Theater Reviews

Photo by Ron Sossi

ALL STEPS NECESSARY Director Jim Ortlieb’s staging of Michael Halperin’s Third Reich one-act is visually authentic, thanks to Valerie Laven-Cooper’s detailed costume work, but the production displays a reckless indifference to the story’s intrinsic drama. It takes place in Hermann Göring’s Berlin home, days after the pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht, where a group of top Nazis convene to thrash out the Jewish Question. Göring (Richard V. Licata), along with government allies Walther Funk (Ben Shields) and Ernst Wörmann (Tom Carroll), argues for a somewhat less-than-final solution, one that would strip German Jews of their property but nevertheless permit them to live within proscribed communities. The field marshal’s personal and political enemies, Joseph Goebbels (Michael Oberlander) and Reinhard Heydrich (Larry Reinhardt-Meyer) object to the “live” part of that proposal, though they mostly refrain from articulating the genocidal plan that would become policy four years later. Halperin’s script lacks momentum — the principals bicker over who is harder on the Jews from the moment pastries are served, and that’s about it. Possibly attempting to underscore the banality of these men, Ortlieb goes overboard by letting the performances drift along a one-dimensional plane. Perhaps worse, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with actors when they aren’t speaking; it’s more than distracting to watch a Nazi staring into the audience holding a glass of brandy. Inkwell Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru June 4 (closing perf June 4, 7 p.m.). (866) 811-4111. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.

GO CHRIST IS THE ANSWER . . . BUT WHAT’S THE QUESTION? Merging his storyteller’s talent with a standup’s precision timing, solo performer Bill Rutkoski delivers a smart, funny autobiographical piece about his Catholic childhood. While other kids played cowboys or soldiers, Rutkoski, egged on by his domineering and pietistic Dad, roamed his neighborhood dressed as a priest. But by middle school he’d discerned the gaps between church preaching and practice; he’d confronted — and survived — a schoolboy’s Waterloo with an abusive nun and fathomed the manipulations of a priest who threatened eternal damnation after Rutkoski stole the communal wine. Among his vivid stories are anecdotes of battles with young Protestant toughs from the neighboring public school. At under an hour, the show flies by with Rutkoski’s down-to-earth humor and understated manner, elevating his material far above its parochial roots. Rick Embardo directs. Write Act Repertory Theater at St. Stephen’s Church, 6128 Yucca St., Hlywd.; Mon., 8 p.m.; thru May 15. (323) 860-8830. (Deborah Klugman)

GO DARWIN IN MALIBU Crispin Whittell’s clever, brisk play reunites the ghosts of evolution champions Charles Darwin (Robert Foxworth) and Thomas Huxley (Granville van Dusen) with the specter of their nemesis, Bishop Wilberforce (Corey Brill), at a beachouse in contemporary Malibu. A beautiful young free spirit named Sarah (Rebecca Brooksher) also inhabits the house. The three long-dead Brits quibble about Darwinism in crisp Cowardesque dialogue — at first it seems the playwright is heavily on the side of science over faith, but that view subtly turns in Act 2. Language and character flow so easily from old pros Foxworth and Van Dusen, they’re a joy to watch. Brooksher is a bit timid but ultimately finds her way. Brill, however, is the weak link: While he is attractive, earnest and energetic, the mistakes in his arch British accent become distracting. Director Casey Stangl’s light touch makes this evening breeze by, even when dialogue occasionally becomes mired in repetitive argument. Set designer Keith Mitchell deserves credit for his beautifully wrought Malibu backyard. Falcon Theater, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru May 21. (818) 955-8101. (Tom Provenzano)

