Theater Reviews: Eat the Runt, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Cute With Chris | Theater | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Theater Reviews: Eat the Runt, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Cute With Chris 

Miss Witherspoon, The Bourgeois Gentilhomme and more

Wednesday, Nov 12 2008
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GO BACKSEATS & BATHROOM STALLS It used to be said that comedy was about the restoration of the social order. But writer Rob Mersola seems intent on demonstrating that, at ground level, there is no social order. His extravagant farce extracts its laughs from its characters’ miseries and sexual misadventures. Both Josie (Sadie Alexandru) and Elaine (Jeni Persons) are driven by self-loathing and murderous sexual competitiveness. Josie is having an affair with priapic film student Harlan (Michael Alperin), who just wants admiration and sexual servicing, and it doesn’t much matter from whom. He’s also engaging in anonymous erotic encounters with Josie’s gay roommate Calvin (Joshua Bitton). Elaine is engaged to a gay man (Daniel Ponickly) who’s in deep denial of his homosexuality, despite his obsessive pursuit of anonymous men’s room sex. Stirring the mix is Giuseppe (Anil Kumar), a relentless seducer who utilizes his claim of prophetic powers to win over both women. Mersola is a clever writer who exploits the tried-and-true farce structure to engineer a funny final scene in which all the characters are brought together to have their lies, deceptions and shenanigans unmasked. A skillful cast meticulously mines the laughs in this crowd-pleasing date show. The Lyric Hyperion Theatre Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; call for schedule; through Dec. 13. (323) 960-7829. An E. 4th Street Production. (Neal Weaver)

GO THE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME You’d think, from reading the world press, that racism and, by extension, classism, had suddenly been vanquished from the nation — overnight, by a stunning national election. Such is the power of symbolism and hope. Sooner or later, we will settle into a more realistic view of who we are, and were, and how we have evolved in ways perhaps more subtle than the current “we are the world” emotional gush would lead one to believe. It’s in this more self-critical (rather than celebratory) frame of mind that Molière’s 1670 comedy – a satire of snobbery and social climbing – will find its relevance renewed. For now, however, Frederique Michel (who directed the play) and Charles Duncombe’s fresh and bawdy translation-adaptation serves up a bouquet of comedic delights that offers the caution that — though celebrating a milestone on the path of social opportunity is worthy of many tears of joy — perhaps we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves with self-congratulations. The Bourgeois Gentleman was first presented the year after Tartuffe, and it contains many of the hallmarks of its more famous cousin: a deluded and pompous protagonist (Jeff Atik); a con man (Troy Dunn) aiming for social advancement by speculating on the blind arrogance of his patron; and the imposition by the insane master of the house of an arranged marriage for his crestfallen daughter (Alisha Nichols). The play was originally written as a ballet-farce, for which composer Jean-Baptiste Lully performed in the production before the court of Louis XIV. Michel’s visually opulent staging features scenery (designed by Duncombe) that includes a pair of chandeliers, and costumes (by Josephine Poinsot) in shades of red, maroon and black. Michel employs Lully’s music in a nod to the original. (The singing is far too thin even to support the jokes about its competence.) Michel also includes a lovely ballet by performers in mesmerizing “tears of a clown” masks, a choreographed prance of the fops, and she has characters bounding and spinning during otherwise realistic conversations, mocking style over substance. Comedy has a maximum refrigeration temperature of 75 degrees, and when that temperature was exceeded during Act 1 during the performance I attended, the humor ran off the tracks – despite the broad style being sustained with conviction by the performers. By Act 2, the heat problem had been remedied and the comedy began playing again as it should. In fact, I haven’t seen a comic tour de force the likes of Atik’s Monseiur Jordain since Alan Bomenfeld’s King Ubu at A Noise Within. As Jourdain is trying to woo a countess (the striking Deborah Knox), Atik plays him attired in silks and bows of Ottoman extravagance, with a blissfully stupid expression – every dart of his eyes reveals Jordain’s smug self-satisfaction, which is embedded with delirious ignorance. City Garage, 1340½ (alley) Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris)

BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON There’s delicate poetical imagery in Robert Schenkkan’s 2005 drama about the meeting of and fleeting romance between two exiles in an Austin suburb. That delicacy, however, is saturated by generic chat between the characters and a somewhat predictable romance. You know a play’s in trouble when a gun has to be drawn in order to elicit some palpable drama. That’s no slight against the actors — Demian Bichir and Shannon Cochran — whose sincere and layered interpretations of a Cuban gardener and his deeply troubled white female employer keep the action watchable. This is a play that unearths the past about how they got to where they are — stories of their respective betrayals, as both victims and perpetrators, their guilt and their defenses as life’s hardships have piled up against both of them. So the drama consists of them meeting, courting, spurning that courtship, her regrets over their one-night stand, and the stories that spill from both of them with far too much ease to be an entirely plausible reflection of the grief they’ve both suffered. Michael Ganio’s ornate set consists of an outdoor jungle of pampas-grass for Act 1, which yields to the woman’s bedroom in Act 2. It has a kind of cinematic realism that seems at odds with the metaphysics the play is driving at — where freedom is the freedom to imagine. Neither the play nor the set asks for much imagination on our part. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Dec. 7. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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