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A Wild Ride in 'Coyote'

Theater review: Justin Tanner's tale of a transforming encounter with an animal has many funny moments, and deserves a stronger ending.

June 03, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Laurel Green has one of the best screams in the business, and Justin Tanner never tires of inventing pressure-cooker situations in which Green's shriek can break free in all of its hysterical glory. In "Coyote Woman," his new play at the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, he's come up with a doozy.

Green plays Janet, a secretary living in Silver Lake with a nicer, looser roommate named Debbie (Dana Schwartz). Janet is dullsville--priggish, petty, bratty. She nags Debbie about dirty dishes even if she hasn't paid her share of the rent that month, and even if Debbie hasn't finished eating. Janet's boyfriend is even more unbearable. Cliff (Jonathan Palmer) is in "animal regulations." He always wears his uniform, just in case there's a bobcat sighting or an irate badger on the loose. He makes Dudley Do-Right look hip. As hilariously written by Tanner and acted by Green and Palmer, this is a couple you just can't wait for bad things to happen to.

The premise is this. Taking a run in Griffith Park, Janet gets scratched by what she thinks is a coyote. No one can find any mark on her back, but she claims, between sobs, "I've never been so shaken in my whole life."

Soon enough it's apparent that something is indeed wrong with Janet. One minute she walks into the bedroom hygienic, petite, nervous and blond. When she comes out, still in her pink bathrobe, she's large, brunet, whisky-voiced and looks like a veteran prostitute.

No one onstage notices the formidable physical change. But Janet is now Coyote Woman--and is now played by Thea Constantine--foul-mouthed, fearless and oversexed, much to the initial delight of Debbie and her brother Mike (Gill Gayle).

When the moon comes out, Coyote Woman picks up a super-sleazy, open-shirted guy named Bill (Andy Daley), whose every sentence is lewd and who looks as if he wants to rub himself with oil all of the time. She hooks up with two party animals, Sharla (Ellen Ratner) and Droxanne (Carol Ann Susi). She drinks, smokes, swears and robs a 7-Eleven. She is the beast within, without morals or conscience, or she is a vampire, depending on your metaphor. Whatever she is, she's much more fun than Janet.

Janet reappears, only to find herself in the middle of some huge mess concocted by Coyote Woman. There is more opportunity for hysterics than in a good "Lucy" episode.

Tanner steadily builds an old but great premise. As always, his seemingly casual dialogue contains jokes-within-jokes and builds to unexpected heights. For the ensemble, under the playwright's direction, fielding Tanner's punch lines is like breathing, and every tiny eye roll and snippy retort is perfectly timed.

*

The cast at the Cast Theatre is deeply schooled in Tanner's voice, many of them having worked together with him for a decade. No wonder Tanner seems loath to let his works travel (this summer, for the first time, a Tanner play will be produced elsewhere--at Steppenwolf in Chicago). At the Cast, we get his voice in a pure and enormously pleasurable form.

But a nurturing environment can also be a place where problems can be avoided. Once Tanner gets the engine of "Coyote Woman" in motion, he seems to give up on the idea of making a whole and fully functioning play. Just to raise one possible question: What is the relationship between Coyote Woman, the beast within, and Bill, a man who wears his beast on his sleeve, an animal in human form? We never find out. Any thesis that you might feel building is simply dropped by the finish, which feels truncated and uncharacteristically amateurish.

Susi and Ratner are wasted playing two uncomplicated, wholly undifferentiated wild women, a one-note joke. Like these two actresses, "Coyote Woman" is so good that it deserves better; it deserves an integrated finish.

* "Coyote Woman," Cast Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 14. $20. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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