BLACK AND BLUESTEIN In playwright Jerry Mayers dramedy, set in 1963 St. Louis, Jewish real estate contractor Jeff Bluestein (Loren Lester) finds his moral compass spinning like a dreidel as he veers from Kennedy liberalism to not in my backyard, latent racism. Bluestein is desperate to sell lots on the upscale suburban housing estate hes created but he has second thoughts when hes approached by wealthy and brilliant biochemist Daniel Black (John Eric Bentley), who is interested in buying. Black is, well, black, and Bluesteins neighbors are worried about the possibility of plummeting property values. Bluestein is torn between doing the right thing and being pragmatic, even as he becomes good friends with Black. Mayer eschews his traditionally reflexively glib writing style to construct a surprisingly nuanced and personal play that cleverly examines the need to put your money where your mouth is in terms of ones stated moral beliefs. Director Deborah Harmons staging is warm and intimate, and even though the characters sometimes edge into stereotype, they have personality-rich cores. Occasionally the writing falters into awkwardly sincere dogma, peppered with some decidedly tired Jewish jokes, yet the shows compassion toward its subjects is appealing, as are the engaging turns by Bentleys charismatic Black and Lesters sweetly neurotic Bluestein. The Other Space at the SANTA MONICA PLAYHOUSE, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru April 29. (323) 960-4418. (Paul Birchall)
PICK BUSH IS BAD Writer-composer-lyricist Joshua Rosenblum may be preaching to the choir, but he does it with panache, barbed wit, catchy tunes and a knack for clever pastiche. Bushs favorite fall guy gets the full Andrew Lloyd Webber treatment in Scooter Libby, Superstar, and Jonathan Zenz performs a faux Schumann lied called Das Bush ist Schlect. With apologies to Jerome Kern, Condi Rice (Mai Thompson-Heath) sings Cant Help Lovin That Bush of Mine, and Laura Bush (Stefanie Black) delivers her lament to the tune of Kurt Weills Surabaya Johnny. In the title role, Roger Ainslie may look like a young Hugh Grant, but he has Bushs fatuous mannerisms, quirks and smirks down pat. He refers to himself as the Decisionator, and his portrait of Bush Thinking is hilarious. Gerry Mullins appears as both Barbara Bush and Vice President Cheney (a reasonable pairing, really). Sabrina Miller plays a preening Ann Coulter, and Michael Craig Shapiro, as Attorney General Gonzalez, sings Torture Has Been Very Good to Me. Even God Almighty (Melanie Ewbank) puts in an appearance to hotly deny that She ever spoke to Pat Robertson, and to hurl thunderbolts at Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell. The wonderfully talented ensemble, mindful of the only crime that seems to warrant impeachment these days, begs Wont Somebody Give This Guy a Blowjob? Michael Lavine provides admirable accompaniment and musical direction, with impeccable staging by Jay Willick and James J. Mellon. NOHO ARTS CENTER, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 20. (818) 508-7101. (Neal Weaver)
DOGGIE3LEG George Bennetts black comedy starts with a jolting image: a man in a suit, handcuffed, wearing an Abu Ghraib hood. Sigmunds (Benjamin Sinclair) been kidnapped by his maniac younger brother Carl (Evan Martinez) and taken to his new quarters the former funeral home where the brothers parents had been prepared for burial years before. Somethings obviously wrong with Carl, but Sigs only focused on exculpating himself from the bank robbery Carl impulsively staged after abducting Sig, while Carls wannabe fiancée, Felicia (Nadege August), is convinced his spacy hyperactivity and obsession with Tater Tots are only pre-engagement jitters. When Carls housewarming party kicks off upstairs, various drunken archetypes trickle down to the embalming room, but what the mating dance of a rapper chick (Cheryl Texiera) and a cowboy (James Sheldon) has to do with Bennetts thoughts on death, loyalty and the acceptance of fate is anybodys guess. The tone-scrambled script relies on withholding information for suspense its outlandish hijinks underplayed by an uneven ensemble making the play feel like a promising idea that cant kick into gear. DORIE THEATER AT THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 8. (323) 960-7740 or www.plays411.com/doggie3. (Amy Nicholson)
THE HOUSE OF YES As Tolstoy memorably pointed out, happy families are the same, but all unhappy families are unique in their misery. And in Wendy MacLeods dark comedy, the Pascals are a very unhappy family who share a dreadful secret. As a hurricane rages, Marty (Scott Victor Nelson) arrives at the family home for Thanksgiving with his brand-new fiancée, Lesly (Marisa Lee), in tow. While his brother Anthony (Dean Chekvala) is a little too eager to carry her bags, she receives a frosty welcome from Martys twin sister, Jackie-O (Brianna Lee Johnson), and his alcoholic mother, Mrs. Pascal (Alexandra Billings). Just recently released from a mental hospital, Jackie-O isnt too keen on sharing her brother with Lesly. Jackie-Os unhealthy obsession with JFKs assassination drives the play, but the heart of the matter is the relationship between Marty and Jackie-O. MacLeods dialogue crackles under Katharine Brandts vigorous direction. Billings nearly walks off with the scenery by underplaying the boozing matron. Her immense stage presence and throaty delivery punched up much of the humor. Billings excess charisma compensates for an overly precious performance by Johnson. Tall Blonde Productions at THEATER 6470 AT THE COMPLEX, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru April 28. (323) 960-5772. (Sandra Ross)
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AN IMPENDING RUPTURE OF THE BELLY A man with a 9-iron and fear in his soul is a force to reckon with in Matt Pelfreys jaundiced fable about suburban paranoia. Clay (Eric Pargac) has some assertiveness issues when it comes to standing up to a neighborhood lout (Troy Metcalf) who allows his dog to relieve itself on Clays lawn. Egged on by an armchair Rambo at work (Doug Newell), ridiculed by his homeless brother (Shawn Lee) and, at a few critical moments, undermined by his own pregnant wife (Aubrey Saverino), Clay finally screws up his courage to act. His deeds, however, unleash disaster and ruin. Dámaso Rodriguez tautly directs a fine cast that performs against scenic designer Dan Jenkins wafflelike cutouts of high-rises. Furious Theatre Company at PASADENA PLAYHOUSES CARRIE HAMILTON THEATRE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru May 12. (800) 595-4849. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.
