“El Nino,” a dark comedy by local playwright Justin Tanner, focuses on a family’s relationships as they teeter precariously on the brink of chaos and destruction. All transpires in one living room in Highland Park.
The stage is so realistic, walking into the theater you have to remind yourself you’ve come to see a show, and not hang out at your friend’s house. The wooden columns and tables, worn couches, and warm colors – without a glint of stainless steel in sight, create a comfortable and homey environment. Break out the sweats and socks.
Home should be a place where you can find refuge from the incessant demands and pressures of life. And after quitting her Uber job due to foot and back pains, 48 year old Colleen intends to find this sanctuary in her parents living room. At the start of the play, her mom and dad, June and Harvey, barely exert any effort to be polite or compassionate, and demand an estimated departure date.
Throughout her stay, Colleen can’t get a break from her family’s criticisms: she’s too fat, too unmotivated, too prideful and her foot condition is a ploy for attention and sympathy. In a moment of exasperation, June tells Colleen, “You’re a very hard person to love.”
Coleen’s parents aren’t entirely malicious. They struggle to take care of each other and keep track of the daily pills and doctor’s appointments. A new day, a new pain. It becomes hard for them to determine which pains are worth a trip to the doctor. Not until Harvey is flailing on the floor screaming for help will June take his complaints seriously.
Colleen’s sister Andrea only adds more tension, as she obviously has the favor of their mother. Her relations with her new boyfriend, Todd, and her child show how she struggles to master the current PC culture. For instance, she brags of venturing to new countries, exposing herself to livelihoods outside of the U.S; however, she says after she first met Todd in Morocco, they bonded over their mutual agreement that it is a “dirty place” with “inedible” food and an unfavorable demographic of 98% Muslim. She demands her family stop using the word ‘retarded’ to describe her autistic child. But then she admits she has attended meetings for mothers of autistic children, in which she said she wished she’d never had her child.
Tanner evades the pitfall of writing two-dimensional characters or tropes with no complexity, except when it comes to Todd. The character is easy to hate. Hilariously easy. His job- putting down pets. His extraordinary ignorance and racism bring forth moans from the audience. I wish I could understand better why Andrea benefits from a relationship with him. He seems to bring her only a refreshing newness from her life of divorced-motherhood.
Colleen’s character has the most dimensions. She is so guarded and closed off at the start. Her neighbor acts as a foil. He’s the most in tune with his emotions and brings out a kinder, creative Colleen. A fan of her many published science fiction books from a while ago, he encourages her to start up writing again. Though Colleen gives up again and again and pushes him away, he persists.
The acting is so phenomenal, never once did I think, “These are people acting.” I got lost in the story. When actor Jonathan Palmer is told he’s good, his response is, “Well I should be, it was written for me.” Tanner wrote the parts with most actors in mind. Most of the cast has been working with Tanner for years.
Tanner once had the ambition to become a concert pianist and I appreciate his ear for sounds in this play. The scenes flow gracefully into each other; there’s no excessive pause or hesitation in the dialogue. Sounds like the buzzing of a paper shredder, perfectly accentuate dramatic moments. After an intense scene, Tanner creates an opportunity to exhale with a brief musical interlude in which Colleen glides around the room in a rolling chair.
Tanner has written several award-winning plays, but according to thisstage.la, he thinks this is his best work to date. “All of his other plays are hilarious, but this one’s a little more heartfelt,” said Maile Flanagan, the actress who plays Colleen.
This weekend, see how the stormy relations between family members develop in “El Nino.” The Rogue Machine’s last two showings are April 21 and 22. It shows at the MET theater Saturday at 8:30p.m. and Sunday at 3p.m.