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Theater review: 'Procreation' at Odyssey Theatre

July 21, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Procreation 1
There’s something undecided about the tone of “Procreation,” the tiresomely outlandish family comedy by Justin Tanner that's receiving its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre under the direction of David Schweizer.
With its grotesque caricatures and zingy retorts, the play aims for lowest-common-denominator laughs. Yet the cast delivers the material in a restrained manner that occasionally brings to mind “Married With Children” on Valium.

This is purely speculative on my part, but the diagnosis I’m leaning toward for this work’s ailing theatrical condition is false pregnancy.

Procreation ii Before you dismiss this as quackery, consider the plot: A highly dysfunctional family gathers at the sloppy Highland Park home of Hope (Melissa Denton) and Michael (Michael Halpin) and their misfit teenage son, Gavin (Kody Batchelor), to celebrate the birthday of Ruby (Danielle Kennedy), Hope’s impossible mother. Ruby arrives, looking more like the wildcat sibling of her terminally muddled adult children, and drops a few bombshells: She’s given up booze, she’s married the age-defying fitness freak accompanying her (Jonathan Palmer) and she’s trying to become a post-menopausal reality-star octomom. 

Shocked as everyone appears to be at these developments, there’s too much going on for anyone to concentrate exclusively on this faddishly dressed grandmother’s sexual second wind. The roster of freaks, too numerous to identify individually, could provide Jerry Springer with an entire season of programs on identity crises, drug problems, erotic compulsions and other disorders of a mixed-nut variety. 

Not even Tanner, who counts this as his 20th play, can do much more than dart from one crack-up to the next. He tries to make Gavin, an obese bed-wetter who prances around the house with his stomach jiggling from under his shirt, the play’s center of gravity. The trouble is that Tanner wants his fat jokes and his poignancy too.

He treats Gavin (derisively called “Big Boy” by his parents) like an ungainly cartoon, then tries to smooth things over by making him the most sympathetic character in a household that’s otherwise devoid of sympathy. Gavin announces to his family that he’s gay by reading aloud a letter that barely registers above the demented din. Poor kid has an uphill climb ahead of him, but it’s not easy to care about a character who threatens to throw his “pee blankets” in people’s faces and tromps around the house like a sullen sumo wrestler who's just stubbed his big toe.

Filmmakers such as Todd Solondz have had success mixing creepiness with sensitivity, but Tanner’s style lacks the freshness of perception here to pull it off. The aesthetic seems like a ratcheted-up recycling of tacky sitcoms, and the production follows suit with its familiarly shoddy domestic set (designed by Gary Guidinger) and its gallery of kooks trying to seem like regular folk.   

My theater companion said afterward that he kept waiting for the large cast to break out into a musical number. I was just hoping that the humor would kick into a higher gear. But whatever the expectation, “Procreation” fails to deliver.   

— Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

"Procreation," Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 15. $25 to $30. (310) 477-2055 or Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Top photo: Kody Batchelor and the cast of "Procreation."  Photo credit: Ed Krieger.

Bottom photo: Brendan Broms as brother Andy and Chloe Taylor as drug dealer Alison. Photo credit: Ed Krieger.