“Dysfunctional” would be a polite word to describe the characters dreamed up by Justin Tanner. No action goes uncriticized, no comment unjudged among the sniping family members in his new comedy.
The play is called “El Niño,” and it marks the end of a drought. Across two decades, the Los Angeles playwright delivered a play a year, including the hit character comedies “Pot Mom” and “Intervention.” But after 2011, six years piled up with no new piece.
Those absent years provided material for “El Niño,” which Rogue Machine is producing at the Met Theatre in East Hollywood.
The setting is a Craftsman-style charmer of a home in Highland Park, but don’t be deceived by the cozy surroundings (designed by John Iacovelli), least of all the prominent “Home Sweet Home” sampler.
A duffel bag has exploded clothes onto the floor beside the couch, where visiting daughter Colleen (Maile Flanagan) is encamped. Mom (Danielle Kennedy) and Dad (Nick Ullett) venture near, with Mom demanding answers and Dad quickly shifting into what seems a long-practiced role as pacifier. Colleen has been in residence for a week — plenty long enough. “So bottom line: We love you, hon, it’s been a blast,” Mom says with mock sincerity, “but let’s pack it up, huh?”
Colleen, who is 48 but reverts to about 13 around her parents, sputters with indignation, then comes clean. She’s had a blowup with her boyfriend, who threw her out, so she’s essentially homeless. Painful back and foot ailments prevent her return to make-do work as an Uber driver. These miseries pile atop career depression. She's a science-fiction writer of minor renown, and she’s been creatively blocked for a while.
Things go from bad to worse with the arrival of Colleen’s self-satisfied sister, Andrea (Melissa Denton). She might seem more pulled-together; she’s certainly a sharper dresser than Colleen, who lives in jeans and singularly unattractive T-shirts. (The clever costumes are by Halei Parker.) But Andrea is an apple who hasn’t fallen far from the tree of their brittle, cutting mother, and she isn’t improving in the company of a smugly well-to-do, casually racist boyfriend (Jonathan Palmer).
Into this pileup of bad behavior wanders a sad-sack next-door neighbor. Disheveled Kevin (Joe Keyes) might not seem to have much going for him, but the gentleness he shows to his aging, enfeebled cat indicates he might be the only person in sight with a functioning sense of humanity.
As he helps to move boxes from the family’s rain-inundated basement, he notices one of Colleen’s books and, not realizing she’s the author, expresses a fan’s appreciation for it. Wait, did a nervous attraction just develop?
Most of the actors are Tanner veterans who skillfully mine his laughs. Lisa James directs with an eye for nuance, drawing out the worst of the characters’ behavior yet not letting them descend into sheer despicableness. Problem is, Tanner doesn’t make these folks, except for Kevin, very likable. He also has rushed the ending, building to a big, seemingly calamitous blowout, then brushing it aside.
The snorts of laughter more than compensate, however.
In his time away from the stage, Tanner suffered the same back and foot ailments he gives his central character, and he too burned out in a career that delivered a coterie of local admirers but not much more. The similarities don’t end there, as his fans certainly will notice.
They’re bound to rally round “El Niño” and let him know just how good it is to have him back.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends April 22
Info: (855) 585-5185, www.roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes