ALMOST, MAINE Love is very much in the air in the idyllic community of Almost, Maine, the setting for John Cariani’s homage to Cupid’s often strange, unpredictable machinations. The play is formatted as a series of star-filled, romantic encounters that are mostly sugary sweet, with a sprinkling of salt for good measure. Director Ashley Archambeau does a fine job marshaling the cast of 18, all of whom turn in good performances. This more than makes up for the sillier, vacuous moments that spring up during some of these vignettes. A good example: “They Fell,” with Erol Dolen and Adam Sandroni as two pals whose underlying sexual attraction for each other causes them to fall on the floor. It’s funny for all of 10 seconds, but the skit lasts far longer. Ditto for “This Hurts,” where a bout of head bashing with ironing boards turns gratingly sentimental and silly. “Where It Went” is a heart-wrenching meditation on love lost with Luke Wright and Arianna Arias as a couple whose once magical attraction has evaporated. “Sad and Glad” tosses in a bit of the mysterious with Greyson Lewis and Lauren Andrea as strangers brought together by a misspelled tattoo. Neo Acro Theatre Company at the Avery Schreiber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through January 30, NeoAcroTheatre.com. (Lovell Estell III)
GO BLOOD AND THUNDER In the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Marcus (Keith Arthur Bolden) isn’t scared of the newly arrived hurricane, Katrina. Marcus is an expert on everything — at least, he watches a lot of TV — and vows the water won’t rise above 10 feet. But Marcus’ theories and conclusions have always gotten him, brother Quentin (Tony Williams) and Marcus’ girlfriend, Charlie (Candice Afia), in over their heads with one bad hustling scheme after another. Still, Marcus is convinced he’s the brains of the group, even if he has to badger Quentin and Charlie until they agree. When Quentin limps in, sopping wet, still wearing his orange prison jumpsuit with a bullet hole in his thigh, the two siblings have a violent score to settle. Terence Anthony’s taut one-act drama is effective agony. Two character twists may not add up, but while the audience perches practically in the living room of Jorge I. Velasquez’s realistic, dingy set, with the rain hammering down, the tension is as thick as the storm clouds we imagine overhead. Solid performances keep the spell going, particularly by Afia as the strong-willed girlfriend trying to break free of Marcus’ emotional abuse. Sara Wagoner directs. Moving Arts, 1822 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through February 28. (323) 666-3259. (Amy Nicholson)
GO AN OAK TREE On the simplest storytelling level, actor-performer Tim Crouch’s play is the tale of a hypnotist falling apart at the seams, who after accidentally striking and killing a young girl with his car, one day finds the victim’s father on his stage. Wrenching stuff. But on a conceptual level, the event takes this very emotional saga and uses it as a kind of ping-pong ball to bat around the idea of suspension of disbelief — realities that we create through suggestion. In order to accomplish this, for each performance he employs a different actor, whom he meets less than one hour before the performance, and who reads the role of the father from a script. And so, through a frame of hypnotism that’s just one of the play’s many artifices, begins a breathtaking examination of the blurred line between what is real and what is suggested, of how we live in dream worlds in order to get by, and how theater itself is a kind of hypnosis that serves this very same purpose. Its brilliance is unfettered, and inexplicably moving, for being such a head trip. Odyssey Theater, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through February 14. (310) 477-2055. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.
