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Theater Reviews: Leiris Picasso, A Memory of What Might Have Been, The Jesus Hickey 

Also, The Importance of Being Earnest, Grace and Glorie and more

Thursday, Jun 17 2010
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THE CLEAN HOUSE Playwright Sarah Ruhl's bittersweet farce consists of quickly shifting emotional extremes — at times characters may burst out laughing, but then they start weeping from sorrow midchortle. Kind-hearted Brazilian comedienne Matilde (Elizabeth Liang) might very well be the funniest woman in the world (in her native Portuguese), but she emigrates to the United States and gets a job working as the maid to sourpuss doctor Lane (Colette Kilroy), who is understandably perturbed that her servant prefers cracking jokes to swabbing the floors. When she learns that her surgeon husband Charles (Don Fischer) has fallen in love with one of his mastectomy patients (Denise Blasor), Lane's world crumbles — but she gets help and support from Matilde and from Lane's emotionally fragile sister Virginia (Shawna Casey), who, as it happens, has a cleanliness fetish. It's awkward, but the theme of emotional extremes extends to the two acts of Ruhl's play: In co-directors Stefan Kruck/Ron Sossi's uneven production, Act 1 is crisp, involving, and scathingly funny, while Act 2 meanders, miring itself in a self indulgently sentimental tone, random plotting and aimless pacing. However, when Kuhl's comedy is strong, it delights with sharp dialogue, brittle characterizations, and smart ironic juxtapositions, such as the exchanges between Kilroy's hilariously uptight Lane and Liang's wonderfully inscrutable Matilde. The play is not so much a standard depiction of the American class system, as it touches on the idea that individuals contain an fixed core of self which is either happy or miserable — whatever situation arises in life, their ultimate default emotional reaction surfaces. It's just a shame that the show goes off the rails midway through, into terrain of forced and surreal fragments. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (after July 3, no Thursday performances); through July 18. (Paul Birchall)

GO  DRUNK TALK Welcome to McSwiggins. For the motley assortment of career barflies, neighborhood hotheads, Walmart Casanovas and lovelorn alcoholics who make it their home away from home, the old-school Hollywood watering hole is the kind of place where everybody knows your name (or soon will, though you'll probably regret it long before last call). Playwright Lance Whinery's irresistibly goofy, one-act parody of the hallowed saloon sitcom takes the form into the kind of seedy, low-rent dramatic neighborhood where the denizens of Cheers were never drunk enough to tread. Its intentionally insipid plot, cliché-ridden characters and wincingly corny one-liners are frighteningly familiar. And in Thomas Blake's environmental staging, where the audience has ostensibly joined the regulars to toast the beloved bar's final night in business, the manner in which the actors shamelessly cheat their punch lines toward the spectators creates the impression of being a captive member of a live TV-studio audience. Then the other shoe drops: As the story and the drinking progress, and the characters' alcohol-fueled belligerence morphs into an increasingly maudlin and effusive bonhomie, Blake unleashes his cast of expert ad libbers and insult comics (standouts include David Alfano, Tobias Jelinek and Kim Estes) into the audience to harass and humiliate. But there won't be any hard feelings — because in true sitcom logic any conflicts that erupt or are miraculously resolved will be mercifully nullified in the amnesiac haze of the morning's hangover. Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 1, brownpapertickets.com/event/111874. (910) 367-6735. (Bill Raden)

GO  GRACE AND GLORIE Sensitive direction by Cameron Watson and distinguished performances by Beth Grant and Melinda Page Hamilton transform playwright Tom Ziegler's predictable tear-jerker into genuinely compelling theater. In a virtuoso turn with not a false note, Grant portrays Grace, an illiterate and opinionated nonagenarian who's outlived her husband and five sons, and is now living and dying alone in her backwoods Appalachian cabin. Enter Glorie (Hamilton), a hospice volunteer with an MBA from Harvard (and a wardrobe from Bloomingdale's), determined to care for the crotchety old lady despite her cantankerous objections. Grace's primitive living conditions and trust-in-the-Lord philosophy dismay the sophisticated Glorie, whose do-good resolve falters after she burns herself on Grace's wood-burning stove and confronts a rodent under the sink. The holy-rolling Grace, on the other hand, is appalled by Glorie's blasphemous language and feminist thinking. Gradually, these two very different people find common ground as they uncover each other's secrets and become open to mutual solace and support. Because Grant's character has the best lines and the choicest opportunity for laughs, she frequently steals the limelight, but Hamilton's less flamboyant persona is no less skillfully drawn. Designer Jeff McLaughlin's admirably detailed set, embellished with props by MacAndME, enfolds the drama with a rich atmospheric dimension. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 18. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY C.M. GONZALEZ - Magnum Opus: Surf Dogs Unite!
  • PHOTO BY C.M. GONZALEZ
  • Magnum Opus: Surf Dogs Unite!

GO  THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Lisa Wolpe's traditional but silky-smooth production of Oscar Wilde's crowd-pleasing comedy is a gender-bender — at least partially. Jack and Algernon are played by women (Wolpe and Cynthia Beckert), Lady Bracknell is performed by a man (John Achorn), and the remaining roles are given gender-appropriate casting. Wolpe and Beckert are stylish and elegant, though Wolpe is more convincingly male. Achorn's Lady Bracknell is a sort of Wagnerian bulldog, masking iron determination behind a relentless mask of respectability. Katrinka Wolfson gives us a haughtily kittenish Gwendolen, and Laura Covelli daintily captures Cecily's faux naiveté and maidenly modesty. Kevin Vavasseur doubles as the two butlers, playing Lane as an urbane and perfect servant, and sketching Merriman as a more rural bumpkin. Linda Bisesti's Miss Prism is coyly demure, and Mark Bramhall's Dr. Chasuble is a gallant, plummy-voiced clergyman. Wolpe's production is briskly played, running a bit more than 90 minutes without intermission, and she leads her cast in faithfully playing the situations as well as the lines. The simple formalized sets are by Mia Torres, and the terrific Victorian costumes are by Allison Leach, who's particularly to be commended for the men's tailoring. The Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica; performed in rotating rep as part of The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival, through June 27; check schedule at lawsc.net. A production of the L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company. (800) 838-3006, brownpapertickets.com. (Neal Weaver)

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