INFINITE BLACK SUITCASE If Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood is a tender, sprawling soap opera about village life, then E.M. Lewis new play is much the same (minus the lyricism) about village death. Sixteen characters face The End within a single day in rural Oregon. A pair of brothers (Line Hand and Ken Arquelio) grapple with the daunting aftermath of a relative who blew his brains out, and with their sister (Marina Mouhibian), whos now borderline comatose after having witnessed the suicide. A man (Jerry Pappas) tries to comfort his AIDS-ridden lover (Eric Bunton) in a couple scenes dripping in bathos. Theres the nuanced hostility between a womans second husband (Kim Estes) and her ex (Ryan Churchill) when its clear the woman (Darcy Halsey) is dying from cancer. The plays investigation of mortality is earnest and provides a great actors workout by performers who relish the material. The TV realism is a drawback, a style that demands characters make decisions; instead of making decisions, too many characters try to float on their tragic contexts, being about reactions rather than actions. This makes a 90-minute evening of scenes feel longer and more maudlin than it otherwise might. A couple of scenes fly because their people are making choices that speak more about their life than their afterlife: A chipper, elderly couple (Dawn Merkel and Rich Williams) choose a burial plot, while the man is torn between lying in eternity next to his current wife or his late one; and theres a gentle post-bar liaison at the home of a young widow (Tammy Kaitz) still unable to let down her guard with a sensitive man (Churchill), who we met earlier and whose ex-wife has cancer. Danny Parker-Lopes directs. TheSpyAnts at THE LILLIAN THEATRE, 10765 Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 6. (323) 860-8786. (Steven Leigh Morris)
ROMEO AND JULIET Director Michael Murrays wonderfully accessible staging of Shakespeares star-crossed classic nabs our attention from the outset, drawing on the gifts of several accomplished veteran performers to sustain a lively and engaging production. The shows appeal commences with the initial rumble between the Montague and Capulet clans in 1930s Italy, where the action is set. (Its the first illustration of Ken Merckxs snappy fight choreography that animates the play.) Steve Coombs Romeo is an earnest youth, while his Juliet (Joy Osmanski) exudes a guileless contemporary charm that reminds one of the unspoiled teenager next door. (Yes, they do still exist.) Although perfectly adequate in their delivery, neither of the principal performers captures the full measure of Shakespeares poetry; still, their naturalness Osmanski in particular captures our immediate empathy and keeps us rooting for their love to the end. The real scene stealers are J. Todd Adams, whose Mercutio flits brilliantly across the stage, like an incendiary iconoclast on speed, and Deborah Strang, whose limelight-grabbing Nurse is an antic woman with an ample heart. Also notable is Mark Bramhall as the well-meaning Friar Lawrence: His startled response, when a disconsolate Romeo threatens suicide following his banishment, illuminates with humor and precision the generational disparities at the heart of the tragedy. A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; schedule varies, call for info; thru May 25. (818) 240-0910. (Deborah Klugman)
SEX & IMAGINING With a nod to Strindberg and Dürrenmatt, J.P. Allens one-act is an entertaining but disquieting tale that explores the sexual pyrotechnics between genders. The two-character play opens harmlessly enough with a woman (Yvonne Fisher) motoring along on a dark road before stopping to give a stranded male traveler (Adam Bitterman) a ride. She claims to be en route to a house party, but when they arrive, the place is as quiet as a tomb (Jeff Racks sparse set design is appropriately creepy). It isnt long before this puzzling, innocuous scenario turns risqué and violent. These developments are only the beginning, however, and gradually it becomes obvious that the two share a disturbing history and that their relationship is infinitely more complex and dark than it first appears. Allens engaging script is filled with subtle ambiguities and unexpected turns, and its elegant yet mystifying finale puts one in mind of vintage Hitchcock. Fisher and Bitterman turn in fine performances that are excellent under Michael Francos skilled direction. SACRED FOOLS THEATER COMPANY, 660 Heliotrope Ave., L.A.; Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru May 3. (310) 281-8337. (Lovell Estell III)