Gena Acosta's Tooth and Nail, directed by Matt Gourley for Little Fish Theatre, begins and ends with the fact that it's a comedy about a brain tumor. There's nothing funny about this particular tumor but it does inform each aspect of this touching and, yes, hilarious story of a New Jersey family that must face the consequences that its patriarch is ill.
Given the circumstances, you might think it's the theatrical equivalent of a chick flick. It's not, by a long shot. It's more like a latter day incarnation of All in the Family. The universe of effervescent Ellie (Melanie Jones) and dour Gerald Laney (Gregory Mortensen) is bounded by their upstairs - he works at home as a bookbinder - and the environs of Weekawken, New Jersey. They lost their first child and so adopted three preteen girls, each of whom has grown up to become a dysfunctional adult. Preggers and unmarried, Robin (Kalie Quinones) is engaged to an amiable pothead named Ted Hamster (Aaron Pressburg). Having just broken up with her one-legged boyfriend and in the early stages of sobriety, Dylan (Tara Norris) is now dating, as her mother calls him, a high-functioning retard. And Rose (Catie Doyle) coils with resentment towards her father for something he said-while-impaired the last time they were together. Though the due date is still 8-1/2 months away, Ellie plans a party to celebrate the birth of her first grandchild. The result is disastrous.
Never mind the teary story arc, the characters are as outrageous as their actors are pitch perfect. The story begins with chatterbox Ellie's 15-minute soliloquy that recounts her utter delight at both The Lion in Winter, a film she and Gerald have just seen for the 29th time, as well as the pending birth of Robin's child. Brimming with presence, Jones is utterly captivating as a woman who's afflicted with chronic optimism. Later on, when things are about to go to hell, this pitter-patter enthusiasm serves her character well. Monosyllabic and gruff, Gerald is the perfect foil for Ellie. At first he simply can't get a word in edgewise. Later to watch him transform magically - well, not magically, it took a fall from a ladder - into a dashing Peter O'Toole playing an eloquent King Henry - is nothing short of live theatre miraculous. Endearing in her own respective way, each daughter reminds you that being an empty nester is not all that it's cracked up to be. If Mortensen's Gerald is the show's catalyst, then Jones's Ellie is its heart, Quinones's Robin is its buoyant spirit, Norris's Dylan is its ragged edge, and Doyle's Rose is its blunt corner. Leavening things up are Pressburg's it's all cool Ted and the new, gay neighbors, the straight-laced Michael Jones (Scott Hartman) and the flamboyant Julian Dudley (Michael Mullen).
The show is most effective in the scenes that elicit a reaction on the part of Ellie. Whether it's to stand up to Gerald's death-hastening reluctance to take his pills or to mend daughterly rifts in the family fabric, Jones's hear-me-speak voice and her I-mean-it gestures ensure that, if laughter is not the best medicine, it serves as a reasonable and thoroughly entertaining palliative. Director Gourley tempered just-right this piece so that the eruptions of one daddy volcanoes and three daughter ones didn't cloud the otherwise wonderful flights of fancy.
Performances are 8pm, Fri & Sat, 7pm, Sun, May 16, and 8pm, Thu, May 20. The show runs until May 22. Tickets are $25. The Theatre is located at 777 Centre St, San Pedro. For more info call (310) 512-6030 or visit www.littlefishtheatre.org.