Meet the Laney family of Weehawken, New Jersey, a sparkling paradigm of family dysfunction. Gerald and Ellie are an aging couple whose favorite movie is A Lion in Winter; they’ve gone to see it at the mini-plex 29 times now. Ellie (Lynn Odell) is a hyper active Edith Bunker-type busybody who suffers from an inability to sit still for all of two straight minutes, fueled by her compulsion to plan, prepare and execute each and every wonderful idea that come to her. Her latest missions are to bring the new neighbors a gift and plan a family Baby dinner to celebrate the news of the first grandchild on the way.
Gerald (Gregory Mortensen) in contrast is her painfully quiet, slow motioning husband. He listens as Ellie prattles on; visibly exhausted by the mental effort it takes to follow the dozen thoughts she voices on the course of just one minute. This Bookbinder and Homemaker would seem like an unlikely match to have lasted so long, until you learn that Gerald is suffering from a brain tumor. The medication is his taking has left him a shadow of the man he once was. The first evidence of conflict between them surfaces when Ellie discovers that Gerald has stopped taking it.
The couple are the proud parents of three adopted daughters. Adopted as teenagers, three emotionally damaged girls seem to have carried the scars of childhood into adulthood. Oldest Dylan (Tara Norris) is defensive with self-esteem problems, which lands her in bad relationships, the latest of which found her in England with an India guy who convinced her she was an alcoholic. Rose (Kerry Carney), the youngest of the trio also has a queen-size victim complex and abandonment issues which lead her to bad relationships with an amputee and currently a young man who is mentally challenged (although apparently high functioning). Trying to keep the family together is of course the middle child, Robin (Jennifer Etienne Eckert). News of her pregnancy is the reason for the family to come together and celebrate, even if the father of her child is the classic surfer, pothead, underachiever Ted (Josh Breeding).
Last but not least, swept into the celebratory frenzy is new neighbor middle school English teacher Michael Jones (Tony Foster), who is corralled into agreeing to attend the Baby Dinner with his kimono wearing partner, interpretive dancer and designer of oversized floral arrangements, Julian (Tom Stanczyk).
This parade of characters under one roof for one evening promised to be an extraordinary evening. Especially when Ellie reveals to the others that a fall from a ladder and a bump on the head has left Gerald now thinks that he is Peter O’Toole.
I thoroughly enjoyed this show. Mortensen’s transformation from a whisper of a man to the lyrical magnum force personae was fantastic. Odell moves beautifully from being the whirlwind in the room to desperately trying to be the anchor in a storm that won’t stop bearing down on her. The beats in the love/hate rivalry between the three daughters are spot on. I forgave the gay male interior designer stereotype and relished Foster and Stanczyk’s finely measured embarrassed spouse scenario that play as the undercurrent to all the Laney family drama. And Ted is the surfer loser who ends up being the most reliable person in the room. Dude, (Josh Breeding) just well done.
Did I mention I really enjoyed this play?
The show finds our intrepid Laney Family jumping couches, power vacuuming tuna casserole, having emotional breakdowns after being attacked by “retarded kids” on kool-aid, knitting really bad scarves and dropping more insider Peter O’Toole jokes than someone my age will ever caught. And amidst the chaos and wackiness, the piece credibly allows for moments of real pathos and reflexion.
One of the aspects I found most interesting about this play is the playwright’s clearly deliberate choice to give character their own distinct, individual moment. None of the characters in this piece are simply made to be scenery. The script vehemently draws each characters as a three-dimensional person with emotions and issues, and each and every one is given a time to work out the personal demons that have bee unearthed during the course of this strange evening. With just a small sacrifice of the pacing, Acosta insures that there are no insignificant roles in this piece.
You will really enjoy this play. It’s vintage off-the-wall comedy without being off-color.
Tooth and Nail is currently running through June 15th at:
1076 Lillian Way
Hollywood, CA 90038
Ample Street Parking
Thursday, Friday & Saturday 8PM
Photo Credit: David Fofi