Los Angeles playwright Justin Tanner writes raw, character-based comedies with trashy twists and transparent titles (care to guess the qualities of the characters in “Bitter Women” or the behavior involved in “Wife Swappers”?). But while unpolished and awfully slight – or perhaps because of those attributes – his plays provide performers a chance to let loose and just be funny; actors, after all, like to make a lot out of a little. In “Pot Mom,” one of Tanner’s more popular pieces, now being revived at Third Stage Theater in Burbank, a game cast, including Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne” fame, whips up some likable lunacy.
Metcalf has played the character of Michelle in “Pot Mom” before, both in Los Angeles and Chicago. Michelle actually isn’t the “pot mom” of the title. That part, Patty, is played with just the right hazy ordinariness by Tanner regular Ellen Ratner. Instead, Metcalf is Patty’s pathetic best friend who starts low and spirals downward, a woman who couldn’t make the right choice if it bit her.
In Metcalf’s hands, watching Michelle make the wrong choices is pretty enjoyable, especially in the tiny confines of a 50-seat theater. Faced with come-ons from Patty’s son Troy (Todd Lowe), Metcalf keeps up her character’s defenses for a while – smiling at the flattery of having a younger man flirt with her, but working hard to be all mature about it – before crumbling in an impulsive, inevitable and very funny instant.
In the final scene, she’s a drunken wreck, wracked with guilt and the sad knowledge that she’s exposed her heart to yet another likely stomping.
Lowe, best known for his portrayal of a guitarist learning to be sensitive on “The Gilmore Girls,” provides a great foil for Metcalf with his straightforward deadpan delivery.
The rest of the cast fills out this slim storytelling with plenty of verve but not a whole lot of inspiration, largely because they’re not given as much depth to play with.
Tanner’s play has a similar sensibility to John Waters’ films. The cannabis-induced weirdness and blatant dysfunction of Patty’s family feel like the true normality; it’s the rest of the world that’s odd.
But somehow Tanner doesn’t infuse enough of the spirit of the outsider underdog into “Pot Mom.” For example, Patty’s daughter Lorraine (Tate Hanyok) wants desperately to join a posh club – one where they ride horses and play tennis. She even brings home the stuck-up people who will make the decision. But the clash of cultures feels rote and uninvolving. The same can be said of the battle for control of the house between Patty’s live-in boyfriend, Richard (Jonathan Palmer), and her three kids.
While it all goes by fast enough, the only real moments to relish belong to Metcalf.