SMALL TRAGEDY Playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) is certainly ambitious perhaps too ambitious. Here he imagines a low-rent production of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, as assembled by a director-translator named Nate (Bill Brochtrup) and his oddly assorted actors. Lucas combines satirical backstage comedy, amorous-sexual tangles among the cast and large chunks of Sophocles. Along the way, he examines the Serbo-Croatian war, the nature of tragedy (vs. sad events), and the difficulty of knowing oneself or others. Nates actors include Hakija (Steve Cell), the Bosnian actor who plays Oedipus and tells conflicting stories about his own past. Jen (Deirdre Henry), the productions Jocasta, recently dumped by the husband she put through medical school, is strongly attracted to Hakija. Paola (Hollace Starr), Nates partner and rival, is afflicted with AIDS. Gay boy Christmas (Michael Redfield) plays the prophet Tiresias and nurses a crush on Nate. And Fanny (Rochelle Greenwood), cast as chorus, somehow manages to be scatterbrained, sane and subversive. Though it follows a meandering path, the play suggests the dangers of basing a life (or a country) on lies, and living an unexamined life. John Perrin Flynn directs a fine cast with a careful hand, though he overdoes the shows overlapping dialog. Alex Enberg provides the complex, multileveled set. ODYSSEY THEATRE ENSEMBLE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru April 1. (310) 477-2055. (Neal Weaver)
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A SPLINTERED SOUL Alan Lester Brooks drama unfolds in postwar San Francisco in the comfortable home of young Rabbi Simon Kroeller (Bruce Nozick). Simon is energetic, smart and, above all, highly respected as the go-to guy for the citys burgeoning community of Jewish immigrants. However, he is a tormented soul, having, as a Resistance fighter, blown up a passenger train instead of an intended munitions car. Simons closest friend (Stephen Macht) is a judge who has come to terms with the monstrous evils of war and admonishes Simon to do the same. Indeed, their friendship, their often-contentious debates and, most of all, their vibrant connection are what imbues this otherwise static drama with substance. Weightier matters such as the existence of God, good and evil, the meaning of life, and moral ambiguity hover at the plays core, but are never explored with any depth, clarity or passion. Instead, we are treated to a romantic tryst involving a maid (Libby West) and her employer, along with a host of mostly-uninspiring characters whose inner lives are ciphers, and an unenlightening, mediocre script. The lack of a gripping dramatic arc vitiates this play early on, unhelped by Brantley Dunaways clunky direction. ODYSSEY THEATRE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L. A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 25. (310) 477-2055 (Lovell Estell III)
SWIMMING A scandal is undermining the intimacy of two Kansan couples in Steve Totlands melodrama of the small-town bourgeoisie. Even their after-dinner charades are fraught with tension. While Meryl Friedmans smooth direction purposely diverts us with a red herring for the real reason why David (Shaun OHagan) has forcibly retired from schoolteaching and seems restless in his marriage to his significantly younger wife (a spunky Shana Gagnon), Totlands dialog is equally withholding, which lends the pairs competitive undertones with BFFs Mark (Chet Grissom) and Alice (Heather Sher) an authentic weight. (The heartland here is characterized by busybodies, awkward politesse, and the green fields, crickets and harmonicas of Laura Fines sets and Dave B. Marlings sound.) Unfortunately, Totland and Friedmans insightful restraint is done in as the seasons roll past and the scenes become increasingly unhinged and sentimental. Still, the 90-minute show has a ragged poignancy, as does the pompous David during a moment when he hunches in his underwear, vulnerable and white-bellied, as Mark eviscerates his manhood in more ways than one. ROAD THEATRE COMPANY, Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 N. Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 24. (866) 811-4111. (Amy Nicholson)
THERE USED TO BE FIREFLIES This solo show by actor Charlie Adler, co-written with Garin Wolf, parades 10 recurring characters as they face the imminent razing of a Hollywood neighborhood to make way for a luxury apartment building called the Millennium Complex. If this situation sounds familiar from the evening news, Adlers characterizations are even more familiar but not from TV. His impersonations are the kind weve seen before on stages in a variety of ingratiating poses that have by now become staples of the performance genre. These include the dotty homeless man, the nelly drag queen, an old Jewish lady in a retirement home, the clueless Midwestern tourist and, of course, the villainous developer whos always talking into one of those cell phones. After a few minutes of this, we begin to wonder when Officer Clancy is going to show up. Apart from the cloying nature of Adlers portrayals, the thing that makes them most irritating is that were supposed to feel sorry for most of them were never allowed to judge these individuals for ourselves or let our own human empathy connect with them. The evening, directed with corresponding sentimentality by Asaad Kelada, benefits from some nice design work, notably Yael Pardess facile set that easily allows for mood and locale shifts, and J. Kent Inasys crisp light plot. THE HAYWORTH, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 24. (800) 838-3006. (Steven Mikulan)
VARLA JEAN MERMAN IS ANATOMICALLY INCORRECT! Jeffery Roberson returns to L.A. with another hilarious show featuring his drag persona Varla Jean Merman, the supposed love child of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman. Co-written with Jacques Lamarre, Robersons latest comedy-cabaret outing is loosely themed around the body. Anatomically Incorrect! includes Robersons well-known parody lyrics (such as Talk to the Genitals sung to the tune of Talk to the Animals), but this production offers a greater selection of original songs. In one example, Roberson and Lamarres Im More Than a Double D! is an amusing homage to Varlas ample bosom. And as with previous shows, the videos by Roberson and longtime collaborator-director Michael Schiarelli are hysterically funny, most showing Varla in a series of compromising situations with men, booze and food. Though fanciful costumes are a given for any Varla show, Michael Velasquez and Cecile Casey have outdone themselves this time. Most memorable are the spitting camel that morphs into Osama bin Laden opening the evening, and the sexy squirrel outfit that closes it. The only thing missing from the program is Varla Jeans trademark bit: eating Cheez Whiz while singing. ULTRA SUEDE, 661 N. Robertson Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru March 29. www.groovetickets.com. (Sandra Ross)