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Oklahomo!

This show based on a seemingly foolproof comic idea -- the production of a gay version of "Oklahoma!" -- has the trademark Justin Tanner lunacy and irreverence. Tanner knows the non-Equity small theater scene and gets off a goodly share of zingers, but the tempo and tone of "Oklahomo!" have an air of desperation and the story becomes increasingly fragmented and piecemeal.

With:
Arthur - Brian Newkirk Melissa - Maile Flanagan Vance - Billy Wright Janice Owens - Ellen Ratner Patrick - Brendan Broms Darren - Justin Tanner Kitty Haber - Mary Scheer Clay - Tad Coughenour

This show based on a seemingly foolproof comic idea — the production of a gay version of “Oklahoma!” — has the trademark Justin Tanner lunacy and irreverence. Tanner, author of cult hits “Pot Mom” and “Zombie Attack!,” knows the non-Equity small theater scene and gets off a goodly share of zingers, but the tempo and tone of “Oklahomo!” have an air of desperation and the story becomes increasingly fragmented and piecemeal.

Arthur (Brian Newkirk), the producer, star and writer of “Oklahomo!” in Tanner’s script, is introduced as a nervous wreck, frantic about the future of the show and the fact that his temperamental ex-partner of 10 years, Darren (Tanner), is also the production’s director.

Darren, echoing Jack Buchanan’s pretentious helmer in “The Bandwagon,” justifies Arthur’s worst fears, expressing embarrassment at participating in “this level of theater” and instantly tyrannizing his actors. These include Janice (Ellen Ratner), a lesbian TV star; Patrick (Brendan Broms), the one straight member of the cast, who demands, “No tongues”; and Vance (Billy Wright), who proudly announces his measurements and claims to be semi-erect at all times.

Also on hand during the turbulent rehearsals are Kitty (Mary Scheer), a coke-addicted “second-rate hunt-and-peck accompanist,” and Clay (Tad Coughenour), Darren’s youthful assistant. Attempting to coordinate the chaos is stage manager Melissa (Maile Flanagan). Despite Flanagan’s comedic talent, her antigay born-again Christian character is an improbably written bore.

Tanner’s portrayal is a cross between critical bully and whining baby, and he does an amusing Actors Studio takeoff when commenting, “This pen has meaning,” or referring to a “Streetcar” production featuring Blanche Dubois as a bulimic. But his florid, fuming hysteria doesn’t grow, and director Lisa James permits his frenzied rages to become repetitive.

Also volatile to a preposterous point is Scheer’s Kitty. Hilarious in her opening segments, her character has nowhere to go and she self-destructs. Kitty’s tragedy in the middle of act two is such a contrived, melodramatic twist that the play never bounces back from it.

Musically, the production is short on numbers, so that the few there are (“Oh, What a Beautiful Penis,” “The Bottom and the Top Man Should Be Friends”) feel uncertainly integrated and don’t make enough of an impression.

Broms, portraying the one straight performer in the cast, is wedged inside a role with unrealized potential. He isn’t utilized for crucial story effect, as was the one straight protagonist from Mart Crowley’s “Boys in the Band”; he simply registers generic shock at the gay goings-on and never moves beyond these obvious responses.

Amid the chaos, Newkirk’s Arthur has much of the sweetness of the Corky St. Clair character in “Waiting for Guffman.” Even while directing a simulated rape, Newkirk retains ongoing rapport with the audience.

This makes the downbeat finish doubly disappointing, especially since it feels scattered and inconclusive, an ending the writer wrestled to the ground and still couldn’t figure out.

Oklahomo!

Third Stage; 50 seats; $18 top

Production: A Birdman Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Justin Tanner. Directed by Lisa James.

Crew: Sets, James Henriksen; lighting, B. Creeley; sound, 3 G's; choreography, Agnes de Ville; production stage manager, Ed Asswell. Opened July 15, 2005. Reviewed July 16. Runs through Aug. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast: Arthur - Brian Newkirk Melissa - Maile Flanagan Vance - Billy Wright Janice Owens - Ellen Ratner Patrick - Brendan Broms Darren - Justin Tanner Kitty Haber - Mary Scheer Clay - Tad Coughenour

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