COMMENTARY : Auteur of Aimlessness : Local hero Justin Tanner turns his vision on the absurdities of American life with a pace that recalls Hawks and a sweetness that evokes Mike Leigh.

<i> Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic</i>

What if Arthur Miller felt there was nothing shameful about being in the lower middle class and he had a sense of humor? And he was 30? Would he be Justin Tanner?

No, better let a young writer more concerned with morals, like Jon Robin Baitz, inherit the heavy mantle of the American Playwright. Tanner’s scenarios are so slender, and his sense of a moral imperative so practically nonexistent, that compared to Miller or Baitz it might seem easy to dismiss his California stories as footnotes in American drama.

Easy perhaps, but very definitely wrong.

As should be apparent to any repeat visitor to the Cast Theatre’s “Collected Plays of Justin Tanner”--nine works written between 1989 and this year--Tanner’s plays are something altogether new. Although they may resemble sitcom or the clever if more upscale comedies of Paul Rudnick, they are clearly neither. Now comes the hard part. What are they?


The answer lies in Tanner’s distinctive eye for the small absurdities of American life and the hairpin turns in human relations that occur without reason or happen too quickly to analyze.

He combines a radical disinclination to judge with a perfect ear for the dialogue of characters who are drifting along, leading lives either too unimportant for most dramatists to take notice of, or impotent enough for others to use as fodder for set pieces on American aimlessness.

One of his best plays, “Bitter Women” (1993), chronicles the adventures of Nancy (Lauren Wylie), a young woman living on her own for the first time in a low-rent apartment in Silver Lake (where Tanner also resides).

Shy and hopelessly inexperienced, Nancy seems completely unequipped to deal with the simple things life will throw her, like the landlady from hell (played by the Cast’s artistic director Diana Gibson) who diverges suddenly from inconsequential friendly chatter to give Nancy the “spiel”--a list of hard and fast rules that ends with something like “. . . and if you don’t pay the rent on time, I will sue you. And if you think I’m Mom, well, you’ll find out I’m not.”

Then there’s the roommate, also from hell, played by Tanner’s muse, Laurel Green, the only actor to appear in all nine plays. Her Kim is a silky-voiced, duplicitous aerobics instructor who insists on color-coding the toilet paper to keep clear whose turn it is to buy it, and who presents her meek roommate with that dreaded instrument of pre-independence, the chore wheel. Worse, Kim pretends to care about Nancy’s problems while sleeping with the one guy Nancy covets.

The neighbors are a bit more decent: Mona (Thea Constantine) offers to help Nancy out of a jam with the money she makes from a relatively lucrative phone-sex business. But when Nancy can’t pay it back on time, she finds she might as well have borrowed from Don Corleone.


Although Mona walks around in cheap lingerie with a cordless phone at all times, Nancy is as oblivious to the nature of Mona’s business as she is to everything else.

But she does adjust, and even triumphs, and she finds a true pal in Angela the pizza delivery girl (played by Tanner regular Dana Schwartz, who has the doleful, big-eyed stare of British film comedienne Eleanor Bron). After much common betrayal and everyday mayhem, here’s the big finale: Nancy and Angela get a double date with a couple of cute guys to ride the Ferris wheel at Santa Monica pier.

Tanner keeps scenarios such as this one vivid and interesting by making whatever oddball thing is at stake as heart-rending as it would be to the innocent living through it. As an auteur (Tanner directs his plays as well) he most resembles the British film director Mike Leigh, whose loving portraits of the eccentric lower middle class lit up “Life Is Sweet” and “High Hopes.”

Tanner portraits are loving but never sentimental. His characters lie, wheedle, blame, betray, are tremendously insincere and consume drugs with all the guilt of a group of 17-year-old Dead Heads. Yet they are endearing. They are capable of totally unexpected and unnecessary acts of tenderness. And in the snap-crackle pace of dialogue, as fast and smart as in a Howard Hawks comedy, Tanner gives you reams of information that neither he nor the characters have any interest in dwelling on. His throw-away lines constitute what other playwrights will structure an entire scene around.