THE DEVIL AND BILLY MARKHAM Shel Silverstein’s raunchy faux folk tale, which first appeared in Playboy Magazine, may shock those who know Silverstein only from his children’s books. It’s essentially a narrative poem, ably but strenuously performed by Alex Wilde, though director Lonny Stevens has tricked it out with busy light cues, a musical soundtrack ranging from Gershwin to Stravinsky, and more scenery than it needs. Billy Markham is a Nashville musician who accepts a challenge to shoot craps with the Devil, despite the fact that he can win only by scoring an impossible 13. He loses, of course, but the Devil keeps insisting on rematches — till Billy finally wins one. Eventually they wind up in a stalemate. There are some good laughs here and a verbal phantasmagoria about an orgy in Hell, if you can get past the Playboy sexism and homophobia. Women are treated purely as eager sexual receptacles, and the female characters (Danny’s true love, his mother, and his daughter) seem more props than people. And even the Devil is terrified of homosexuality. Wilde plays Billy as a spastic, crack-voiced yokel, and the Devil as a sort of Vincent Price Brit, and though he does it skillfully, one sometimes longs for him to relax and simplify. Complete Actors’ Place, 11316 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 28. (818) 506-5111. (Neal Weaver)

FALLING THROUGH HAZE Presented as part of the “Voices Unheard” project, 16-year-old Wendy Montero’s multimedia play features a talented cast from Fairfax High School. Heather (Victoria Imtanes) is a straight-A student who lives with her grandmother (Samantha Barnes) because her mother (Jackie Ngan) is an active gang member. Although Heather has a close-knit group of studious friends who have plans for college, she’s pressured into joining The Technique, an all-girl gang. Heather’s mother is pleased that her daughter is following in her footsteps, but her grandmother is not, and her school friends are scandalized. As part of her initiation, Heather is forced to rob an elderly woman and, under the influence of alcohol, Heather doesn’t realize that the victim is her grandmother. Playwright Montero successfully captures teenage angst and confusion, but several plot improbabilities need additional finesse. Songs, dances and poetry enliven the play, and director Lara Lyon effectively marshals a large cast of performers. Imtanes and Ngan are excellent, and other standouts include Alexandria Rash and Jermaine Cungious. Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Fri., 4 & 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun, 1 p.m.; thru May 13. (323) 655-7679, Ext. 300. (Sandra Ross)

GO FIGHTING WORDS In 1980 Welsh boxer Johnny “Matchstick Man” Owen fought Lupe Pintor in Los Angeles for the bantamweight world title. To the people of Merthyr Tydfil, celebrated for its skilled pugilists, Owen was a hero “who carries the dreams of the entire town on his narrow shoulders.” In Sunil Kuruvilla’s play, when many of the men leave town to attend the fight, their women are left to hope, pray and listen to the bout at the local gym — so that the fight and its disturbing aftermath lay bare the lives of three disparate women: Mrs. Davies (Laura Gardner), who’s Johnny’s mother and an eccentric midwife with a philandering husband; the feisty Nia (Bernadette Sullivan), a not-so-happily married woman who dreams of becoming a BBC broadcaster; and her sister, Peg (Magi Loucks), who fancies herself a boxer and the object of Johnny’s affections. In the confines of a rustic kitchen, these characters talk about everything from doing laundry to cooking, but their seemingly innocuous banter slowly evolves into painful revelations, charged face-offs and emotional eruptions that mirror the characters’ inner lives and torments. Therein lies the undeniable dramatic punch of Kuruvilla’s artfully crafted script. Timothy Ford Hannon has designed an evocative set, partially enclosing his kitchen with the ropes and posts of the “squared circle.” But the success of this production is largely due to the work of the actors, who, under Tim Byron Owen’s nuanced direction, perform with engaging passion and infectious vitality. Celtic Arts Center, 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Studio City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 11. (818) 760-8322. (Lovell Estell III)

GLORY PIE Watching Ellen Lawler’s and director/co-writer John Lawler’s new comedy is a lot like eating cotton candy — tasty, but one feels something substantial is missing. Paula (Alyssa Stec) and Jake (Brendan O’Malley) are having Paula’s sister and her husband, Laney (Carla Capps) and Carl (Dan Kinsella), over for dinner to celebrate Laney and Carl’s trip to China to adopt a little girl there. Then the wild next-door neighbors decide to crash. While the play is ostensibly about the dumb things people say when a couple is adopting, the real plot hangs on the rivalry between Paula and Laney, the former a dancer who insists on following her heart and the latter a duty-bound type who’s always wanted, in vain, to have children. Unfortunately, amidst the drama and the clever wisecracking, the plot gets lost until the very end, and is never fully resolved. Director John Lawler keeps the pacing tight, but the performances on the night reviewed were about a nanosecond off, that hairsbreadth of timing that makes all the difference. Wes McBride’s set is nicely realistic, which makes the decision to mime the food and wine (which play such a critical part in the play) a little odd. Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., W.L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 & 7 p.m.; thru May 21. (310) 657-7377. (Anne Louise Bannon)

