The fury of reading through piles of crappy screenplays for exploitive wages has to be what motivated this vicious comedy series. As playwright Jon Robin Baitz once said, L.A. theater offers a response to the "toxicity of living in a company town," and Magnum Opus Theatre is a strong response to just that. In director Joe Jordan's crisp-as-toast style, a company of nine performs this excruciating screenplay with unfettered mockery, with Your Host, Thurston Eberhard Hillsboro-Smythe, a.k.a. "Thursty" (Brandon Clark, in red dinner jacket and the droll pomposity of Alistair Cooke in Masterpiece Theatre) reading all the stage directions, including misspellings. This is the story of a chubby girl named Amber (Franci Montgomery, who is not chubby at all, which is part of the joke), abused like Cinderella by her beer-swilling aunt (CJ Merriman), who curses her, slaps her and calls her a pig â a Punch and Judy show by any other name. Amber has a fantasy lover, the ghost of a Hollywood actor (Michael Lanahan) accidentally slain during the filming of a gangster gun battle. Through plot convolutions too tedious to enumerate, Amber winds up in Hollywood, in a movie about her travails, for which she receives an Academy Award. As the plot slid into its final trajectory, the crowd shouted out "noooooh," as it became cognizant of where this was heading. Any play can be ridiculed simply by employing theatrical devices used here: Whenever "Thursty" reads: "Jeff gives her a passionate kiss," Lanahan uses his fingers to withdraw a sloppy kiss from his mouth, which he then palms off to Montgomery's hand, who then slips the "kiss" into her blouse. But even this wildly presentational brand of theatrical ridicule can't disguise the artlessness of the dialogue and stage directions. What emerges through the event's cruelty â besides the mercifully unnamed screenwriter's ineptitude â is a portrait of the writer, for whom Amber is an obvious stand-in. As the lampoon wears itself out, we're left with something underneath that's gone beyond parody to the pathetic â the reasons somebody would have written such a story in the first place, and the hollow, generic fantasies that serve as balm for her feelings of isolation. Watching this show is like watching well-trained runners pushing somebody out of a wheelchair. That's a comic bit from old sketch-TV shows, but 90 minutes of it leave you feeling that the company's comic fury is so strong, and its skills so sharp, the joke has been propelled beyond its target to a very dark place, fascinating in its own right. Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope, L.A.; Fri., 11 p.m.; through Feb. 27. (310) 281-8337.
Fridays, 11 p.m. Starts: Jan. 30. Continues through Feb. 27, 2009