New Theater Reviews

CHOICE WORDS Twenty-something Owen (Tom O’Keefe) has been tormented by obsessive-compulsive disorder all his life and is attempting suicide by overdose when his buddies Phil (Robert Fileta) and Arty (Hector Hill) drop by for a visit. Phil responds with grave concern, but the unsympathetic Arty sneers that a self-pitying Owen is blowing his problems out of proportion. Based on true events, the hourlong play, Hill’s first as playwright, serves basically to educate us to the torments of OCD sufferers, with Owen detailing the mental processes that accompany his bizarre behaviors. The dialogue also spins off into social and philosophical issues such as abortion and the intrinsic value of life. Unfortunately, notwithstanding a few anecdotes about Owen’s sex life and family, there are no fully fleshed characters or plot to grab on to. Under Sal Romeo’s direction, Hill’s Arty sounds tiresomely one-note as the voice of ignorance, and the somber Fileta doesn’t vary much either. O’Keefe works hard to communicate Owen’s pain, but is hampered by the lack of a good story. Laurelgrove Theater Company at the Hollywood Court Theater, United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 25. (323) 692-8200. (Deborah Klugman)

DIALECTICS OF THE HEART Set in and around a university, Dale Griffiths Stamos’ new play studies the crisis of Elizabeth (Sharon Lawrence), a professor of philosophy and rationalist who gets in a lather over Plato — until she starts falling for her T.A. (the charismatic Nicholas Gonzalez). And this, after she testified against a male colleague (Joel Polis) for his affair with a student. But this isn’t really about indiscretion or even ethics, it’s about how we know what we know, and who we think we are as we negotiate inner conflicts between duty and desire. For a new play, this is old-fashioned stuff; the cobwebs glisten in the stage light during snippets from lectures by Elizabeth and Richard, literally attaching the likes of Descartes and Spinoza to lend gravity to their otherwise trite affair. Director Alison Vail Fuller could also spice up some of the scene transitions with pace and a wider variety of musical accompaniment: Excerpts from composers straddling the classical and romantic ages make the point, many times, that we’re in a world of the mind versus the heart, in case you zoned out during the lectures. Lawrence is beautiful and dignified as her mask of rectitude slowly crumbles. Polis and Carlease Burke also turn in appealing performances as her colleagues and confidants. Venice Sky Productions at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (310) 392-7327. (Steven Leigh Morris)

DIVA Redefined and reclaimed over the decades by VH1 specials and glittered T-shirts, sitcom writer turned playwright Howard Michael Gould here re-establishes the concept of diva as a pejorative. Deanna Denninger (Annie Potts), star of the Emmy-winning, humbly titled comedy Deanna, drives with Gould’s license, acting like a right bitch. Potts is a fine comedian, here trapped in an irredeemably unfunny role. The only woman in the whole production, as her character takes pains to remind us, Deanna is dumb, mean and promiscuous (her agent calls the glamazon’s crotch “her own little Vietnam”), and even more galling to the feminists in the audience, she plays the sexism card when she’s denied what she wants — like a 2,200-square-foot trailer. Gould attempts to balance out the slag fest by greasing his male leads — the writer (Todd Waring), the agent (Patrick Fabian) and the exec (Richard Kline) — with a coat of Hollywood slime. However, the lack of onstage chemistry or credibility compounds this show’s problems, which include momentum-stifling reversal of sequences in the plot. I’d be remiss if I didn’t complement Yael Pardess’ set, Jean-Pierre Dorleac’s costuming, and a dozen of Gould’s funnier one-liners. David Lee directs. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 & 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (626) 356-7529. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  I’M NOT PAYING FOR THIS! The brief and stormy marriage of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine brings performer Varla Jean Merman’s sultry voice, gorgeous gams and flaming red tresses to L.A. after a two-year absence. And, girl, was it worth the wait. This time out Miss Merman (the drag alter ego of writer-performer Jeffery Roberson) tackles the Seven Deadly Sins, and who better to sing their praises than a woman who has committed them all (some of them between her costume changes)? From the opening video of Varla’s surreal encounter with her own teenage self to a hilarious “before and after” celebrity photo slide show illustrating the sin of pride, Miss Merman combines wit with her commanding singing voice — as in her operatic version of disco tunes and her “lust” song to an improbable (well, let’s say unconventional) lover. Director Michael Schiralli keeps things moving, drummer Denise Fraser complements with appropriate rim jobs, er, shots, and Philip Heckman’s outrageous costumes, from lederhosen to a leafy Garden of Eden body suit, are a drag queen’s dream. L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theater, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 5. (323) 860-7300. (Martín Hernández)