INTERNET DATING: The Musical This is like an updated inversion of Prince/Sondheim’s Company, but instead of being a Candide-like journey of a fellow floating through New York while his friends try to hitch him up, we get a Dating Game saga of single Jenny (the attractive and affable Ali Spuck), a 31-year-old office clone who wants to hook a nice guy in L.A. Her colleagues (Ali Pomerantz and Sandy Shimoda) persuade her to enter the eccentric and brutal world of Internet dating, though it’s probably no less brutal than the former decades’ gamesmanship of personal ads and bar pickups. Online, Jenny meets a cast of stick figures, from a sweet, lonely penguin researcher in Antarctica (Trip Hope) to a two-timing bisexual cad (David Eldon). Writer-composer Ron Weiner offers a screen door rather than a window onto our romantic age, teasing us with shuttered insight. The best tweaks of perception come with lyrics such as “I’m going to Google you like you’ve never been Googled before,” and “You’re cute, but you don’t know how to spell.” But when it tries to be human, the musical rings as thin as some of the singers’ voices. And though the cast comport themselves with vivacity and humor, Annie Oelschlager’s production jams midgear between satire and sentimentality. There are, however, some nice choral fugues amidst the generic blur of pop ballads that cry for some melody and sophistication. Art/Works Theater, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 4. (323) 960-4418. (Steven Leigh Morris)

IT HAPPENED IN HAVANA/SUCEDIÓ EN LA HABANA If you crossed Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba with Anne Nichols’ ancient Abie’s Irish Rose, you might get Raul de Cardenas’ old-fashioned comedy. In 1902 Havana, formidable Spanish-born, rigidly Catholic matriarch Fernanda rules her three daughters with an iron hand. (Due to some casting emergency, she was played by male director Ernesto Miyares in non-camp drag when I attended.) Fancying herself a Spanish aristocrat, Fernanda is contemptuous of Cubans, Creoles, Americans, Protestants and the non-rich. When her daughter, Isabel (Maria Helene Kraul-Rodriquez), brings home her poor, orphaned American beau, Marcos (Ricardo Rocha), he also turns out to be — gasp! — Jewish. Though Fernanda ruthlessly scotches their engagement, elder daughter Claudia (Diana Corral), a rebel and budding feminist, is a far better match for Marcos. Further comedy is added by Fernanda’s youngest daughter, feisty Irene (Yvette Ramirez), and the two aunts, puritanical Augusta (Sheila Korsi) and vulgar, free-spirited Concha (Luisa Chavez). This is predictable stuff, but the mostly Latino audience seemed to find the situations both recognizable and hilarious. Estela Scarlata’s lavish set and Carlos Brown’s costumes admirably capture the flavor of old Havana. Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 21. (All further performances are in Spanish, with a slightly different cast.) (323) 225-4044. (Neal Weaver)

GO LITTLE EGYPT Celeste (Sara Rue) is a misfit egghead who returns from university to her mid-America hometown, where she meets her perfect match in sweet, dim-witted security guard Victor (French Stewart), but family and a cruel friendship complicate their romance. For the first half hour, this musical by playwright Lynn Siefert and composer Gregg Lee Henry seems just annoying and cloyingly offbeat with over-the-top trashy characters occasionally exiting their semi-reality to burst into rock songs. Then, almost without warning, the story becomes riveting in its weirdness as Stewart turns into a powerful tragic clown on par with Buster Keaton. Mere moments separate his uproarious physical comedy and devastating emotional breakdowns. Rue’s brainiac innocence provides Stewart with an excellent foil as the pair tries to move past their shared social retardation. Misty Cotton and Henry are also very effective as Celeste’s sister and Victor’s dubious buddy, while Jenny O’Hara and John Apicella try to fill out two-dimensional roles as old folks. This extremely original production is completely frustrating in that there are so many dull patches in what is often a searing piece of theater. One hopes the writers and director Lisa James are looking at this world premiere as a workshop. Some play development would be a great investment. Matrix Theater, 7657 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 11. (323) 852-1445. (Tom Provenzano)

