Theater Reviews

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

{mosimage} GO THE ADDING MACHINE Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist satire has astonishing relevance 84 years later in Scott Alan Smith’s imaginative and nuanced staging. Welcome to the moribund world of Mr. Zero (the outstanding Thomas Kopache), who for 25 years has held a monotonous job as a bookkeeper at a department store, “without missing a day,” he boasts. All is not well with Mr. Zero, however. His boorish wife (Katherine Griffith) constantly browbeats him; he simmers with repressed rage and has chips on his shoulder the size of boulders. Things get worse when the boss (Joe Bays) tells Zero that his job will soon be automated and his services will no longer needed, after which Zero goes berserk and kills him. For this, Zero earns a speedy trial, execution, and a trip to the afterlife where he encounters torments of a different variety. The play applies disturbingly to our increasingly high-tech world of corporate mergers, while it also addresses topical issues of racism, sexism, modernization and class frictions. And all that with stark, smart humor. This is an excellent revival. Circus Theatricals at the HAYWORTH THEATRE, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 23. (323) 960-1054. (Lovell Estell III)

ANDRÉ DE LORDE’S GRAND GUIGNOL DE PARIS In its day (1897–1962) the Grand Guignol de Paris was a precursor of modern horror films, claiming to present terrors so intense that spectators vomited or fainted, with a house doctor present to tend the stricken. Director/producers Debbie McMahon and Amanda Haney are attempting to revive the blood-spattered Guignol tradition. The show begins with an absinthe demonstration, conducted in French by Tina Van Berckelaer, followed by a couple of mildly gory puppet plays by les petits guignolers, and two authentic one-acts from the heyday of Guignol. Maurice Level’s The Final Kiss concerns a man (Gary Karp) whose fiancée (Haney) has disfigured him horribly by throwing sulfuric acid in his face, and the terrible revenge he exacts. A Crime in a Madhouse, by André de Lordes (once known as “The Prince of Terror”) and Alfred Binet, concerns a mental patient, Louise (Van Berckelaer), who is menaced by grotesque fellow lunatics (Amanda Street, Amy Vorpahl, and McMahon) with mysterious injections, eye-gougings and a bit of face-frying. Nowadays the over-the-top mayhem seems more funny than frightening, but the production offers an intriguing glimpse of a vanished legendary theater. MOTH, 4359 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 9. (323) 860-3203. (Neal Weaver)

THE ELVIS TEST Elvis Has Left His Mind might be another title for Julian Stone’s play, a sometimes funny, sometimes excruciating evening that imagines what it might have been like dropping LSD with the King. Stoners will leave the theater bitterly disappointed that acid is used here only as a narrative reagent, while theater purists might lament the Chekhovian satire that this story might have become with a little more whimsy and some judicious trimming. Still, a spirited ensemble goes all out to make the tale’s characters memorably vivid. See Stage feature next week. ELEPHANT THEATER, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru July 1. (323) 960-7738. (Steven Mikulan)

GO GAMBLERS The Next Arena’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s Gamblers, staged at St. Nick’s Pub, offers a small glimpse into why pub theater is so popular in London. The space couldn’t be more perfect. The dark wood tables bleed seamlessly into Dominique Navarro’s simple tavern set, making the audience feel like they are spying on this scene from the inside. The comedy tells the tale of Iharev (Andrew Wollman), a card shark who comes to an inn, planning to swindle its inhabitants out of their money. Iharev finds three people to play cards with, but it soon becomes clear that they are not as foolish as he had hoped. Gogol’s lovely play receives a somewhat clumsy treatment here, though director Adam Koster does well with the limitations of the small space. The production would benefit from distinguishing the three occupants of the inn a little more, to keep them from sounding like a Greek chorus; still, the brief event comes filled with delights. Eric Normington invigorates the play with his larger-than-life portrayal of Glov Junior, the foolish son of a rich old man. ST. NICK’S THEATRE (upstairs at St. Nick’s Pub), 8450 W. Third St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (no perf June 30); thru June 29. (323) 805-9355. (Stephanie Lysaght)