ORDINARY DAYS Though meant to be ironic because it is a story of New York City, which, of course, is always extraordinary, the title is actually prophetic about Adam Gwon’s light, predictable pop-musical “ode to New York,” which only occasionally rises above the ordinary. Four whimsical young characters (played by Nick Gabriel, Deborah S. Craig, David Burnham and Nancy Anderson) try to navigate the turbulence of Manhattan, searching for love and purpose. Unfortunately most of the 18 songs are pattery ditties that give the talented cast little to work with. Only Burnham gets to let loose with his belting voice. At one point, in the Metropolitan Museum, Gwon’s composition actually moves into high gear with some complicated rhythms — beautifully handled by musical director Dennis Castellano — which actually sound like an homage to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. The characters are in simple situations of youthful angst — though a moving tribute to 9/11 stops the show with unearned emotion. The evening’s best aspect is Fred Kinney’s mechanical stage design of Manhattan architecture, complemented by Jason H. Thompson’s clever projections. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; through January 24. (714) 708-5555. (Tom Provenzano)
GO SHAKESPEARE UNSCRIPTED The Impro Theatre specializes in improvising full-length plays in the literary style of prominent writers, including Jane Austen, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim. Here, under the direction of artistic directors Brian Lohman and Dan O’Connor, they’re tackling the Bard, taking the most minimal suggestions from the audience and spinning them into dizzily amusing mock-Shakespearean epics. At the performance I attended, they created a comedy that might be called Much Ado About Bluebirds. Miranda (Lisa Frederickson) is the slightly deaf daughter (she seems to hear clearly only the songs of bluebirds) of the Duke of Kent (Lohman). Kent has decided to marry her off to the elderly Duke of York (Floyd Van Buskirk), but she has already developed a fancy for Price (O’Connor), a young man from the village, who loves her, and has learned to tweet like a bluebird to woo her. The course of true love is threatened by a couple of mischievous fairies (Brian Jones and Edi Patterson) and a man-eating bear, until the blissful final scene, which is as sententious as any old Will created. The company (including Michele Spears and Stephen Kearin) is clever, nimble and quick on its feet, and the result is an amiable, crowd-pleasing divertissement. Impro Theatre at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., through February 14. (323) 401-9793. (Neal Weaver)
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TWENTY-TWO A friend once explained his decision to quit cocaine as his weariness of the disreputable types with whom he was forced to deal and of the even scarier places where they invariably dealt. So it is in actor-playwright Julia Morizawa’s hyperkinetic, autobiographical addiction nightmare. For Leila (Morizawa), the story’s 22-year-old heroine, however, no amount of unsavory associations can deter her from her unapologetic, single-minded snorting of coke with the fierce efficiency of a Shop-Vac. Her unbridled enthusiasm for the powder soon ensnares her two best friends, Zoe (Shaina Vorspan) and the musician, Danny (Matthew Black), whose cluttered apartment becomes Leila’s de facto drug den. With her boyfriend/dealer, Eric (Raymond Donahey), as their enabler/supplier, the friends’ walk on the sordid side quickly careens into a coked-up version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Director Donahey intensifies the luridness of the proceedings by seating the audience on the set like so many uninvited guests. But Morizawa’s restricting focus on the outward spectacle of her characters’ free fall rarely musters pathos for their plunge. While the play hints at deeper demons whetting Leila’s manic appetite (i.e., fear and self-loathing), the evening’s most poignant and revealing moment belongs not to its protagonist but to its bogeyman, Sol (the fine James Adam Patterson), when the unscrupulous street dealer speaks with pride over a daughter’s scholastic achievements. Had Morizawa been as generous with her other characters, she might have delivered something more engaging than sideshow debasement and morbid, voyeuristic thrills. Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through January 30. (323) 667-0955. (Bill Raden)
11, SEPTEMBER Playwright-performer Paul Kampf may have come up with the perfect rationalization for writing what would seem, at face value, the most implausible plot twists for his psychological thriller. It concerns an affair between a mathematician, Martin Healy (Kampf), visiting New York from his London home to attend a conference, and a waitress, Angela Madison (Liz Rebert), with whom he becomes smitten. Under Gita Donovan’s direction, the actors’ waves of attraction and repulsion (from mutual distrust that slowly and hauntingly seeps out) have a truthfulness that matches the authenticity of the uncredited studio apartment, where the entire saga plays out. A rising tension from the violence in the air and some very intriguing interconnections add to the play’s capacity to entrance, and Chris Cash’s musical compositions help segue the many scenes with a delicate solemnity, giving the event a cinematic feel. References to chaos and conspiracy theories become the philosophical frame for plot developments that might otherwise raise eyebrows in skepticism. The play rides the line between exploring and exploiting coincidences, yet it gets bogged down in its own psychological realism. This raises questions that can’t be answered by chaos theory, or any other — such as why the characters sometimes blurt out incendiary details of their past, given how neither is particularly trustworthy, or why Martin would drop by uninvited and wind up reading Angela’s diary, conveniently left in her bed. Breadline Productions at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through February 7. (310) 477-2055. (Steven Leigh Morris)