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Theater Reviews: Ain't Misbehavin', The Columbine Project, The Rehearsal 

Also, The Designated Mourner, Fubar, The Caterer and more

Wednesday, May 6 2009
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GO  AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ Come for Act 2. Richard Maltby Jr. directed this music-bar revue of songs from the Fats Waller era, many composed by Waller, with words by a stream of lyricists, including Maltby. Like the director, choreographer Arthur Faria has returned from years-long involvement with the 1978 Broadway show to streamline this revival — dwarfed somewhat by the Ahmanson’s barnlike scale. The glitz of shimmering streams of small lights that rim the feet of stairways, or blast in an arc over John Lee Beatty’s Art Deco set (lighting design by Pat Collins), only gets in the way. Music director William Foster McDaniel sits parked at a spinet that floats across the stage through the wonder of hydraulics. I found Act 1 insufferable, with the women in the five-actor ensemble overplaying the same bits of mock-jealousy and forced, girly eroticism, as though Maltby adhered to the dubious principle that if a gag fails once, keep repeating it until it works. The interpretations of 15 songs in Act 1, including “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Squeeze Me,” range from competent to painful, with the ubereffect of cheesiness stemming from the strain of forcing an intimate revue into the kind of overly broad performing style that it just can’t accommodate. Act 2 is like a different show. The glitz recedes, and the style settles into something more earnest and simple — even the vaudeville bits, such as Eugene Barry-Hill’s terrific rendition of “The Viper’s Drag,” in which he wobbles amid jazzy crooning about the pleasures of reefer. Most of the act, however, is committed to blues and ballads, sung with emotional earnestness and simple tech support, with the help of the great eight-piece band, and McDaniel on piano. The show is about the music and contains a wit that's far more savvy and wry than the style of humor in Act 1. The music also provides a mirror onto the ambitions and torments of people in the years before World War II. When the performers (including Doug Eskew, Armelia McQueen, Roz Ryan and Debra Walton) are left alone to do what they do best, the show takes flight. The company turns “Black and Blue” into an ethereal quintet, accompanied only by the piano, that could have been plucked from a church service. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through May 31. (213) 638-4017 or www.centertheatregroup.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE CATERER
“A guy who’s dying jumps off a cliff. On his way down, a sniper puts a bullet through his head. Who killed him?” It’s the kind of intellectual conundrum that’s posed in late-night college dorms, among philosophy majors, and in writer-director Brian Alan Lane’s meandering, stylishly perplexing play. The title character is Oliver Mestman (LeVar Burton), who offers his customers “an appropriate death,” i.e., a demise that’s a victory, not a surrender. His client is a computer-game creator named Stan Guest (James Hiroyuki Liao), doomed to die of Mad Cow Disease. He’s apparently prepared to pay $10 mil for a “good” death, which Oliver delivers via a polonium-laced drink. The play never offers us solid moorings. Oliver sometimes seems to have supernatural powers, and at others he’s an ordinary mortal with a messy life. He spouts aphoristic lines that sound clever but ultimately don’t seem to mean much, though some are good one-liners. As the saying goes, There’s less to this than meets the eye. As director, Lane provides a slickly elegant production on a clever black-and-white set by Adam Rowe, and the cast is terrific, with fine performances by Burton, Liao, Cynthia Watros, Angelle Brooks, and Buddy MacKinder. The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 8 p.m.; through May 10. (323) 960-7724. (Neal Weaver)  
    
GO  THE COLUMBINE PROJECT Marking its 10th anniversary, writer-director Paul Storiale’s involving play explores the personalities and circumstances surrounding the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999. After planting bombs, which fortunately did not detonate, two teenagers, Eric Harris (Artie Ahr) and Dylan Klebold (Justin Mortelliti), shot and killed 12 other students and a teacher, then turned their guns on themselves. Unveiling the story in nonsequential scenes, the script re-creates the elements of the tragedy. Portraying not only the relationships between the perpetrators and their prior disturbed behavior (Harris laid  out their plans on his Web site but they were never taken seriously), it also spotlights their devastated parents and some of the innocent victims. Among them was Rachel Scott (Rya Meyers), a popular girl and self-identified Christian who went out of her way to befriend the outcasts within the school body, where anyone who wasn’t a jock was ridiculed. Transcending melodrama, the play delivers a nuanced account of the whole horrific event. Portraying the banality of evil is not easy, and Ahr does a scrupulous job imparting layers to the menacing Harris. Mortelliti communicates Klebold’s precarious volatility, while Meyers, sweet without being saccharine, exudes a lovely presence. Other strong performances include that of Kelli Joan Bennett as Harris’ mom, crushed with remorse, and Marquerite Wiseman as another grief-stricken parent. Production values are minimal but this is one of those bare-bones productions in which the drama needs no further embellishment. Avery Schreiber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., May 12, 7 p.m.; through May 16. (818) 766-9100. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  THE DESIGNATED MOURNER Written in the dark days when humanistic ideals seemed under siege by the barbarian imperatives of globalization (a.k.a. the Clinton-Gingrich years), Wallace Shawn’s speculative fable is a pitch-black, comic lament for the demise of the belletrist class. Set in a fictional land that seems strangely to resemble New York, the play follows the travails of an aging literary lion, Howard (Don Boughton), and his hero-worshiping daughter, Judy (Sarah Boughton), as they and their genteel circle fall victim to a fascistic regime. Telling their tale is the play’s titular mourner, Jack (Michael Kass), Judy’s deceptively genial husband and one of the pettiest, most mean-spirited and unreliable narrators in stage literature. A member of Howard’s inner circle by accident of marriage, Jack is a hopeless lowbrow whose envy for his father-in-law’s highbrow stature soon turns into a toxic resentment as his own intellectual limitations exclude him from Judy and Howard’s rarefied world. Director Matthew McCray nimbly navigates a potentially unwieldy text — essentially three interwoven monologues — ably realizing Shawn’s famously acerbic wit and savage ironies. Kass’ Jack is a marvel of modulation as the affably sympathetic everyman of Act 1 metamorphoses into the venomous, solipsistic scoundrel of Act 2. Equally fine is Sarah Boughton’s sweetly captivating study in filial fidelity. It is Don Boughton, however, with his mesmerizing portrait of the play’s deeply flawed patrician poet, who all but steals the show. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Mon.-Tues., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., May 16, 3 p.m.; thru May 23. (213) 351-3507. (Bill Raden)

