Justin Tanner, master of hypocritical invective, dukes it out with Justin Tanner, heart-of-gold sentimentalist, in "Big Bear."
A fair fight? Fairly diverting, certainly. The comedy, about a group of backstabbing insurance title company execs roughing it within spitting distance of a Range Rover, would likely be better off either pulling back or going further. In that regard, some plays are like relationships at the crucial three-month stage.
Tanner's script revises the earlier "Tent Show," and it is getting a very sharp production at Third Stage in Burbank. The playwright makes a rare and funny onstage appearance as Billy, the most put-upon mail room clerk in the long, mostly unwritten history of put-upon mail room clerks.
Things are shaky at L.A. Title. Layoffs loom back home. Doug (Jonathan Palmer), owner of the fabulous tent wherein the play is set, is camping in Big Bear with colleague Walter (James Henriksen); Jeff (D.J. Berg), whose embezzlement of company Christmas party funds last year provides a wee back story; and, a late substitution for a recently fired employee, mail room denizen Billy (Tanner).
While Walter focuses on his "Truth Quest" tapes and communing with trees, Jeff gets busy with a neighboring camper, Julie (Tanya Little), who works in the Beverly Center. Ouch! And Billy thought she was his! Meantime Doug, the most openly venal of the characters, plots his next move. He's aided in Act 2, as is the play, by his wiseacre assistant Bernadette (Jodi Carlisle), who schleps all the way out to Big Bear with her laptop.
"Big Bear" transplants paranoiac office politics to a bucolic setting. The play is least satisfying when it's focused on its plotty concerns. Tanner makes his foils awfully predictable; Doug, in particular, is a pluperfect schmuck just asking for his comeuppance. When it comes, it feels easy and facile, as does the budding friendship at play's end between Billy and Julie.
The play works best when Tanner's content to kick back, have his characters roll a joint or swig a beer and kill some time. At one point, everyone sits around a campfire and goes into a routine involving sound effects, scary noises, sing-along bits. It's utterly extraneous and the best thing in the show. Director David Rose's swift, pleasingly paced staging allows the actors to have their fun and keep things moving, too.
Of the Tanner plays I've seen, the one I enjoyed unequivocally was by far the silliest, "Zombie Attack!" (co-written by Andy Daley). It car-crashed the yuppies-reunion setting of "The Big Chill" smack into "Night of the Living Dead," with swell comic results. "Big Bear," like the recent revivals of the Tanner works "Still Life With Vacuum Salesman" and " Bitter Women," feels more conventional.
And yet when the talk is cooking, Tanner's innate theatrical talent shines through. "Loser. You deserve this rain," goes one tasty zinger among many. What I sense afoot in "Big Bear" is Tanner trying to reconcile his well-made-commercial-play instincts with his weirder, more discursive instincts. If I were an agent and my livelihood depended on his, I might steer him toward neatness. But I'm not. And I'd rather see Tanner dive headlong into something messy and insane.
* "Big Bear," Birdman Productions at Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 18. $15. (818) 842-4755. Running time:2 hours, 10 minutes.
James Henriksen: Walter
Justin Tanner: Billy
Jonathan Palmer: Doug
D.J. Berg: Jeff
Tanya Little: Julie
Jodi Carlisle: Bernadette
Written by Justin Tanner. Directed by David Rose. Scenic design by James Henriksen. Lighting, costume and sound design by David Rose.