DID YOU DO YOUR HOMEWORK? Writer-performer Aaron Braxton has passion and talent — both amply evident in this promising work in progress about the difficulties of teaching in the urban classroom. A 13-year veteran with L.A. Unified, Braxton builds his piece around his early experience as a substitute teacher filling in for an old-timer — 33 years on the job — who one day ups and quits. A gift for mimicry brings the performer’s characters into clear comic focus: himself as the beleaguered Mr. Braxton, several colorful problem students, their even more colorful and problematic parents and another staff member — a well-meaning elderly bureaucrat in charge of the school’s counterproductive testing program.
At times Braxton steps away from dramatizing the action to speak to the audience directly about the frustrations of trying to make a difference, contrasting his own upbringing as the son of a teacher, taught to respect education, with the imperviously disdainful attitude of his pupils. He also sings four songs, displaying a beautiful voice. The piece’s main problem is its disjointedness and discontinuity; the songs, reflective of Braxton’s message, are only tenuously connected to the narrative, itself a patchwork collection of anecdotes juxtaposed against addresses to the audience. This gives the show a hybrid feel — part performance, part moral exposition, part musical showcase. Yet there is plenty of power and potential here. Kathleen Rubin directs. Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 18. (310) 358-9936. (Deborah Klugman)
GO GHOSTS There’s nothing supernatural about Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 drama: His ghosts are our own bitter memories and the old, dead ideas that continue to confine and stifle us. The form and the language may be dated, but the issues are as fresh as ever. Mrs. Alving (Deborah Strang) has crucified herself in the service of duty and respectability that narrow provincial society and her own hypocritical minister, Pastor Manders (Joel Swetow), have drilled into her. But her efforts to do the right thing have backfired because they were based on lies, and her attempts to shield her son (J. Todd Adams) from hard truths have almost destroyed him. Ibsen has structured his play like Oedipus Rex — or a modern whodunit. On a seemingly ordinary day, inconvenient truths keep emerging, inexorably, till everything and everyone are morally compromised or destroyed. Director-adapter Michael Murray has assembled a fine cast (including Mark Bramhall and understudy Rebecca Mozo); he calibrates their performances with precision and reveals a sharp eye for Ibsen’s dark comedy. If one wanted to quibble, one might wish the last scene had been played for a bit less melodrama, but overall, it’s a terrific, coherent and always engrossing production. Nikki Delhomme provided the fine costumes. A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale; in alternating rep through May 9; call for schedule. (818) 240-0910. (Neal Weaver)
JUMPING THE MEDIAN: AN EVENING OF 4 UNEXPECTED ONE ACTS Playwright Steve Connell’s collection of four one-act plays may bill itself as “unexpected,” but for the most part, the vignettes are sadly prosaic, mining familiar romantic tropes and themes. Strongest of the set is the promisingly stark “Us And Them,” in which a bubbly young couple (Tyler Moore and Sara Sido) move into their new home, which was previously owned by a miserable, older couple (In-Q and Elizabeth Maxwell). Imaginatively staged by co-directors Connell and Emily Weisberg, the set is divided into two quadrants, showing both couples in the same house at different times — and the piece artfully hints at the haunting (if not necessarily logical) idea that the young loving couple must inevitably turn into the older, miserable couple.
Sadly, the other vignettes do not rise to the same emotionally nuanced level. “Jumping the Median” is a plodding, overwritten opus about the long, long, long courtship of a young couple (Ida Darvish and Connell), who endlessly woo each other at that hoariest of one-act play locales, the iconic park bench. In “Love Thy Neighbors,” whose choppy dialogue and clumsily cartoonish tone has the sloppy and random feel of having been written in haste, a suburban mom (Sara Sido) welcomes the neighbors for dinner — and the neighbors somewhat inexplicably turn out to be literal characters out of ancient Greek drama. Connell is a slam poet of some national reputation, so it’s natural that he and Weisberg’s crisp staging has a dark, streetwise edge. It’s just a pity the writing itself devolves so frequently into dull cliché. The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 19. www.plays411.com/jumpingthemedian. (Paul Birchall)
GO LOUIS & KEELY: LIVE AT THE SAHARA I haven’t seen this musical study of ’50s lounge-act crooners Louis Prima and Keely Smith since its transcendent premiere at Sacred Fools Theatre last year, and oh, is it different. Documentary- and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Taylor Hackford has been busy misguiding writer-performers Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith’s musical. Taylor took over from director Jeremy Aldridge, who brought it to life in East Hollywood. Smith and Broder have drafted an entirely new book, added onstage characters — including Frank Sinatra (Nick Cagle), who, along with Broder and Smith, croons a ditty. (As though Cagle can compete with Sinatra’s voice, so embedded is it into the pop culture.) They’ve also added Prima’s mother (Erin Matthews) and other people who populated the pair’s lives.