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Theater Reviews 

Including Strangers on a Train, 13 and this week's pick, Inside Private Lives

Monday, Jan 8 2007
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PICK INSIDE PRIVATE LIVES When Julia Phillips (Leonora Gershman) — Hollywood producer, coke fiend and author of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again — started raging onstage, a guy in the front row called out that “drug abuse is dangerous.” Phillips snarled back that the audience member liked fucking Thai hookers. Which is just the interaction Kristen Stone’s gutsy theatrical experiment seeks between viewers and its seven in-character, dead-celebrity monologues. The famous loudmouths include Phillips and cult leader David Koresh, director Elia Kazan, Tupperware queen Brownie Wise, irascible Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen and boozing presidential brother Billy Carter (respectively, David Shofner, Adam LeBow, Eileen O’Connell, Mary MacDonald, Stone and Bryan Safi). The lineup members have little in common besides a defiant sense of self, which they’re gunning to defend against the audience’s questions. The exchanges aren’t always polite. Jorgensen was asked, “What’d you do with the excess baggage?” In the creepiest segment, Koresh twisted around the Bible to justify his stockpile of wives and weaponry before trying to manipulate a woman with the threat of damnation. Under Lee Michael Cohn’s direction, the interplay is seamless, fresh and intense — as when Schott (infamous for referring to her players as “million-dollar niggers”) attempts to sway us, an adoption board, into giving her a “little chocolate baby.” Theatre East at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru March 30. (No perf Feb. 25.) (323) 960-7792.  (Amy Nicholson)

MACBETH Familiar film and television personality Harry Lennix leads an all-black cast of pure-voiced actors who present the Scottish play’s text with skill — just no passion. The cutting of director Steve Marvel’s adaptation cleverly allows 10 actors to play all the roles, but unwisely strips away most of the play’s mysticism as it reduces the central three weird sisters to one lone witch — sans most of the witches’ speeches — while leaving in some of the least interesting language during the final battle scenes. The most lively work comes from Geno Monteiro as a drunken porter in the show’s one comic scene, as he delivers laughs in the manner of a Wayans-brothers sketch from In Living Color — creating an odd hybrid of Scottish and Jamaican dialects. Less fortunate are some oddly comic turns by Banquo’s murderers, who affect a Central American drug lord’s speech. The limited-budget scenic design is well handled by Emily Phillips, though an overzealous fog machine tends to choke out much of the initial witch scene. Costume designer Naila Saunders makes some fine choices with simple contemporary clothing — though silly children’s-theater crowns are extremely out of place. The brightest moment comes through some elegant fight choreography by Geoff Callaway. LILLIAN THEATRE, 1076 Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 4. (323) 960-1056. (Tom Provenzano)

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS This is the second play in Richard Dresser’s trilogy examining happiness in America. Jodi (Joanna Strapp) is a rebellious teen who decides not to go to college and whose college-educated parents, Neil (Matthew Reidy) and Annie (Deedee Rescher), are initially furious. Eventually, however, Jodi’s decision forces them to re-evaluate their own choices. Neil and Annie recall a time when they were as free-spirited as their daughter, and grow increasingly nostalgic for — what else? — the 1960s. The production elements are, for the most part, solid. Julie Keen’s costumes are character-appropriate; Annie’s pastel-colored, velour sweatsuit is the perfect ensemble for the superficial suburban mom. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s moving set-pieces are slick and simple. Strapp, Reidy and Rescher do an adequate job with the material, and director Andrew Barnicle ensures that the pacing never falters. Still, for the most part, watching this play is like watching a live sitcom — amusing enough, but not at all surprising. Two of the supporting actors, however, manage to rise above the show’s general mediocrity. Preston Maybank delivers a winning performance as Annie’s college pal, Spud, demonstrating excellent comedic timing when he shares his newfound solution to alcoholism: “I go one week totally dry, then the next week I drink whatever I want.” Neil’s socially awkward co-worker, Tucker (Tim Cummings), is refreshingly unpredictable. LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; call box office for schedule; thru Feb. 4. (949) 497-2787. (Stephanie Lysaght)

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STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Craig Warner’s problematic stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a thriller but unfolds as a whydunnit since the audience always knows who, in this homicidal fable, is guilty. Yet Warner clings to some of the whodunnit conventions you’d find in a Mousetrap, including a detective whose astonishing breadth of knowledge makes us suspect he sat through Act 1 with us. The result is a schizoid work that never clarifies what it really wants to be. Guy Haines (Christopher McFarland) and Charles Bruno (Adam Chambers) are the titular strangers who cross paths in a lounge car. Charles, a garrulous rich kid, makes a strange suggestion: Charles will kill Guy’s unfaithful wife and, in exchange, Guy will murder the father Charles despises. Mistaking Charles’ proposal for a boozy joke, Guy agrees — with tragic consequences. Director Scott Dittman’s production tries very hard to serve Highsmith’s story of obsession, but struggles with Warner’s uneven script and only really connects with it in the last scene, set in a railway yard. Not helping matters is Noah Lange’s large, spare set; the stage (which is shared with another play) seems to dwarf the cast even as the story demands a neurotic, claustrophobic milieu. Chambers is affably goony as Guy’s homosexual stalker, but doesn’t explore any other levels of interpretation of this disturbing figure. Shari Shattuck turns in a nice portrayal of Charles’ Jocasta-like mother. KNIGHTSBRIDGE THEATER, 1944 Riverside Dr., Silver Lake; Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Feb. 11. (323) 667-0955. (Steven Mikulan)

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