EL NIÑO Theater Review
Hard on the heels of Rogue Machine’s winning the Best Season Ovation Awards El Niño – the indie theatre company’s first offering of 2018 – has blown into The Met. Playwright Justin Tanner’s dramedy takes place inside a Highland Park home, where 48-year-old daughter Colleen (Emmy winner Maile Flanagan) has taken up residence on her parents’ living room couch. As her mom June (stage and big and little screen actress Danielle Kennedy) and dad Harvey (theatre thesp Nick Ullett, who has performed on Broadway) try to show her the door, Colleen comes across as a Minnie quality moocher worthy of a Cab Calloway croon.
But as the one-acter unfolds, we see Colleen is much more than a n’er-do-well taking advantage of her folks and her older sister, Andrea (Melissa Denton, who has theatre and TV credits), a solo mom struggling to raise an offstage child who is “on the spectrum.” The cast is top notch, including Jonathan Palmer (who has performed for L.A. playhouses and companies such as the Robey Theatre) as Todd, the so-called “dreamboat” (who is more like a proverbial “shipwreck”) Andrea encountered during a Morocco vacation (which Todd ending up hating because the North African nation had too many Muslims – who knew?).
A veterinarian, Todd specializes in “putting down” animals – which next door neighbor Kevin (Joe Keyes, a playwright who has also acted in movies such as J. Edgar and TV series like Roseanne) thinks means that Todd enjoys insulting critters. But like Colleen, Kevin – who is caring for an ailing cat – isn’t as dim as he may seem to be.
As a storm batters the household, a family drama and romances unspool – husband and wife dynamics, sibling rivalry, male-female sexual politics and human foibles galore. Your perennially plot spoiler adverse critic won’t go into detail revealing the storyline of this 80-minute delight. Suffice it to say that overall, El Niño is an amusing and insightful play, yet another Rogue Machine winner that was well-attended on a Monday night performance. Lisa James tightly, adeptly directs her ensemble, while Brian Gale and Christopher Moscatiello’s lighting and sound design enhances the play’s stormy (as in rainy, not Daniels) ambiance.
Like British playwright Oliver Cotton’s Daytona presented by the Roguers last year, the dramatis personae of El Niño come across – at least on the surface – like real life people. In some movies and TV series, however, this conceit is a canard. For instance, in Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, Renée Zellweger’s title character is meant to be a very common British woman – except she just so happens to be pursued by more than one outstanding, eminently eligible bachelor and this supposedly “average” gal works as a TV news reporter – a job that presumably pays much more than most Brits’ avocations do and is far more prestigious. And the TV series This is Us pretends to be about very normal, everyday people – except This Really Isn’t Us, because hunky brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) was a TV sitcom star. Not exactly your run of the mill salt of the Earth profession.
At first I thought El Niño was committing a similar sin, presenting putatively ordinary characters who really aren’t – because the blue collar-appearing Colleen, her parents and even drab Andrea have had artsy pursuits. But upon reflecting on this perceptive play, I thought maybe dramatist Tanner’s point was precisely this, that beneath ordinary people’s personas lurks the extraordinary. El Niño rather beautifully reveals not only the importance of romantic love and the part it plays in one’s self esteem, but in how these dynamics affect the creative process. Our Gal Colleen may be down, but she’s not out, and it’s great that in this time of rising consciousness about female empowerment and the arts that a woman is a play’s protagonist with other strong female characters. (Perhaps in Colleen’s tempestuous honor the play should be called “La Niña”?) Amongst El Niño’s angst and laughs the tuned in viewer can find some splendor amidst the storm.
Judging by El Niño, Rogue Machine is off and running to another championship season. Personally, I can’t wait for the premiere of the company’s production of Finks, about Jack and Madeline Gilford and the Hollywood Blacklist.
Rogue Machine’s production of El Niño runs Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through April 2, 2018. Rogue Machine is located at The Met, 1089 N Oxford Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Reservations: (855)585-5185 or at: www.roguemachinetheatre.net/el-nino.
The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by L.A.-based film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell drops in April 2018.