this person was all that talented, so he decided to audition too. He had passed his high school equivalency exam and got in. Supported by more money from his father, Tanner’s life changed.

At LACC, Tanner acted (as “Amadeus,” among other roles) and wrote music for student productions. At one point, he was kicked out for bad grades, although he returned in time to graduate in 1986. But most important, he realized that what he really wanted to do was direct--and write.

His warm memories of LACC include breaking into the theater for after-hours rehearsals with his friends, then sleeping on the stage overnight. Many of those friends are still collaborating with him. Particularly important are Daley (who co-wrote “Zombie Attack!” and is “the impetus” as well as the set designer for many of Tanner’s plays, according to Tanner) and actress Laurel Green (his “inspiration,” “the easiest access point for my writing,” and his “strongest (albeit platonic) love”).

Green, a veteran Tanner player who will tackle roles in all eight plays in the upcoming Tannerfest--almost all of which she’s played before--recalled getting to know Tanner when he asked to commute to school with her and assured her that his father would send gas money.

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Tanner and his gang did an LACC lab production of his “All You Zombies,” which was inspired by friends in Salinas. In 1987, Daley and David S. Franklin co-produced a rewritten version of “All You Zombies” at 2nd Stage in Hollywood. Now titled “Changing Channels,” the dark comedy about TV junkies earned each producer a profit of only $25, but it attracted a number of favorable reviews and the attention of Cast Theatre founder Ted Schmitt (it was later converted into “Happytime Xmas”).

Schmitt dispatched his second-in-command, Gibson, to a reading of Tanner’s second professional effort, “Red Tide.” She liked it so much that she invited Schmitt himself to the next reading. But to her dismay, she said, Tanner “had ruined it” in the rewriting. She told him so, and “he flipped out.”

“Red Tide,” about vampires with AIDS, was Tanner’s only attempt to deal with a hot topical issue. In the version produced at 2nd Stage in 1988, said Tanner, he was more or less telling everyone to stop having sex in order to stop AIDS. “I wasn’t having sex, so it was easy for me,” he recalled with a laugh. “But I was a dilettante. I got all this praise for my first play, and I thought everything I wrote was gold.

“My young playwright’s ego couldn’t take the criticism,” he said. But Schmitt and Gibson weren’t the only ones who disliked it. It was a critical and box-office bomb. Tanner’s attitude drove away even Daley.

“You couldn’t say ‘boo’ to him without him freaking out,” said Daley, who now jokes that “it was my money, and the damn ingrate had not come up with a hit.” Daley began his own set-designing career independent of Tanner.

A few months later, however, Gibson received a script from Tanner with a note that said “New Play--New Attitude.” Gibson liked what she read, and it became Tanner’s first Cast hit, “Barbie and Ken at Home” (a.k.a. “Still Life With Vacuum Salesman”). Tanner also made amends with Daley and persuaded him to design the set.

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At about the same time, the Cast’s Schmitt became ill with AIDS; he would die in 1990. Gibson, left to run the theater more or less on her own, needed help, and Daley and Tanner were there for her--especially after their “Zombie Attack!” resulted in a late-night cult hit for the the Cast.

The Tanner plays began appearing in rapid succession. Now, although the Cast continues to produce other playwrights’ work, Tanner is clearly the resident writer. Approximately a third of all Cast performances are Tanner plays, Gibson estimated. Daley is the Cast’s co-producer, and a group of actors have appeared in one Tanner play after another at the Cast. Daley and Tanner also appear on stage from time to time with Tanner appearing regularly in “Zombie Attack!” Tanner also reads incoming plays by other writers (“We’ll laugh ourselves into a frenzy over some of these weird, erudite titles”) and sometimes also works the stage manager’s booth as well as the box office.

There have been a few bumps in the road. “There is nothing I haven’t called Diana in moments of rage,” said Tanner--such as when he walked away from his one attempt to direct someone else’s play, Suzanne Lummis’ “October 22, 4004 B.C., Saturday,” leaving Gibson to finish the job. But now Tanner respects the perspective of Gibson, who had successfully produced the Lummis play a few years earlier and was, he admits, trying to protect the piece from his own misunderstanding of it.

There also have been temptations. For many years, Tanner supported himself by working as a waiter at Border Grill and Cafe Figaro--or almost didn’t support himself: “I remember scraping together 35 cents to get a newspaper and then having a nervous breakdown when the machine wouldn’t open.” Recently, however, Hollywood has provided some cash, though not much else.

G ibson once told Tanner in jest that “I’d know I had made it when Spielberg called”--and in fact, after the success of “Teen Girl,” Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment did call on Tanner to rewrite a feature film. That led to 10 pitch meetings, a six-month period before a check arrived in the mail--and a movie that was never made. A later experience on another rewrite, for Disney, was “the worst nightmare of my life,” Tanner said. “I’ll never go to Disneyland again.”

His only tolerable “industry” experience was on the new TV series “My So-Called Life.” Tanner got a writing credit on the episode that aired Sept. 9, and “they treated me like an artist,” he admitted. However, he’s not completely happy with the result, especially a post-Tanner addition of material about the death of John F. Kennedy. “I would never write about J.F.K.,” Tanner said. “I was born a year after he died, and I have nothing to say about him.”

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Likewise, he contends that older playwrights, from Neil Simon and A.R. Gurney to Terrence McNally and Wendy Wasserstein have “nothing to say to my generation.”

This is much of what excites the fortysomething Gibson about Tanner--his generational perspective that “we otherwise wouldn’t be hearing,” she said. In his work, she said, she hears from people who can’t be disillusioned because “it’s always been rotten for them, and they don’t expect anything else.”

Tanner, however, is no ardent spokesman for his age group: “I’m not into the cybernetics/computer thing or the grunge/metal thing.” Too many of his peers “want everything without having to do anything,” he said.

He dislikes what he calls the “fake real” acting style of “my so-called generation. They think it’s so real, but it’s so self-conscious it makes me queasy.” He tries to get his own troupe to simultaneously “get it out there and throw it away.” He wants the acting in his plays to have “an edge that has been buffed away.”

Tanner admitted that, like many of his peers, he often thinks in television terms “because that’s what I was raised on. But I can’t talk about certain things on TV. The only place to really tell the truth is the theater.” And because he has found such a hospitable home in the theater, he rejects much of the “nihilism” he sees around him.

“I know there is a future--I see it on stage every night,” he said. “And I’m hoping there are people like me all over the country.”*

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Vital Stats

“The Collected Plays of

Justin Tanner”

Address: Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood, (213) 462-9872

Price: $15; double features, $25; eight-show package, $75

Information: The full list of plays appears on Page 82

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