THE HUNGRY AND HORNY SHOW Lori Alan, Marianne Curan and Wendy Kamenoff have concocted something between vaudeville and a talk show swirling around what it means to be female in Los Angeles. That alone gives it pertinence — more pertinence than heft. And the performers’ varying strains of quick wit and personal vivacity provide a high-octane entertainment value. You might get from the title that the themes dance around the lures of sex and food, and the chatter is bawdy on both topics. “What’s your favorite position?” one of them reads from questions submitted by the audience. Eyes roll on stage before one of them blurts out, “The fetal position.” Alan is the voluptuous “half-Jewish” sexpot who morphs into Liza Minnelli for no other reason than she’s pretty good at it. Boyish Curan, of Catholic origin, throws in a stunning Martha Stewart impersonation, and, being married, brings a view from beyond the well-trodden path of “finding a good man.” Zaftig Kamenoff is entirely Jewish, and entirely sparkling. Under Richard Hochberg’s sleek direction, the show wades in shallow waters with so much party talk, but there’s a splash of poignancy at the end, when Kamenoff and Alan express their greater life goals in closing remarks, revealing two contrasting views: one woman who just wants the same guy to wake up with every morning; the other happy to send the fellas on their way, finding strength and solace within herself. Jersey Girl Productions at the LYRIC THEATRE, 520 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Wed., 8 p.m. (no perf June 13); thru June 20. (323) 939-9220. (Steven Leigh Morris)

MISSOURI WALTZ You’ve got to hand it to ur-’70s actress Karen Black — she has guts to both write and perform in a play about two dead sisters’ spirits that have been lingering (I’ve heard it’s politically incorrect to say “haunt”) in their family home since a 1968 car crash. It’s now 1973 and Chrissie (Black) and Bea (Dana Peterson) still argue over childhood feuds, recipes and husbands, occasionally breaking into songs written by Harriet Schock. Suddenly their pregnant hippie niece, Zoe (Whitney Laux), arrives to reclaim the nearly century-old house and have her baby here. Unfortunately for her, Bea’s living husband, the boozy Anton (Eric Pierpoint), has plans to auction it off with the help of an unscrupulous real estate agent (Weston Blakesley). This is a very simplistic and sentimental story, and Angela Garcia Combs directs it accordingly, allowing the acting to slide into sitcom territory while doing nothing to fix the awkward transitions into the show’s five songs. The best part is the beginning, in which Chrissie muses about the previous generations who lived in the old house near the Mississippi River, and nicely realized by set designer Ginnie Ann Held. The rest of the evening teeters dangerously between so-bad-it’s-folk-art and so-bad-it’s-bad. THE BLANK THEATRE, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru July 1. (323) 661-9827 or (Steven Mikulan)

GO STORIES OF THE NIGHT TOLD OVER Shakespeare wrote prolifically about love, with the convoluted plots of his comedies often being as complex and bewildering as the passion itself. Seizing upon that idea, adapter-director Scott Werve’s inspired commingling of passages and characters from a dozen or so of the Bard’s plays is an homage both to Shakespeare’s genius and to Werve’s imaginative accomplishments. Werve sets the topsy-turvy events of his piece in an urban working-class neighborhood where, presided over by a tongue-clucking older couple, Don Antonio (John Ross Clark) and Titania (Marianne Ferrari), denizens gather on the front stoop to commiserate about the opposite sex. While they bear Shakespearean names and speak lines exclusively from his writings, the characters all sport contemporary identities: nerdy Hamlet (Ryan Spahn) — referred to in the program as the “resident idiot” — skates around wearing hockey helmet and leg guards and woos a provocatively dressed hooker named Ophelia (Kellie Matteson). Meanwhile, after advising other gents how to score, oily Petruchio (Dan Roach) falls head over heels for (and is ultimately tamed by) an unsentimental auto mechanic named Kate (Kelli Ruttle). Sprinkled with comic desperation, the potpourri of love affairs is alternately abetted and obstructed by two local street hustlers, Puck and Ariel. In these roles, Gugun Deep Singh and Elizabeth Rick are wonderfully gifted clowns among an ensemble that rises to the challenge of juggling sophisticated language, scrambled metaphors and gleeful slapstick. Range View Productions at the HAYWORTH THEATER, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 16. (323) 960-7785. (Deborah Klugman)

