The notion that “perhaps mentally ill people are actually saner than the rest of us” has become a comfortable artistic trope, regardless of real-life experience to the contrary. That this concept surfaces in comedies is stranger still, unless one looks at the wise madmen who have filled stage and screen as a simple wish that the afflicted were not sick but in fact blessed. In Gena Acosta’s “Tooth and Nail,” surface craziness is a cover for familial healing. Its tonal shifts between pathos and broad humor don’t entirely work, but a plenitude of oddball wit, along with a genial cast, makes this world premiere an enjoyable experience.
Ellie Laney (Lynn Odell) is planning a party for her daughter, Robin (Jennifer Etienne Eckert), pregnant with her first child. The trick will be to get her other two daughters to attend. Rose (Kate Huffman) is working with a group of unruly, mentally challenged children, and Dylan (Tara Norris) is off sulking in England after a fight with her father, Gerald (Gregory Mortensen). Further complicating matters, Gerald has begun thinking and acting as though he is King Henry II as portrayed by Peter O’Toole in “The Lion in Winter.”
Odell is pitch-perfect as manic but well-meaning mom Ellie, blithely throwing out lines like “Aren’t you a little gigglebug today” and worrying about her “spacuna” (spinach/bacon/tuna casserole). She’s particularly fine in the second act, when Ellie’s facade of serenity finally cracks and gives way to raw emotion. Mortensen excels in a tricky part, but his considerable charm and bluster can’t quite overcome the essential falseness of the role — Gerald feels like a manifestation of a playwright being clever instead of a real character.
Eckert is low-key but affecting as Robin, and Micah Cohen is just right as her husband Ted and particularly strong in a speech in which he explains his love for his wife. Huffman is likable as the childlike Rose, but Norris doesn’t entirely connect as Dylan: Her constant anger seems unmodulated, but the thin writing of the character may be partly to blame here. Tony Foster and Tom Stanczyk are very good as the straitlaced Michael and the flamboyant, cape-wearing Julian, respectively, and Robert John Brewer is memorably amusing as the Isaac Hayes-like Soul Cat.
Thematic concerns and tonal difficulties aside, Acosta’s writing is full of off-kilter humor — a character looks in a mirror and proclaims: “I look like rats have been sucking on my hair” — and Ellie is a rich comedic creation, a nonstop suburban force of nature. Director Lindsay Allbaugh keeps the staging fluid and the pacing quick, which accentuates the goofy slapdash vibe of the show. Joel Daavid’s sprawling living room/dining room set is handsome and adds greatly to the reality of the story.