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST    Peter Hall’s staging sure looks pretty and pretty opulent, which raises the larger question of what our midsize theaters need to do to survive the harrowing era for arts that we’ve all just entered. Like most regional theaters, the Ahmanson is looking backward for both comfort and speed with a celebrity-driven repertory of plays set in bygone times (Dead End, The Drowsy Chaperone and now Earnest) — what used to be called Boulevard Theater. Who could possibly argue with Oscar Wilde and lines such as, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life”? There’s not a sincere line in the play, which, in a work about double lives and social deceptions, is part of its brilliance. You wouldn’t know from Hall’s production that Wilde was tortured to death in prison for his homosexuality, and that his irreverence and humanity paved the way for Joe Orton. You wouldn’t know this because no trouble has been taken in Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon’s production design to get beyond some stock country-house arches and a rose garden. And no trouble has been taken by Hall to do much beyond fulfill expectations of what Earnest has always looked and sounded like. Lynn Redgrave’s Lady Bracknell displays contagious glee in the way she contorts her lips around Wilde’s lovely epigrams, and spits them out. The problem with this, however, as with the ensemble, is a kind of over-articulated stiffness, particularly by James Waterston’s Jack Worthing. Robert Petkoff’s Algernon fares better, as do Bianca Amato as Gwendolen and the particularly wry and rueful Charlotte Parry as Cecily. When Miriam Margolyes’ rotund Miss Prism shows up, we’re suddenly in Nicholas Nickleby: With the physical humor amped up, other actors’ eyes start bulging in reaction, as though they, and we, have been poked in the ribs. At least it’s refreshing, even if it’s part of a completely different production. If ever there was an era of double lives and doublespeak, we’re in the middle of it. How can a play originally so subversive look so insulated and antique? Probably from the double curse of fear and self-satisfaction. Wilde deserves better, and so do we. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. (no eve perfs Feb. 5, 19 & March 5; added 2 p.m. perfs Feb. 2, 16 & March 2); thru March 5. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)

IT CAME FROM BEYOND!  Beneath the quirky, appealing fun, this musical send-up of 1950s science fiction dusts off tired clichés rather than reinventing them. The most inventive aspect of the show is writer Cornell Christianson’s dual storyline, the first being that of a dork in high school who’s reading a comic book to find the secret to completing his science experiment; the other is the actual story of the comic book, which features the same actors in parallel roles. But dull humor and belabored plotting spoil the potential of the conceit. Stephen Michael Schwartz and Norman Thalheimer’s songs, though somewhat forgettable, are far cleverer than the book. The showstopper happens very early on when two of the comic book characters (Stephen Breithaupt and Ali Spuck) deliver a heartfelt manifesto in defense of American militarism. And the fine Todd Fournier plays a suave, calculating school bully who scores with a few strong tunes. But without a strong script to move the action, the cast, for the most part, time-steps between songs. The result is a bopping two hours of obvious innuendos. Write Act Theater, 6128 Yucca St., Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 25. (323) 960-4429. (Luis Reyes)

