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THE BUSY WORLD IS HUSHED Why do bad things happen to good people? How is it that God not only allows suffering but often appears to engineer it? These existential conundrums, plus a bevy of theological issues about Jesus, abound in playwright Keith Bunin’s weighty, wordy play structured around an Episcopalian minister named Hannah (Judy Jean Berns), her assistant, Brandt (Josh Mann), and her prodigal son, Thomas (Robert Hardin). Long a widow, Hannah spends much time absorbed in Biblical scholarship, and has hired Brandt to ghostwrite a book about a recently uncovered gospel. Fiercely resentful of his mom, Thomas has recently returned home after one of his many wild escapades, in time to fall in love with the shy soft-spoken young writer. The liberal-minded Hannah accepts their relationship and even encourages it, but Thomas remains inexplicably hostile toward her. Indeed, one of the play’s prominent flaws is that it’s never clear why Thomas is so angry; here and elsewhere, the writer’s blueprint for conflict is evident, while the whys and wherefores are not. The problem is exacerbated by Hardin’s display of untempered machismo and, later, grimaced expressions, under Richard Kilroy’s direction. While he lacks range, Mann’s circumscribed performance at least comes across as honest. It’s left to Berns, in the trickiest and most intellectual of the three roles, to shoulder the drama’s emotional weight, which she does with finesse. Meta Theater, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (323) 960-5770. A Bright Eyes Productions production. (Deborah Klugman)
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN Ariel Dorfman’s political/philosophical melodrama centers on Paulina (Hungarian actress Enci), who was tortured and raped while a prisoner of her country’s dictatorship. Now, the dictator has been overthrown, and Paulina’s husband, Gerard (Eric Curtis Johnson), is investigating the crimes of the former regime. But when Dr. Robert Miranda (Benton Jennings) comes to their beach house to visit Gerard, Paulina believes he is the sadistic doctor who once tortured her. While Gerard sleeps, she takes the doctor prisoner, binding and gagging him. What follows is a three-way battle: Paulina is intent on extracting a confession from Miranda and wreaking vengeance, while Gerard opposes vigilante justice, urging her to let the democratic process and the forces of law prevail. Miranda seeks only to preserve his life and escape. Enci provides a strong and eloquent performance, but Dorfman’s carefully contrived play requires a seamless production to be credible, and director Dado is not entirely successful in providing one. Neither Gerard nor Miranda seems strong enough to be serious contenders against Paulina, and a longish scene played out in near-total darkness produced more giggles than dramatic tension. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Dec. 21. A SkyPilot Theatre Production. (800) 838-3006 or www.SkyPilotTheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)
IT’S A PRETTY GOOD LIFE This scattershot and offbeat musical revisiting of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (book credited to Kathleen Cramer, music to J. Raoul Brody, from a story by Cramer, O-Lan Jones and Andrea Stein) is an idiosyncratic concoction, with a few Christmas themes attached. On X-mas Eve, three eccentric, angelic ladies (Jones, Molly Bryant and Martha Gehman) descend on a theater to present a slapdash production of Dickens’ famous story of Scrooge. The so-called “Three Wise Babes” have no props, costumes or actors, and their previous theatrical attempt — a rap production of “The History of Women’s Rights,” set to saxophone — mortally offended their audience. Nevertheless, the women hold some hasty auditions and are pleased when the perfect Scrooge — wheelchair-bound, paraplegic physics genius Stephen “Hawkings” (John Fleck) — careens into the theater, accompanied by his sexy nurse (Ali Tobia). Director Tony Abatemarco’s energetic but occasionally undisciplined staging boasts some impressively creative and comically charged acting but ultimately in the misbegotten service of a random and incoherent text. Cramer’s gags frequently don’t make sense, while Brody’s darkly philosophical songs belong in some other musical. The muddy wind-tunnel acoustics of the Miles Playhouse play havoc with David O’s sprightly musical direction — many of the lyrics are overpowered by the piano. Still, Jones is always a marvel in whatever show she’s in, and here she dazzles as the boisterously witchy “wise babe” who takes on the show-within-a-show’s directorial chores. And Fleck’s magical transformation from paraplegic to repellant Scrooge is a magnificently bug-eyed turn. Miles Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 655-2410. Overtone Industries. (Paul Birchall)
GO KILLING GAME Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s little-known play seems a logical, and theological, extension of his more famous, politically charged Rhinoceros, about the steady conversion of a rural town’s population into pachyderms (stand-ins for the Nazis); here, the setting is an “idyllic city,” where a seemingly passé gathering of people on a street turns bizarre when, one by one, they all drop dead, including two infants in a stroller. Soon, the citizens are told that a mysterious plague has broken out and that the city is to be quarantined, after which all hell breaks loose. We witness scenes of panic, rabid paranoia, murder by gunshots and lots of dying, as the populace reacts much like a horde of lab rats. The grim mis en scène is not without its funnier side, such as when two convicts attempting an escape from jail are given the keys to their freedom by the jailer, but they refuse to leave; or a gathering of snooty uptowners whose serene sense of propertied safety is shattered when death comes calling. Ultimately, the playwright is not really concerned with death but with what happens when mass fear and irrationality seep in and infect the community. Every actor in director Chris Covics’ white-clad, nameless ensemble dies at least once, which makes the proceedings, after a time, rather predictable. But the monotony isn’t seriously contagious and is offset by many thought-provoking, lighter moments. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 466-7781. (Lovell Estell III)