It's AN Oscar moment of sorts for actor Greg Mortensen. When the Elephant Theatre Company world-premieres "Tooth and Nail" this weekend, he not only tackles the play's lead role, but in so doing, he also gets to take a sideways stab at one of the all-time greats: Peter O'Toole in his Academy Award-nominated performance in 1968's "The Lion in Winter."
"This is climbing Everest in a way," says the Juilliard-trained thespian.
When audiences meet Mortensen's Gerald Laney, he's mild-mannered, middle-aged and despairing. Slowly dying of a brain tumor, he feels his personality slipping away as well. That is until he falls, hits his head, wakes up as his favorite character in his favorite movie (O'Toole's King Henry II) and goes off his medication.
In one fell swoop, Gerald springs back to life just as he knowingly shortens his time on Earth. And then -- because it's a comedy penned by company member Gena Acosta -- his three adult daughters and two new neighbors arrive for a dinner party.
"From Day 1, I said [Acosta] has a voice I've not heard before," says Elephant's producing director Lindsay Allbaugh, who also directs "Tooth." "There's no mistaking who wrote it. It's bizarre, off-the-wall comedic in a way I hadn't heard a female be."
"Tooth" actually took root years ago, when Acosta accidentally caught a few minutes of "Lion" on television.
"I found myself riveted," she says. "I loved [screenwriter] James Goldman's language."
She also fell for its magnetic star. To transport O'Toole's Henry to suburban New Jersey would be like "setting a wild dog loose in this room," Acosta says. "I really wanted to see what would happen and how people would react."
As many local playwrights cast adrift in a city of screenplays know, such a pure literary impulse takes one only so far. But "Tooth" found a home as part of Elephant's season-long series showcasing the most recent offerings by Angeleno playwrights.
"A lot of the 99-seat theaters are strongly committed to premiering new work," Allbaugh notes. "But we don't just want to world-premiere a New York playwright; we're making a concerted effort to support the L.A. scene."
To do that, a couple years ago Elephant inaugurated a quasi-monthly reading series to which writers could bring plays in progress. And Acosta thinks that's what made the road to her first full-length production so smooth.
"I was able to put out a horrible rough draft, and they believed in it," she says.
And though she would have written it regardless, with a little help from the Elephant, she says, she wrote it faster and better, nudged on her by her cohorts until "I believed in it and really started to have something to say with it."
They may have hit on something.
Elephant's resident playwright Tim McNeil's winter premiere "Anything" won the company some positive reviews. And Elephant's production of "In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings" by New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis garnered 2007 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards for writing, production, lighting and scene design.
That's a consequence of the company's craftsmen approach, says Allbaugh.
"We aren't doing the most highly theatrical, circus-y stuff. We're a blue-collar theater. [Artistic director] David [Fofi] says he wants us to do theater for the people we hang out with at our favorite bar, the people we work with, our families. For us, it's about the human connection, the craft of acting and production values that are spot on."
'TOOTH AND NAIL'
WHERE: Lillian Theatre, 1078 Lillian Way, Hollywood
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; Ends June 15
PRICE: $25 Fri. and Sat., $20 Thu. and Sun. $30 opening night Champagne reception.
INFO: (323) 960-4410; www.plays411.com/tooth