(M)ASKING QUESTIONS: The Life Stages of Humanitas Persona This beautifully designed, staged and performed piece has admirable ambitions of import as a quirky metaphor for the human experience, but it falls short of being anything more than a tutorial on the use of mask in the theater. A work conceived by Gavin Hawk, developed by the ensemble and directed to good effect by Anne Justine D’Zmura, the play starts with how the neutral mask, sans any distinguishing features, operates to bring focus to the movement of the human body. Next is the introduction of basic emotion, which quite cleverly features the actors using paper-plate masks, onto which they have drawn various expressive faces. This is followed by the introduction of nonverbal sound into the performance, followed by spoken words in the fourth part of the play. Interesting, certainly. Puzzling, though, is the conceit that the “masked human” is itself a separate creature, the format modeled on an anthropological study of this creature as it moves from infancy to maturation. The conceit is made more hollow by the text, written without regard to the cadences of academic argot. Cal Rep, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach; Tues.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (added perf Sat., May 13, 2 p.m.); thru May 13. (562) 985-5526. (Luis Reyes)

{mosimage}GO PICK POUND OF FLESH Playwright-director Michael Peter Bolus’ absorbing drama takes place in 1945 at a U.S. military prison where poet Ezra Pound awaits trial for treason. During the war, Pound was charged with giving comfort to the enemy by making a series of radio broadcasts blasting the U.S. In his cell-like room, Pound (Joel Polis) is guarded by a pleasant, intellectually uncurious young soldier (David Mauer), who alternates between being the poet’s confidante and his middlebrow tormentor. Worse than the possibility of being hanged, Pound regards his true punishment as having to submit to the judgment of mediocre minds, and, while waiting for news of his destiny, he rages against democracy, egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Polus’ drama, which ultimately suffers from a lack of propulsion, bears a strong resemblance to Ronald Harwood’s better-known Taking Sides — a play that explored similar themes of an artist’s collaboration with a totalitarian authority. Yet, Bolus’ work is cracklingly written and thought-provoking. It’s unusual to see such a play of ideas — and Polis is splendidly intense, rattling off Pound’s beliefs at 90 miles per hour, understandably smug while sliding along a razor blade that splits genius from paranoia. Odyssey Theater Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (schedule varies, call for details); thru June 18. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)

GO SHE ALWAYS TOLD ME Modern womanhood is a teetering balance of individuality and commiseration, of self-esteem and self-doubt. It requires both loudly dismissing insecurities and empathetically sighing over them with other females. Many girl-powered shows flounder when they tip over the edge, creating a rant that’s either feigned bravado or wearying victimization, but young writer Annie Mebane’s winning evening of 12 clever monologues are funny, sharp notes that together strike an honest chord. Her ladies (Anne Gregory, Rebecca Johnson and Jen Zaborowski), be they single moms, prom-night virgins, cat-loving shut-ins or devout Christians, are commonplace (okay, cliché) characters that Mebane enriches in less than five minutes each. These women suffer from the sins of the flesh (flab and sex), and in turn seek inspiration from the holy trinity: exercise, God and Oprah. But refreshingly, they themselves are no angels, which makes them human, not saccharine. Todd K. Pronto directs. Fake Gallery, 4319 Melrose Ave.; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru May 27. (323) 939-9736. (Amy Nicholson)

SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE SALINE SOLUTION! Sound and Fury (a.k.a. Richard Maritzer, Shelby Bond and Phil van Hest) bowdlerizes the classics in a frenetic style that’s more punny than funny. Here, the malapropisms and double-entendres are like so many pellets from Dick Cheney’s shotgun: painful, plentiful and far from the target. This entirely apocryphal mystery envisions Holmes as a surfer-boy bungler — a gag, like many of the others, which tires quickly — who sets about with the far more clever and droll Watson to solve something or other that started with a corpse. The eager trio has more fun performing their happy puppy capers than we do watching this rambling, silly and entirely unsuspenseful yarn. It’s a pity they didn’t aim higher, as there’s obviously a strong foundation of cleverness in the bright wordplay, smart a cappella prologue and fun set design that capitalizes on Fais Do-Do’s striking and sorely underused space. Fais Do-Do, 5257 W. Adams Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru June 17. (323) 954-8080. (Amy Nicholson)

