By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
GO LEADING LADIES An exceptional performance can transform unexceptional material into a winning show — rarely better illustrated than with R. Christofer Sands' scintillating turn in playwright Ken Ludwig's farce. Sands plays Leo, a desperate down-and-out Shakespearean actor who — along with his reluctant partner, Jack (Tim Coultas) — dons women's clothes in order to masquerade as the female beneficiaries of a dying heiress. The scammers' plan to score bigtime turns tricky after they both fall in love. Leo inconveniently tumbles for the rich woman's niece, Meg (a deliciously calibrated Elaine Capogeannis), who is soon to be married; this compels him to relaunch his male persona in an effort to romance her away from her stuffy fiancé (Frank Dooley). Despite clever moments — a fencing duel played out to scrambled Shakespeare — the humor often lacks a fresh edge, pivoting around the familiar sight gag of a male squirming uncomfortably in female drag. Ludwig even fobs off Some Like It Hot in the power dynamic he sets up between the two tricksters. Sands, however, is so brilliantly manic, he impeccably captures the brash but conflicted con man, so that even blatantly derivative riffs translate into riotous comedy. Capogeannis and Jen Gabbert, as Jack's ebullient love interest, both hit their comic marks. Other performances are progressing at various stages. Directed by Ken Salzman, the production comes appealingly packaged with designer David Calhoun's attractive set and Lois Tedrow's smart and suitable period costumes, which range from faux Elizabethan to the 1950s. SIERRA MADRE PLAYHOUSE, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 23. (626) 256-3809. (Deborah Klugman)
GO PAGING DR. CHUTZPAH Inspired by '60s sex farces and ribald vaudeville skits, playwright Mark Troy's comedy is a romp that rolls by on director Lynne Moses and her cast's commitment to the play's zany shenanigans. Dr. Lester Oronofsky (Marq Del Monte) is considered the top psychiatrist in Manhattan. But one wonders how he hasn't gotten slapped with a sexual-harassment lawsuit due to his predilection for seducing his patients. You're in for a wacky night, punctuated by Troy's snappy one-liners, Moses' breezy staging, and Del Monte's lecherous leer and Yiddish kvetching. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Dr., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 26. (818) 558-5702. (MH)
RUMPLESTILTZKEN Dwarf helps girl spin straw into gold. WHITEFIRE THEATRE, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Sat., 10 a.m.; thru Feb. 23. (310) 285-5160, www.bubblegumplayhouse.com.
WIT Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winner about a cancer patient. CHANDLER STUDIO THEATRE CENTER, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 16. (800) 838-3006 or www.theprodco.com.
GO ALICE SIT-BY-THE-FIRE J.M. Barrie's 1919 comedy is a far more earthbound affair than his earlier success, Peter Pan, yet it still provides a sweet concoction of precocious observations, misinterpreted dialogue and send-ups of contemporary melodrama. Director Joe Olivieri delivers a production that is neither taxidermied relic nor overly precious giggle-fit, and gets a fine comic performance from Wigell. Barrie's play floats through its three acts — a harmless bubble that perhaps stirred the ribald histrionics of Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw and many another later farce. PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATRE, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 10. (310) 822-8392. (SM)
@HEART J-Powers' epistolary drama uses e-mail and instant messaging to tell an old-fashioned story of love and war. Following 9/11, idealistic young Harris (Mikey Myers) feels like he must do something, so he enlists in the Army, with the wholehearted support of his doting wife, Jennifer (Jessica McClendon). The moral of J-Powers' drama — caught between a tear-jerker and a polemic — seems to be that warrior adventuring is ultimately vanity, while the brave are often left behind. Director Paul Linke's static production mainly consists of the two performers seated behind a pair of laptops. Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Dr., Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 10. (310) 397-3244. (PB)
GO THE BALD SOPRANO Even in Eugene Ionesco's bizarre world, a good laugh is still a good laugh, thanks to director Frederique Michel's assured staging that comes marbled in cool irony. A middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Jeff Atik and David E. Frank in drag), relaxes in a suburban living room not far from Paris. Suddenly, the Smiths' friends, Mrs. and Mr. Martin (Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts), show up on the doorstep — and soon the characters are babbling and ejaculating random bits of nonsense. Michel sets Ionesco's wonderfully random and playful plot with impeccable comic timing. CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 3. (310) 319-9939. (PB)
THE CAVALIER JEW A tale of sibling rivalry written, directed and performed by Jon Ross. Fanatic Salon Theater, 3815 Sawtelle Blvd., Mar Vista; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru March 16. (800) 838-3006, BrownPaperTickets.com.
CHERRY POPPIN' PLAY FESTIVAL A series of one-acts presented by Alive Theatre. Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sun., 8-10 p.m.; thru Jan. 25. (562) 433-8337.
THE MANOR Kathrine Bates' gothic romance, loosely based on the tragic history of the Doheny family. Greystone Mansion, 905 Loma Vista Dr., Beverly Hills; Sat.-Sun., 1 p.m.; thru March 2. (No perfs Feb. 16, 17 & 24.) (310) 550-4796.