Theater Reviews: Hillary Agonistes, Of Mice and Men, Flora the Red Menace 

Also Indecent Acts, I'd Rather Be Right and more

Monday, May 12 2008

ANATOMY OF A SLAP A small, awkward space impinges on optimal enjoyment of this collaborative effort compiled by eight writers, including director Luis Reyes. The premise – a sort of postmodern Noises Off – will appeal mostly to theater people. But there’s enough humor here to dispel one’s worst fears about plays within plays. The specifics don’t matter much for several reasons, among them the patchwork quality of this group effort, Reyes’ valiant but still crabbed direction of too many actors in a tiny space, and the show’s awkward opening and anticlimactic ending. What’s fun is the stuff in the middle, even if occasionally lame, as when the addled Kip (writer Tom Markley) almost gets his ass kicked by Roy (Guy Killum), a bitter actor on the descent, who mistakenly thinks Kip is mocking him. When Kip says he’s taken classes to become a screenwriter, Roy hears “street fighter.” Much more amusing is the scene in which vain actor Jason (Ben Fuller) is running lines with theater wannabe Shelby (Michael Datz), just as Jason’s girlfriend, Diane (Kahshanna Evans), confronts him about their relationship. As Jason tries to quell the angry Diane, Shelby keeps correcting him, underscoring just how many of Jason’s supposedly spontaneous protestations are essentially scripted. What doesn’t work is the framing device for all this — the tense relationship between Renee (Paula Vincent), who’s written the play within this play, and her mother, known to us only through Renee’s comments on a troublesome cell phone. Son of Semele Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru May 31. (323) 469-4680. Off-Chance Productions. (David Mermelstein)

Michael Lamont

Flora the Red Menace

Craig Schwartz

Of Mice and Men

Ed Krieger

A House With No Walls

BLUE NIGHT IN THE HEART OF THE WEST James Stock’s play suggests a Dadaist variation on Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. The Shreveports are an incestuous, illiterate, intolerant farm family in Epiphany, Iowa. Son Carl (Benjamin Burdick) is humping both mom Ruth (Hepburn Jamieson) and his palm-reading sister, Kristin (Daryl Dickerson). Dad (Andrew Schlessinger) is a deceased Marine whose ghost comes back to visit Ruth and dance to Peggy Lee records. Carl has an unlikely fascination with English movies and the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Their corn is leveled by a tornado, their pigs commit suicide, and the land is (perhaps) sinking into the ground. Meanwhile, Scottish topiary artist Andrew McAlpine (Shawn MacAulay) decides that Scotland is dying of nostalgia, and immigrates to Nevada to practice his art, till he discovers Nevada has no shrubbery. The two plot lines converge (sort of) when Andrew changes his name to John and marries Kristin. Writer Stock seems to feel that if he piles up enough colorful symbols, they’ll eventually mean something, but, alas, they don’t. His play boasts some funny lines and situations – beautifully acted under Amanda Weier’s direction. But the longer it goes on, the less it matters. Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p,m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 21. (323) 882-6912, www.openfist.org. (Neal Weaver)

FLORA THE RED MENACE The Great Depression is showing up musicals all over the place. (See this week’s capsule review of I’d Rather Be Right.) With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by George Abbott, Flora first showed up on Broadway in 1965, featuring Liza Minnelli in the title role of a Hungarian fashion-designer emigré to New York. Here she’s played by Eden Espinosa, whose beautiful voice can’t quite compensate for a performance of impenetrable perkiness. Flora lives and leads a commune of the barely employed, joins the Communist Party, and then gets caught in a moral quagmire of a labor strike with her more ideologically rigid boyfriend, Harry (Manoel Felciano). (What a gutsy move, to treat Communists seriously on the 1965 Broadway stage.) Though this production’s reconfigured book by David Thompson, created for the 1987 Vineyard Theatre revival, accentuates the need for activism to grapple with an economic crisis, offset by the pitfalls of rigid dogma, it’s not until Act 2 that these nuances show up. And though it’s intriguing to hear musical echoes of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, Flora contains only one good song, “Quiet Thing,” exquisitely interpreted by Espinosa. The rest of Philip Himberg’s staging — imagined as a bare-bones WPA theater production — hovers between being adequate and inadequate. The four-piece band (two pianos, percussion and string bass) is overwhelmed by the large space and this musical’s technical demands, and in terms of sheen, as one patron aptly remarked at intermission, “Something is lacking.” UCLA, Macgowan Hall; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru May 18. (310) 825-2101. A Reprise Theatre Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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