SNOWANGEL “I’m the last of the old-time jelly-bellies” says Connie (Dale Nieli), the aging prostitute in Lewis John Carlino’s 1963 one-act. Connie’s line, plus her expressions (“Boyoboyoboyoboy” and “for crying out saints”) render the play something of a romantic curio, further antiqued by the image of a jazz guitarist (Julio Martinez) plucking out riffs from a stoop across her window — à la The Glass Menagerie — while Connie turns a 4 a.m. trick, aptly named John (Alex Morris). Under Ben Guillory’s direction, the verisimilitude in set/lighting designer Joel Daavid’s slovenly NYC walkup and Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes provides plenty of cinematic atmosphere that feels slightly at odds with the play’s Genet-like role-playing contrivances. John, all boozed up, wants Connie to re-enact his lost love, to bring her back into that room, at that hour, with costumes from Connie’s closet and makeup that he applies to her face. Connie plays along for a while before turning indignant, and turning the tables on him, using his $30 investment to tell the story of her lost love. These two powerful actors just can’t make the psychological gymnastics look graceful, and it’s perplexing why Connie would be so offended by his nostalgic request — as though play-acting is the creepiest service she’s ever had to provide. I didn’t get it. Zalcon Productions at the Elephant Theater, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru May 27. (323) 960-7822. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO SPLIT SECOND When a black cop nabs a white car thief, an intense racial situation erupts and the officer makes a momentous decision. But would that decision have been made if the perpetrator had been black, and, in a racist society, just whose laws should a black cop be upholding? These are just some of the questions raised by Dennis McIntyre’s drama that, despite some flaws in this production, remains a taut and provocative work. It’s the Fourth of July, 1984, in Manhattan, and after NYPD officer Val Johnson’s (Rick Jarrett) fateful dispute with a bigoted crook, he finds himself in an ethical crisis, epitomized by the support of his long-suffering wife (a lackluster Calysta Ruth Watson) and the criticism from his by-the-book veteran cop father, Rusty (a superb Darius L. Dudley). While Jarrett and Dudley look closer in age to brothers, their scenes crackle with intensity. At times director Edward Padilla’s staging has actors performing in awkward places and his actors often flub lines. Still, the show is a worthy commentary on law, morality and the way they often conflict, bitterly, especially in racially charged America. Casa 0101 Theater, 2009 E. First St., Boyle Heights; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 21. (323) 263-7684. (Martín Hernández)

THE STORY A journalist in the hot seat is a steamy story these days. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s drama concerns the lengths one ambitious African-American reporter will go to further her career. Newly hired Yvonne (Jennifer Shelton) grumbles at the drab assignments fobbed off on her by her editor (Judyann Elder), an older veteran of civil-rights battles who’s looking to promote only “up” stories about black people. So when she encounters a black teenage girl (Adria Madison), who claims to have murdered a white motorist in a ghetto neighborhood, the frustrated newspaperwoman leaps at the story. Like its heroine, however, the ambitions of both play and production exceed their accomplishments. Along with journalistic responsibility, Wilson takes on complex themes that include racial prejudice, but her plotline is sometimes fuzzy, and the piece ends abruptly with an unsatisfying resolution. Moreover, under Caryn Desai’s direction, vital scenes take place upstage, where the characters are eclipsed by designer Dan Wheeler’s imposing set (in tandem with Jerry Pivnick’s lighting). The overly mature for-the-role Madison is both generic and implausible as a rebellious teen, while the poised, posturing Shelton more closely resembles a go-getting young lawyer than a hungry quick-witted newshound. By contrast, Elder, with her defiant recollection of racial bias, comes through clearly and persuasively. International City Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru May 21. (562) 436-4610. (Deborah Klugman)

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