They Are Women, Hear 'Em Howl

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

There's this new drug everybody's talking about--you know the one. If you've forgotten the name of it, take a look at every other headline in the paper. It's for men. It's blue. It's a comedian's dream. According to medical reports, it's the best thing to happen to the sexually challenged American male since the little red Corvette.

But it takes no prescription, in fact, no pill at all, to change your ordinary, run-of-the-mill female into a Coyote Woman.

It's happening every weekend at Hollywood's Cast Theatre, where "Coyote Woman," the latest work by prolific Los Angeles playwright Justin Tanner, is running through July 14. All it takes is a scratch from an errant coyote during a jog in Griffith Park to turn Janet--a needy, irritating young Silver Lake secretary who clings to her engagement ring like a life raft--into the vodka-swilling, chain-smoking, all-night-partying, profanity-hurling Coyote Woman.

And, from a technical standpoint, all it takes to turn the secretary into the slut is for sweet-faced, blond Laurel Green, who plays Janet, to be replaced onstage by the taller, darker, badder Thea Constantine, in a black satin mini-dress emblazoned with a cross of red sequins, whose throaty pack-a-day voice is part of her persona both onstage and off. In performance, the rest of the characters appear completely unaware that they are seeing two very different people.

"Coyote Woman is not a role model," drawled Constantine during a recent conversation on the "Coyote Woman" set, which depicts a typical Silver Lake apartment. Her observations tend to begin in a nasal monotone and then to dissolve into a Coyote Woman howl of laughter. She unfailingly manages to crack herself up.

Each weekend night, Green and Constantine--both part of the charmed circle of actors who are regulars in Tanner's offbeat plays at the Cast--spend equal time either in full view of the audience, or hiding behind doors or kitchen counters on the set, sometimes crawling on hands and knees to be ready to pop up at a moment's notice when Janet goes Coyote, or vice versa.

Green, who has starred in "12 or 13" Tanner plays in the past decade--Constantine has done seven--said that Tanner's original plan was to have Green play both Janet and Coyote Woman. "That was really fun for me, because I got to do what Thea does now," she said. "I did sort of a bad Sally Kellerman impression, you know what I mean? My voice was real jazzy--like, I was trying to be real sexy.

"But because of the direction that Justin and Diana [Gibson, artistic director of the Cast Theatre] wanted to take the play, it could only work with Thea doing the part.

"Initially, Justin asked: 'Are you upset that I took this opportunity away?' At first, I was, but when we started working on the play, I realized that there was so much meat for my part of the Coyote Woman, so much that I could bring to it, that it ended up being perfect."

As for Constantine, "I couldn't have done it the other way, either," she said. "I don't think I could really do the Janet thing--it would be really bizarre. I think everybody's got a certain range. I was never gonna be an ingenue." She offered her wolf-laugh.

"I remember when I was, like, 24, at my manager's office or something, and I'm looking at this part for the wide-eyed girl, and I'm like, 'What about that?' And he shakes his head. 'One look in your eyes, and it's all over.' There's a lot of Coyote Woman in me."

Green noted that she and Constantine were destined to play good girl / bad girl someday. Green's grandmother, Dorothy Green, and Constantine's mother, Julianna McCarthy, both had roles on the soap opera "The Young & the Restless" for more than 10 years. Green's grandmother was always singing the praises of her sweet young granddaughter, whereas Constantine's mom wrung her hands at the escapades of the young and restless Thea.

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Women--and some theater critics--observe that Tanner has a knack for writing female characters, due to his keen ear and powers of observation. His ability has its dark side, however. "Sometimes, Justin is just like, 'Have fun, party,' all that stuff--but you don't realize that he is taking in every single word, and then pretty soon your own story will pop up in a play," Constantine said.

Green nodded, blushing. "I remember I told him something that was really personal once, and it popped up in one of the plays. We were doing a reading, and I didn't know. And all of a sudden, we got to the story, and my face either turned bright red, or completely white, I can't remember which. I was just mortified--I thought, everybody knows it's me. I will never say which story. It's too embarrassing."

Green said she has never felt typecast by Tanner--although Constantine notes that all of her own Tanner characters are given to multiple cigarettes. And Green's often exist in a state of high anxiety, go on weird diets and, of course, are always given ample opportunity to offer Green's trademark hysterical scream.

Tanner said he decided to write "Coyote Woman," because "I had never seen a female werewolf," but added that women characters have always flowed more easily from his pen. "When I write men, they are either complete creeps, or lovable loners, or nerds. I see more depth in women than I do in men, more possibilities for levels and layers."

But Green added that Janet's desperation to hold onto a man--her fiance is the dull-as-cardboard Cliff, (played by Jonathan Palmer) an animal control officer who can offer the security of his own house in the nirvana of Glendale--strikes a chord with her own life. After three years in a steady relationship, she is now (insert scream here) dating in L.A.

"This is so easy for me to connect with, because I've had those several bad relationships that I'm sure all women have had, where we've put so much hope into this one man, we think that we desperately have to have this man in our lives to fulfill these unmet needs," she mused.

"And then, all of a sudden--I can only speak for myself, but--once you recognize, 'This isn't the man for me,' you start to do things that push him away, even though you might not recognize that you are doing it. Until finally you are able to say, 'Enough, I don't want to be in this relationship anymore,' and walk away," she continues. "I think that's what pushes [Janet] over the edge, and she manifests this alter ego.

"Sometimes, when I think, 'Ooh, I've been single for two years,' I am so glad, I am OK, because I think . . . "

"It could be Cliff," Constantine deadpanned, finishing her sentence.

Meanwhile, as Green struggles with singlehood, Constantine is shocked to find herself in a nice, traditional marriage to a musician, living in an area she calls "East West Hollywood."

"I've got, like, this whole little happy marriage," she said, in a tone one might use to observe: "I have two heads."

"This is my second marriage," she adds, "and I was really positive after my first marriage that I would never get married again, I would never even live with somebody, all these rules--and then I was just supposed to be roommates with this guy, and we fell in love.

"I thought, 'Oh no, what am I going to do?' And then I thought, 'You made up these rules. You can break these rules.' "

Added Green, "With Janet, she smokes, she drinks, she goes out and picks up the most disgusting guy in a bar--these are all signs that she doesn't want to get married. She needs help, because she is not ready to take on the responsibilities of being a wife. It's hokey, but she really does need to learn how to love herself, to be comfortable in her own skin."

Tanner's message of learning to break the rules--as Janet does when she transforms into Coyote Woman--lead both women to loosely characterize "Coyote Woman" as a feminist play. And in some ways, the show also speaks, or howls, to the would-be Coyote Man.

"There is always going to be this side of you, and if you don't tend to it, it will take over and get out of hand," Constantine said. "It is sort of like what midlife crisis does . . . if you had just paid a little more attention to that, maybe it wouldn't have been so extreme.

"That part of people just starts screaming."

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"COYOTE WOMAN," Cast Theatre, 800 El Centro Ave., Hollywood. Dates: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 14. Prices: $20. Phone: (213) 462-0265.

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