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The gripes of farce

James Petrillo

Justin Tanner’s latest uproarious yet overly scatological comedy

finally reaches the breaking point of how much an audience can

withstand in an under-100-seat theater. The talented writer of “Pot

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Mom” and “Wife Swappers,” usually so adept at self-referential humor

and fearlessness of subject matter, has painted himself into a corner

with “Oklahomo!”

The debut production by Third Stage Company at Third Stage in

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Burbank, this sporadically hilarious satire follows a cursed company

attempting to stage a send-up of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic

“Oklahoma!” The all-too-knowing satire of the Los Angeles theater

scene gradually drowns in its own self-satisfaction and eventually

wears the audience down with its sheer pointlessness.

That’s not to say there aren’t some serious belly laughs along the

way. Tanner has a way of making even the most obscene subject funny,

but his story of a frayed ensemble of washed up TV stars, coke heads,

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and luckless veterans veers far too close to reality to be considered

entertaining.

The threadbare plot centers on playwright Arthur (Brian Newkirk)

and his struggle to get “Oklahomo!” off the ground in the face of

unbelievably bad luck.

The majority of the suffering stems from his choice for director,

his megalomaniacal ex-boyfriend Darren. Every time Arthur and his

crew get berated or insulted so mercilessly by Darren, the action

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comes to a complete halt. Ironically, Tanner himself is to blame --

he plays Darren. His acting just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the

cast, and the light goes out in their eyes every time he steps on

stage.

Strangely enough, in a play chiefly concerned with gay men and

their anatomy, the women of the cast give the best performances and

surely provide most of those belly laughs. The perpetually spunky

Maile Flanagan is once again spot-on as a born-again stage manager

who just wants to be loved, even by a company of sinners.

Ellen Ratner is believably vain playing a TV star slumming it as a

favor, but needing the affirmation all the same. And Mary Scheer is

so good as the coked-out musical director, one wishes the show

centered around her. Her breakdown midway through the play makes up

for a lot of the stuff that doesn’t work.

But the subversive glee with which Tanner skewered religion and

family values in “Wife Swappers” has given way to heavy-handed bile

thrust out of characters’ mouths with no soul inside.

The joy of peeking in on the sillier aspects of the beliefs on

both sides of an issue has been replaced with increasingly unfunny

diatribes and graphic talk just for the shock value. There’s a fine

line between George Carlin and Andrew Dice Clay.

Nearly rescued by its abundant one-liners and insider jokes (a

reference to the bathrooms at Third Stage being backstage is

priceless), “Oklahomo!” would have benefited from even the smallest

bit of meaning or just better pacing by director Lisa James. Shows

about nothing can be entertaining, but the nothing here isn’t

anything but endless confrontation with little relief. The feeling of

stress that one is left with could easily be had simply by

volunteering at any local theater.

FYI

WHAT: “Oklahomo!” by Justin Tanner

WHERE: Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays until Aug. 20

TICKETS: $18, $13 for students, seniors, and 4-A union members

CONTACT: (818) 842-4755

WEBSITE: www.thirdstage.org

* JAMES PETRILLO is an actor and screenwriter from Glendale.


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