And most refreshing of all, Tanner seems entirely uninterested in using his characters to make any larger points whatsoever. Recreational drug use is not evidence of empty or empty-headed lives, but an ingenious dramatic device to form immediate intimacies and to accelerate already established relationships. And as it sometimes does in real life, but then only to the participants, drugs make things funnier.

‘P ot Mom” features a friend ship between two women based almost entirely on the blanket of comfort and fun that marijuana can bring to people who hate their jobs. The American family that Tanner portrays in this 1994 play would give Dan Quayle a coronary.


Richard (Jon Palmer), the truck driver who is not married to Patty (Ellen Ratner), hates Patty’s grown kids because they constantly steal his pot. The kids would like nothing better than to get rid of Richard and his creepy dog, Skipper. Lisa (Green), the bratty daughter, likes to parade in front of Richard in a towel just to unnerve him. There is no dark Oprah-guest slant to all this, just teen-age malice.

Patty and her best friend, Michelle (Elizabeth Ruscio), love to watch “I Love Lucy” while blissfully passing the bong, and Tanner throws in a situation tailor-made for the art form that Lucy helped pioneer.

Lorraine (Schwartz), Patty’s studious daughter, dreams of joining Corral de Tierra, a club for girls from better families. To Lorraine, it would mean the world if she could join and “play tennis with the shoes with the little balls on them,” but first she needs to be approved, and that means her family will have to air out the house and act normal for the visit from a two-girl acceptance committee.

True to form, the acceptance rite is a disaster, though not because the family doesn’t rally. The household will experience one more huge upheaval, a brilliantly funny one, before the end of the play, which says that a mom and her two daughters can face the uncertain and probably bleak future with hope if they can huddle together in front of “I Love Lucy” with a stolen joint.

Tanner plays Troy, Patty’s sarcastic son who works at the Northridge triplex. When Troy says, “Yes, I’m an usher but you know I want to direct,” he’s not actually exhibiting ambition. He’s merely reveling in the fact that he has a gift for parody and, if he chooses, can do absolutely nothing with it.

Tanner’s earlier plays, such as the 1989 “Still Life With Vacuum Salesman” (formerly, “Barbie and Ken at Home”--before Mattel objected) shows him slightly more willing to make points about his characters as well as some of the people who slammed the playwright’s head against the lockers at North Salinas High. On the eve of their 10th high school reunion, Barbie (Green) and Ken (Mark Ruffalo) are no longer the prom queen and king. He is now an oil-stained mechanic pathetically attached to his high-school wrestling trophies; she works the graveyard shift at a local donut shop. Their fights are really nasty, and their apartment is by far the worst in the entire Tanner canon. Bags of trash and cast-off syrofoam cups litter the living room and an extra large Diet Pepsi bottle stands in for a table leg.


As dark as this play is, “Still Life” overflows with the piquant details that make every Tanner play buoyant. After discovering, from the back of the Ritz Cracker box, that “you can bake an apple pie without any apples!” Barbie gleefully sets to work, sans meat, on some Ritz burgers for Ken. As she spoons out the glop for her horrified husband, Tanner goes Roseanne one step better for summing up everything that is depressing and hilarious about white-trash America. And he does it without condescension, and with infinite amusement.

Tanner maintains empathy for his characters’ aimlessness while somehow finding the ambition to make art out of it. What Hollywood might do with him, or TV, or even stages larger and wealthier than the charming, dog-eared Cast, I couldn’t say. In a way, I don’t want to know. “The Collected Plays of Justin Tanner” is something perfect just as it is.*

* The plays: “Bitter Women,” Wednesday, 8 p.m., through Nov. 30. “Still Life With Vacuum Salesman,” Wednesday and Thursday, 10:30 p.m., through Dec. 1. “Teen Girl,” Thursday, 8 p.m., through Dec. 1. “The Tent Show,” Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m., through Dec. 4. “Party Mix,” Friday, 10:30 p.m., through Dec. 2. “Pot Mom,” Saturday, 8 p.m., indefinitely. “Zombie Attack!” Saturday, 10:30 p.m., indefinitely. “Happytime Xmas,” Sunday, 7 p.m., through Dec. 25.

The Cast Theater, 804 N. El Centro Blvd. Hollywood, (213) 462-0265. Single tickets, $15. Double features, $25. Eight-show package, $75.