What if your family was nuts? OK, some of you are with me so far. Now, what if they barged into your apartment and handcuffed you, demanding that you give up your recreational drug habit, which you were indulging in only because your family had been driving you insane? And what if, while you were handcuffed, the members of your family, one by one, blamed you for just about every disappointment in their sorry lives, making it only too clear that they, in fact, had lost their minds?
So now perhaps the situation doesn't sound quite so familiar. But in "Intervention," Justin Tanner's ninth play at the Cast Theatre, the playwright once again unveils his genius for the unique comic situation that escalates into hysteria and yet is never too far-fetched. That's because the universe in which the characters operate is painstakingly laid out, subject to its own rules and completely understandable regulations. And once again, Tanner's dialogue flows like a dream, expertly orchestrated because the writer is a superb director of his own work.
And yet. And yet. Tanner is writing with the chops of a first-rate playwright, and yet he has not produced a fully developed, full-blown play with "Intervention." This is true despite an irresistible protagonist and equally irresistible setup.
Curtis (French Stewart), is a mid-level TV actor who tends to work in wholesome TV movies with actors like Joan Van Ark and Meredith Baxter. He is trying to kick a routine Hollywood cocaine habit by watching Al Pacino in "Scarface" (which he dubs "the worst cocaine movie of all time"). Bad things happen to Curtis, despite his pallid protestations. If he describes his beloved pet, Snake Boy, as "my best friend on the planet," you can be pretty sure that Snake Boy's days are numbered.
Curtis is a reactive type, a perfect comic foil for the variety of lunatics who come flying at him, starting with his building's superintendent Jeremy (Gill Gayle). Jeremy wheedles Curtis into reading aloud his dreadful film script along with his two druggy friends, Geena (Thea Constantine) and Bonnie (Cathy Giannone). This group is happily and utterly oblivious to Curtis' struggle for abstinence, snorting lines in front of him, and oblivious as well to his every request, no matter how clearly he voices it. You wonder why Curtis puts up with this group. Until you meet his family.
They enter uninvited, using a birthday cake as their Trojan Horse. Once inside, they spring into action. Mom (Christine Jansen) comes armed with stacks of paper, which she flips through and refers to. "We have work sheets," she threatens. "We've talked to groups and we know what we're doing." Moored in the latest therapeutic language, she is the head of this supposed deprogramming unit, flanked by Curtis' dimwitted brother, Craig (the unfunny Andy Daley), and his dippy sister, Cynthia (Laurel Green, who employs one of the best hysterical screams in the business).
It soon comes out that this motley crew is in fact rabidly jealous and afraid of being locked out of Curtis' success. "We're just some extras in your life story, Mr. Actor," says his mother, whose sternness changes to girlish excitement when Curtis' agent is on the phone.
Curtis is a neat creation, a guy you both root for and want to see bad things happen to, partly because Stewart's series of devastated expressions is so priceless. With his sad eyes and tense mouth, Stewart has the face of a silent film comedian--mobile, facile, expressive of many shades of disappointment all at once.
But Curtis' soul is an enigma, his occasional spurts of outrage notwithstanding. The extent and nature of his growth remain a mystery, and his struggle with his passive nature is a static one. The comedy may build all around him, but he does not grow. At the play's end, he watches "Scarface" again in a slightly more defeated manner, but he is pretty much where he started. The little battle he was waging--to stop taking drugs whenever he was having a bad day--may or may not have been won.
Tanner is fully capable of making small battles big enough to fill a play. But in "Intervention" it seems as if the playwright is being as passive as his hero, content to accept the futility of it all. Tanner is great at observing small changes in the midst of a larger futility. This is a hallmark of his brilliant comedy. But "Intervention" makes one wonder if he will ever write a protagonist who can change something in us.
\o7 * "Intervention," Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Avenue, Hollywood, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $15. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.\f7