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THEATER

They Are Women, Hear 'Em Howl

Justin Tanner's beastly comedy 'Coyote Woman' unleashes a pair of his actresses once again.

June 28, 1998|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

There's this new drug everybody's talking about--you know the one. If you've forgotten the name of it, take a look at every other headline in the paper. It's for men. It's blue. It's a comedian's dream. According to medical reports, it's the best thing to happen to the sexually challenged American male since the little red Corvette.

But it takes no prescription, in fact, no pill at all, to change your ordinary, run-of-the-mill female into a Coyote Woman.

It's happening every weekend at Hollywood's Cast Theatre, where "Coyote Woman," the latest work by prolific Los Angeles playwright Justin Tanner, is running through July 14. All it takes is a scratch from an errant coyote during a jog in Griffith Park to turn Janet--a needy, irritating young Silver Lake secretary who clings to her engagement ring like a life raft--into the vodka-swilling, chain-smoking, all-night-partying, profanity-hurling Coyote Woman.

And, from a technical standpoint, all it takes to turn the secretary into the slut is for sweet-faced, blond Laurel Green, who plays Janet, to be replaced onstage by the taller, darker, badder Thea Constantine, in a black satin mini-dress emblazoned with a cross of red sequins, whose throaty pack-a-day voice is part of her persona both onstage and off. In performance, the rest of the characters appear completely unaware that they are seeing two very different people.

"Coyote Woman is not a role model," drawled Constantine during a recent conversation on the "Coyote Woman" set, which depicts a typical Silver Lake apartment. Her observations tend to begin in a nasal monotone and then to dissolve into a Coyote Woman howl of laughter. She unfailingly manages to crack herself up.

Each weekend night, Green and Constantine--both part of the charmed circle of actors who are regulars in Tanner's offbeat plays at the Cast--spend equal time either in full view of the audience, or hiding behind doors or kitchen counters on the set, sometimes crawling on hands and knees to be ready to pop up at a moment's notice when Janet goes Coyote, or vice versa.

Green, who has starred in "12 or 13" Tanner plays in the past decade--Constantine has done seven--said that Tanner's original plan was to have Green play both Janet and Coyote Woman. "That was really fun for me, because I got to do what Thea does now," she said. "I did sort of a bad Sally Kellerman impression, you know what I mean? My voice was real jazzy--like, I was trying to be real sexy.

"But because of the direction that Justin and Diana [Gibson, artistic director of the Cast Theatre] wanted to take the play, it could only work with Thea doing the part.

"Initially, Justin asked: 'Are you upset that I took this opportunity away?' At first, I was, but when we started working on the play, I realized that there was so much meat for my part of the Coyote Woman, so much that I could bring to it, that it ended up being perfect."

As for Constantine, "I couldn't have done it the other way, either," she said. "I don't think I could really do the Janet thing--it would be really bizarre. I think everybody's got a certain range. I was never gonna be an ingenue." She offered her wolf-laugh.

"I remember when I was, like, 24, at my manager's office or something, and I'm looking at this part for the wide-eyed girl, and I'm like, 'What about that?' And he shakes his head. 'One look in your eyes, and it's all over.' There's a lot of Coyote Woman in me."

Green noted that she and Constantine were destined to play good girl / bad girl someday. Green's grandmother, Dorothy Green, and Constantine's mother, Julianna McCarthy, both had roles on the soap opera "The Young & the Restless" for more than 10 years. Green's grandmother was always singing the praises of her sweet young granddaughter, whereas Constantine's mom wrung her hands at the escapades of the young and restless Thea.

*

Women--and some theater critics--observe that Tanner has a knack for writing female characters, due to his keen ear and powers of observation. His ability has its dark side, however. "Sometimes, Justin is just like, 'Have fun, party,' all that stuff--but you don't realize that he is taking in every single word, and then pretty soon your own story will pop up in a play," Constantine said.

Green nodded, blushing. "I remember I told him something that was really personal once, and it popped up in one of the plays. We were doing a reading, and I didn't know. And all of a sudden, we got to the story, and my face either turned bright red, or completely white, I can't remember which. I was just mortified--I thought, everybody knows it's me. I will never say which story. It's too embarrassing."

Green said she has never felt typecast by Tanner--although Constantine notes that all of her own Tanner characters are given to multiple cigarettes. And Green's often exist in a state of high anxiety, go on weird diets and, of course, are always given ample opportunity to offer Green's trademark hysterical scream.

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