Theater Reviews: Groundlings Swimsuit Edition, A Good Smoke 

Also, Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue!

Monday, Mar 3 2008

AMERICA'S NEXT TOP BOTTOM Reality TV has introduced a competitive element into almost every realm of human endeavor, from top models, top chefs and top filmmakers to top idols, top singers and top dancers. It was inevitable that someone would introduce competitive sex. In this case, the title tells you all you need to know. If you find it amusing, you'll probably love the show. If not, not. Most of the audience seemed to find it hilarious. It follows the contest-show format, with a lanky, trailer-trash, drag-queen hostess, Trina Sugg (Drew Droege), and several contestants who must participate in talent competitions including belching, diva impersonation and arm wrestling. The only top in the crowd is Butch, played by an unidentified female with an ineptly bound chest. The humor is mostly anatomical, with references to Boy Butter and lines like "I started out as a tight end and then switched over to wide receiver." The contestants are listed only pseudonymously in the program, but audience members get to vote on which one should be eliminated. The show was created by Michael Matthews, Jason Moyer, Efrain Schunior and the cast. CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 p.m.; thru March 15. (323) 957-1884. (Neal Weaver)

Michael von Redlich

Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue

Ed Krieger

Crime and Punishment

Shawn Bishop

Groundlings Swimsuit Edition

GO  CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Fyodor Dostoyevsky's seminal profile of a killer with a superman complex and a moral imperative to dispose of a miserly old pawnbroker, whose death would ease the plight of others, gets boiled down to a lean and surprisingly effective 90-minute drama, in Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus' adaptation. It employs only three actors, portraying multiple roles. Set in 19th-century St. Petersburg, Russia, the play condenses Dostoyevsky's theology, philosophy and psychodrama into a kind of dream, with riveting performances by Ben Hunter, as the killer, Raskolnikov; Suzanne Friedline as the prostitute, Sonia, with no alternative means to feed her family; and Paul Witten's wry detective, Porfiry, whose interrogations form the drama's spine, fleshed out by other characters through flashbacks and meditations. Ken Sawyer's staging is at times gorgeous, with Jeremy Pivnick's backlighting of the ghostly figures, and Sawyer's own sound design, which amps up the melodrama. The main drawback is that Sawyer succumbs to the Hollywood blur of not knowing the difference between a work of theater and one of cinema. Music played against entire scenes (composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimer and Reinhold Heil, from the movie Perfume — The Story of a Murderer, used with permission) creates atmosphere with such moody imposition, it trivializes whatever theatricality the actors have worked hard to muster. The theater has an austere power of ideas and language, and Sawyer simply doesn't trust it. Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (added perfs Sat., March 8 and 15, 2:30 p.m.); thru April 13. (323) 462-8460. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE EULOGY Brynn Thayer stands before her father's flag-draped coffin. Skilled at sports, seduction and securities fraud, he had a big personality that sucked so much air from the room that her unhinged eulogy sounds like the first chance she ever had to speak. And she's reveling in it, pointing out her dear old dad's mistress Candy and the best friend/enemy she blames for his four-year incarceration. It's hard to tell how much of Thayer's sharp-tonged and playful monologue is truth; biographical facts (like their respective careers in the soap-opera and military industries) match up, but the slender and pert Thayer succeeds more in sketching the bold strokes of a father-daughter portrait than in filling in the details that would give it depth. When her meltdown passes through venom to acceptance, the effect is unaffecting cutesiness, and the hints that his indulgences might have been inherited aren't fully explored. Michael Learned's direction is crisply comedic. Camelot Artists at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 15. (310) 358-9936. (Amy Nicholson)

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  • Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue

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GO  A GOOD SMOKE Writer-director Don Cummings adeptly captures the chaos enveloping a collapsing family, in his dark one-act comedy. Eldest son Dave (Henry Gummer) has returned to his family's home in the hope of straightening out the latest mess. Coinciding with the birth of her first grandchild, Mom (Barbara Gruen) goes off her meds and lands in a psychiatric ward. She's now back at home, but Dave's attempts to get her to rehab are thwarted by his younger brother, Joe (Blake Anthony), who's become Mom's enabler. Mom may — or may not — have pancreatitis, or possibly fibromyalgia; what she does have is an endless supply of prescription pain pills, which Joe hides, doling them out one by one when she begs. Dad (Dennis Delsing) copes by drinking himself into a stupor. Despite pleas from both sons, Mom refuses to go to the hospital to see her daughter, Susan (Madelynn Fattibene), and the baby, nor will she visit Susan and her granddaughter at home. Cummings has a gift for the pointed barb, and some of the dialogue is hilarious, despite the situation's gravity. His direction is as fast-paced as the dialogue, and Gruen delivers a tremendous performance as a deceptive, manipulative drug addict. Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 29. (800) 838-3006. The Production Company. (Sandra Ross)

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