GO SWINE Writer-director Paul Plunkett’s blacker-than-pitch comedy is a ruthless, riotous indictment of a celebrity culture that feeds on shock. Penned 12 years before Britney shaved her head — even before E! True Hollywood Stories debuted — this prescient satire (with Richard Levinson’s original music, lyrics by Plunkett) shaped as a docudrama follows the entertainment career of Swine (a deliriously go-for-broke Brendan Hunt) from the farm, where his inbred siblings Goat and Cow (Joe Hendrix and Franci Montgomery) tortured him for giggles, to the top of the food chain in Hollywood, where his every black eye is luridly detailed in the tabloids. While his various abusers take credit for Swine’s fame, his therapist (Ruth Silveira) wonders if his tortured background — maybe, say, when his mom (Scott Leggett) fed him dog food for a buck, or that time he was gang-raped by gorillas — might have been what molded him into the ultimate superstar beast with a hunger to please. Swine’s crowd-pleasing ditties (music by Richard Levinson with lyrics by Plunkett) mash up bestiality jokes with patriotism. Plunkett’s direction and ensemble are sharp and smart; and though we may laugh as Swine turns a Taser on himself for applause, we also feel a small piece of our soul die. SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd.; perfs Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 30. (310) 281-8337. (Amy Nicholson)

TALES OF TINSELTOWN This frothy spoof of 1930s movie musicals — book and lyrics by Michael Colby and music by Paul Katz — sweetly lampoons a genre that isn’t especially screaming for parody, but director Jeff Maynard’s crisply staged production skates a long way on technical assurance and good cheer. Everyone dreams of being a star, but not many are willing to go as far as Iowa farm girl Ellie Hinkleberry (Gwen Hollander) does to achieve her goals. When aspiring screenwriter Elmo (Matt Lutz) passes through town, Ellie hitches a ride with him. Soon, the pair arrives in glamorous Hollywood, where it turns out that Elmo’s uncle is none other than top movie mogul Norman G. Neinstein (Gus Corrado, delightfully gruff). Ellie, renaming herself the more cinematically euphonic “Ellie Ash,” becomes a huge star — but gossip columnist Adele (Diana Georger, channelling Joan Rivers) fishes up a scandal that scrapes the luster off of Ellie’s tinsel. Choreographer Allison Bibicoff’s dance numbers are amusingly broad and sprightly, while the ensemble — moving fluidly and in fine voice — serves up charismatic, good humored performances. Hollander shows off a particularly wide emotional and vocal range. Yet, in the end, I find it difficult to get too excited by something that’s about nothing. Crossley Terrace Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru June 17. (323) 462-8460. (Paul Birchall)

GO THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE features the Broadway cast in this national touring production of William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin’s (book) hit musical, from a concept by Rebecca Feldman. Designer Beowulf Boritt transforms the barn of a venue on Westwood’s V.A. grounds to some middle-school auditorium in the middle of America for a competition among children in the throes of puberty. It could a cheer-leading competition, a talent contest or a variation on Jeopardy; the rituals of elimination and the accompanying emotional trauma are much the same. The spelling bee falls somewhere in the middle, between the highbrow and the low. This is off-Broadway’s answer to A Chorus Line (before its Broadway run, Spelling Bee played off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre) — the main joke being the gleefully low stakes that are blown sky high in a winner-take-all culture. (Christ makes a voice-over entrance, telling one praying contestant that in the larger scale of things, He doesn’t care much about spelling bees.) Its success on Broadway, like that of Urinetown, suggests how widely embraced “alternative” humor has become, or how nerdy kids, their lunatic parents and deranged school administrators spark common flames of recognition, when fueled by a Prairie Home Companion nostalgia. James Lapine directs the competition in the broad yet telling strokes of a George Schultz cartoon. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are straight from the comix. Finn’s music is as forgettable as Dan Knechtges’ parodic choreography. But that doesn’t matter. The show hangs on the ludicrous tension of nose-picking kids with volatile erections, hideous allergies and uncontrollable crushes, waiting for Dad to show up in a third-row saved seat, or for Mom to return from her spiritual quest in Bombay. Especially lovely performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Dan Fogler. Broadway L.A. at the WADSWORTH THEATRE, V.A. Grounds, W.L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru June 17. (213) 365-3500 or (Steven Leigh Morris)

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