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THEATER REVIEW : 'Tent Show': Speaking of Vice and Men : Justin Tanner's latest work employs his familiar skills--the dialogue overlaps and flows like a dream--and the engaging dramas are exacerbated by the characters' drug dependencies.


"The Tent Show," the new play by the boy wonder of L.A. theater, is Justin Tanner's take on "Deliverance." It's about men: Men on a camping trip, men pretending to bond, men dragging the rat race of corporate life right into the wilderness, where they all agree it doesn't belong. While no one is asked to squeal like a pig, they nervously assure each other that "it's a good thing we're all secure about being guys." The play is alternating in repertory at the Cast Theatre with eight other works by Tanner, the complete canon. For anyone who cares about fresh voices on the stage, this festival is not to be missed.

"The Tent Show" is a bit of a departure for the playwright--it's set away from the low-rent apartments where the women toke and watch "I Love Lucy" in "Pot Mom," where a grease-stained Barbie comes home from the graveyard shift at the doughnut shop and bickers with Ken in "Still Life With Vacuum Salesman," and where a naive girl encounters the roommate from hell in "Bitter Women." As always, the dialogue overlaps and flows like a dream, and the heated dramas are hilarious, engaging, familiar and yet absolutely original. And, as is often the case, those dramas are exacerbated by the characters' recreational drug dependencies.

The trouble with "The Tent Show" is that men don't seem to interest the playwright as much as women do. At least, they don't seem to contain the endless possibilities for surprise and redemption that make Tanner's female characters so delightful.

Oh well. "The Tent Show" is still the work of a gifted playwright doing what he does best--mischievously letting people reveal their real selves while building elaborate constructs of how they would like to be seen.

The guys on the camping trip are Doug (Tony Maggio), who owns the nice tent and who would like to be lord of the manor both there and at L.A. Title, the company where the men work. He doesn't want anyone touching his new Land Rover or wasting the batteries on the TV, phone or "lantern" he's brought along. But he consents to share the tent with Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), his nearest equal, even though Jeff is in trouble at work. Nothing big, just embezzling to support a coke habit.

The other two guys will have to sleep outside. Unforgivably, Walter (Jon Palmer) has allowed his righteous spirituality to intrude on guy fun. Charged with supplying food and drink, Walter, a proselytizer for a self-realization seminar called "Truth Quest," has chosen to bring soybean hot dogs and nonalcoholic beer. To Jeff, this constitutes a "horrendous, (expletive) nightmare."

And Billy (Jon Amirkhan), well, Billy is just hopeless. A mere mailroom employee, Billy has been invited only because several other guys dropped out of the trip, after some kind of firing bloodbath at the company. Doug orders him about like a servant, specifying what Billy may and may not touch in the tent. Even the ostensibly enlightened Walter treats Billy with contempt, saying things like "Peon or not, you're part of the whole."

Actually, Billy is a bit slow. His attempts to express a rhapsodic connection to nature engender about as much respect as his salary. "I love seeing animals, you know, in person," goes one of his odes. As Billy, Amirkhan is a master at letting his face fill up with hope and then fall tragically with each fresh rebuff from his supposed betters. But his bounce-back ratio is quick, and he's always ready to feel the pain of a new insult.

Bounce-back ratios are high in Tanner, as are unexpected shifts in the power structure. The rivalries and divisions intensify with the arrival of a stray camper named Julie (Laurel Green), who seems interested in Billy until he utters the words mail room . Green, the only actor who appears in all nine Tanner plays, here offers a slightly harder variation of the utterly transparent, silky voiced phony she usually plays.

Under Tanner's direction, the rest of the men never sentimentalize fundamentally unlikable characters. Amazingly, they're all fascinating without being either likable or unusual in any way. As Bernadette, the tough-talking secretary who gets a big charge out of all the office intrigue, especially if her boss is getting screwed, Thea Constantine is almost as funny as she is in "Bitter Women," and that's saying quite a lot.

It's interesting to see Tanner work with characters who care about the rat race and get caught in it. I would guess he sides more with Billy, who one of the men accurately likens to the fool on the cliff. When offered advice on improving his career, Billy says he doesn't want to climb, he just wants to hang. But one gets the sense that, whether he wants to or not, Tanner is about to do some major climbing.

* "The Tent Show," Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood, Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 6. $15. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 2 hours.

Tony Maggio: Doug

Jon Amirkhan: Billy

Jon Palmer: Walter

Mark Ruffalo: Jeff

Laurel Green: Julie

Thea Constantine: Bernadette

Produced by Diana Gibson and Andy Daley for Ted Schmitt's Cast Theatre. By Justin Tanner. Directed by Justin Tanner. Set design by Andy Daley. Lighting by Peter Strauss. Sound by Todd Hughes. Costumes by Denise Wingate and the company.

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