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Oklahomo!

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk .

Seeing a good repertory company in action is one of the greatest joys theater can provide. Unfortunately, experiencing true repertory theater these days is a rare thing.

This is especially true in Los Angeles, where actors are always waiting for the big movie role or the long-running TV part, and are cautious about the commitments (and frankly, the challenges) that repertory requires.

The Center Theatre Group under Gordon Davidson has tried, in the past, to get repertory going here in LA, but it's never been able to catch on.

Because of this, it was a great treat last month to catch Alan Ayckbourn's British-based company make a rare appearance here in the States. Ayckbourn is England's most prolific writer for the stage (I think he's up to 68 plays now) and the Steven Joseph Theatre, Scarborough is a company that he oversees and uses to stage his new work.

Seeing Ayckbourn's recent play Private Fears in Public Places was such a treat--not because the play was a masterpiece, though it was very well written and quite touching--but because the actors (most of whom have worked together at the Steven Joseph Theatre for years) were so well-rehearsed and comfortable with the material.

The connection between the actors, as well as between the actors and the playwright (who also directed) gave the proceedings an entirely natural quality. You didn't feel like you were watching a play, you felt as if you were eavesdropping on people's lives.

In the weeks since seeing Ayckbourn's piece, I worried that it would be sometime before I saw a company so at ease, and yet so commanding, in a new play.

But last week, I made a trek up into the Valley to see the new play by Los Angeles playwright Justin Tanner.

Tanner may not be quite as prolific as Alan Ayckbourn, but then he's a few decades younger. A few years back, Tanner was a fixture of LA small theater, yet recently he's moved around a bit and started writing for the small screen.

But Tanner seems to be a major force behind the newly formed Third Stage Company, which if their first production of their first season is any indication, could be the start of something close to Mr. Ayckbourn's Scarborough theatre.

Third Stage's first show is Tanner's new play Oklahomo! Yes, that's Oklahomo! Oklahomo! is a satire of the Los Angeles small theater world, which showcases the foibles of a tiny troupe trying to stage a gay update--a very gay update--of Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! set in a Silverlake leather bar.

Like Tanner's past work, Oklahomo! is fast paced, quirky, offensive, and often hilarious. But Oklahomo! also marks a change as it appears that Tanner is now poking some fun at himself--a point that's underlined by Tanner appearing in the work as an actor, playing the part of the imperious director -Darren.-

Oklahomo! is not for everyone as it's really raunchy and filled with incestuously inside references--but if you have any connection to Los Angeles' showcase theater scene, it's a hoot--and almost necessary viewing.

What's more, like Ayckbourn, Tanner has employed a cast (directed by Lisa James) made up entirely of actors who have worked with him before. The performances are for the most part pitch-perfect, as the actors not only knows their lines, but really understand them as well. This is the closest thing to repertory here in Los Angeles that I've seen for a while.

Despite the audience's unlimited laughter the night I attended, Oklahomo! is a play of limited scope--but it's a reminder of Tanner's incredible ear for dialogue and his unique, twisted view of Los Angeles.

LA has long been home to authors of fiction who have written about the city with a singular voice, but Los Angeles has never had a real resident playwright. A true Southland Shakespeare may be a long way off, but this new play--with its mastery of Angelino inanity--strongly suggests that Justin Tanner is the major voice of small theater in Los Angeles. Call him: the Bard of Sav-on.

Justin Tanner's Oklahomo! continues at the Third Stage in Burbank through August 20.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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