FUBAR
Karl Gajdusek’s new play deals with two San Francisco couples whose lives overlap as they deal with addiction, temptation and realization. Mary (Alice Dodd) and David (Ron Morehouse) live in the shadow of a mountain of boxes belonging to Mary’s deceased mother, who was violently abused by her husband. David’s high school buddy Richard (David Wilcox) and his wife, Sylvia (Amanda Street), experiment with designer drugs, frequent clubs and engage in cyber sex. After Mary is a victim of violence while taking a walk, she becomes hell-bent on fighting back and joins a boxing gym, where she is trained by D.C. (Richard Werner). As Mary and David’s marriage falls apart, David, chasing youth and excitement, becomes enmeshed in the lives of Richard and Sylvia, sinking into their drug-addled lifestyle. Director Larissa Kokernot employs projections creatively, but fails to get much emotion from her cast, and certain choices, such as onstage costume changes and a naturalistic cooking scene, are more confusing than anything. Despite the accomplishments and lengthy resumés of the playwright, director and cast, the play’s characters, relationships and scenarios just don’t sing, leaving the audience with a cocktail of ideas and images that remains beyond recognition. Theater of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 30. (323) 856-8611 or www.theatreofnote.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

R.U.R.
Czech playwright Karel Capek’s 1921 sci-fi horror show is about people’s desire to outsource drudge labor to robots, which are created (birthed in test tubes) by the thousands in a factory where the play transpires. A woman named Helena Glory crosses the ocean to defend the rights of robots in a satire of the early trade-union movement. On the Island of Rossum (reason), which houses the factory, she meets and eventually marries the factory’s general manager, Harry Domin (Jamil Chokachi). That the robots don’t feel anything, and that the humans can benefit from so much leisure time, i.e., unemployment, is an early-20th-century glimpse into precisely the gaffes of economic logic that have landed us in the mire of the early 21st century: If people aren’t employed, how exactly are they supposed to buy the things that the cheap and/or outsourced labor produces? The other side of the play’s equation points to the slippery grip we have on what it means to be human. Adapter Tiger Reel directs a large ensemble, and stages the play on his and Tom Metcalf’s set that features a pair of large screens that mask, translucently, bubbling, gelatinous blobs — future workers in a kind of uterus, blood surging, muscles being formed — Frankenstein-like. The intrusions of one scientist lead to more “perfect” robots, with emotions, which means they finally realize their oppression, and they rise into revolution, turning against their creators. The large ensemble is mostly fine, but Reel has a better eye than ear. When the melodrama of the robot takeover kicks in, it’s hard to discern whether or not the hand-wringing tone is a parody or merely overwrought. When the humans jump around robotically, Reel scores points for concept, but loses points for the emotional ligaments of storytelling. Chokachi’s Harry Domin was so intense, screaming a good many of his lines, he had me rooting for the robots. At least the machines are comparatively quiet, and they don’t overact. Particularly deft performances by Tee Williams, Vera Miao and Jennifer Gabbert. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; added perf Sun., May 10, 6 p.m.; through May 16. (323) 908-7276. (Steven Leigh Morris)   

THE REAL THING
“Loving and being loved is so illiterate,” sighs playwright Henry (Jay Huguley) in Tom Stoppard’s dramedy about commitment to your amour and emotions. Henry boasts that he’s too superior to feel jealousy; his confusion at being cuckolded is channeled into his brilliant but bourgeois living-room dramas, which — like him — risk sounding flip. He’s frustrated with drafting an earnest love story for his new actress wife (Susan Duerden), and Stoppard’s self-aware digressions feel like the author’s apologia for any potential weaknesses. Luckily, such meanderings are few. Before long, Henry’s loudmouthed cynicism eases into a convincing case that he’s the last romantic in England. The brittle wit of the first act softens after intermission when a tenderized Henry offers his definition of fidelity. However, to breathe, these observations need a light, deft touch. Instead, director Allen Barton cranks up the emotionalism, even ending several scenes in a deafening climax of screams and music. Whatever Huguley is bellowing at the ceiling is drowned out in the fury, a misstep for a play that worships the power of words. Skylight Theater, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 7. (323) 960-7861. A Katselas Company production. (Amy Nicholson) 

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