JUDY AT THE STONEWALL INN  Upon her death, the ghost of Judy Garland materializes at the Stonewall Inn — the famous New York City drag-queen saloon where the riotous resistance to police crackdowns on gay bars in 1969 began. Though this may sound like a playful setup for high camp, like most contemporary plays that feature Garland impersonators, playwright Tom O’Neil and director Derek Charles Livingston are actually attempting a serious history lesson sprinkled with sardonic humor. The result is disastrous. Depressing characters slog through painfully melodramatic dialogue, punctuated with beleaguered Wizard of Oz references and a few, mostly weak, Garland numbers. As the head drag queen, Michael Taylor Gray brightens the stage with a sensitive monologue and fine singing, but it is far too late in this bad trip. There is, however, the obligatory, gratuitous male nudity. Celebration Theater, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 24. (323) 957-1884. (Tom Provenzano)

PICK GO  MR. KOLPERT   Those in search of blood and nudity can’t do better than this West Coast premiere of German playwright David Gieselmann’s black comedy. Ralf and Sarah (Kenneth Alan Williams and Amy Farrington) are an unmarried couple bored by life and in search of a catharsis to jump-start their emotions. Being Germans, they mitigate their condition by inviting another couple, Edith and Bastian (Jen Dede and Thomas Vincent Kelly), over for drinks and telling them they have just murdered a man for kicks. Supposedly his body reposes in a large trunk that dominates center stage, and much of this 70-minute evening is given to guessing the seriousness of Ralf and Sarah’s claims. On another level, Gieselmann seems to be proposing a theory of moral relativity, in which calculated amoral acts set off chaotic domestic disturbances — Rope meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Throw in a befuddled pizza delivery man (Brad C. Light) and you have a rocking farce, if not an actual theater of ideas. Director Scott Cummins expertly guides a game cast through David Tushingham’s translation. Farrington is the cast’s comic standout, a bundle of laconic grimaces and gestures that divert us from an apocalypse that always seems waiting just around the bend. Odyssey Theater Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., except Sun., Feb. 12 & March 5, when 7 p.m. perfs replace mats; no Wed. perfs March 1-15; thru March 19. (310) 477-2055.

GO  STRING OF PEARLS  In Stephen Sachs’ handsome production of Michele Lowe’s play, a quartet of fine actresses (Jacqueline Schultz, Suanne Spoke, Stephanie Stearns, Alicia Wollerton) play 27 women and children whose lives are changed by contact with the treasured beads of the title. All the women display their versatility in a dazzling array of roles. Spoke plays the first owner of the necklace who’s devastated when it’s lost; a senile, incontinent mother; a small child and an Italian cleaning woman. Schultz portrays a woman oblivious to her own beauty, a 300-pound lesbian gravedigger, and a Jewish woman plagued by anti-Semitism. Stearns ably enacts assorted daughters, nieces, sisters and granddaughters, while Wollerton plays a mortuary worker trapped by being responsible for an invalid parent, and a woman liberated by taking care of her dying friend. Lowe creates memorable characters, brought to vibrant life by director and cast, despite a few too many themes and an over-reliance on the long arm of coincidence — all of which plays out on Desma Murphy’s stunning, semi-abstract set. Road Theater Company, Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 N. Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru March 26. (818) 761-8829. (Neal Weaver)

TURN OF THE SCREW  Jeffrey Hatcher’s ascetic adaptation of Henry James’ eerie, heavily symbolic tale of a governess haunted by ghosts — a pair of oversexed suicides and the specter of her own religious upbringing — demands that the production use no props, no effects and no more than two actors. Tracie Lockwood plays the fledgling governess (Lockwood’s moon-eyed gaze and pert determination make her a smart fit for James’ idealistic innocents), which leaves the talented Matthew Elkins slipping between seven roles merely by shifting about his distinct features, which he does with aplomb. The governess has come to Bly, a manor where everyone speaks in idioms and through smoke, for two troubled children, who at half her age have already seen in threefold horrors she’d never even imagined. Indeed, imagination is the heart of this bare-boned conception; in his director’s comment, Robert Bailey notes that James wanted to write a spook story that made the audience think the evil for themselves. The audience’s awareness of the gulf between their eyes and the crumbling governess’s loses some of the novella’s tension and immersion, but Bailey’s execution is first-rate and deserves to be a battle cry against all those shiny gorillas and starships. Pacific Resident Theater, 705½ Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 12. (310) 822-8392. (Amy Nicholson)

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