ANYTHING A comedy written in the nothing-human-disgusts-me vein, Tim McNeils play looks at what happens when a middle-aged widower befriends a Hollywood transvestite prostitute. Early Landry (McNeil) is a transplanted Southerner still grieving for his wife, while also tamping down the demons that have caused him to attempt suicide four times. Next-door neighbor Freda (Louis Jacobs) has just been dumped by her more-or-less straight boyfriend (Max Williams). The rebounding Early and Freda take a while to reach eye level for the romance that inevitably follows Fredas a foul-mouthed Vicodin addict working Santa Monica Boulevard, while Early is a stay-at-home sentimentalist stuck to a chair listening to his late wifes favorite Debussy recording. McNeil and Jacobs are personable actors, but David Fofis direction doesnt nudge them off their single-note performances. Worse, McNeils talky play starts by seeming to explore what happens when a person loses everything in life, but quickly becomes another hooker-redemption yarn and a fairly plot-free one at that. The only fun arrives late when Earlys monster sister (Cheryl Huggins) arrives for dinner with her husband and son (David Franco and Jeremy Glazer, respectively). Sis is refreshingly bigoted, providing the only moment of conflict and comedy. She also forces her brother to finally admit Fredas a man a fact, along with an 800-pound gorilla called AIDS, that Early has not acknowledged. Elephant Theater Company at the LILLIAN THEATER, 1076 N. Lillian St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 13. (323) 960-4410. (Steven Mikulan) @HEART Playwright J-Powers epistolary drama uses the newfangled technologies of e-mail and instant messaging to tell an old-fashioned story of love and war. Following the toppling of the World Trade Center, idealistic young Harris (Mikey Myers on the night reviewed the show is triple cast) feels like he must do something, so he enlists in the Army, with the wholehearted support of his doting wife, Jennifer (Jessica McClendon, who also alternates in the role with two other actors). While Harris is overseas being a hero, Jennifer, saddled with family debts and a young son, fights a losing war of a different type entirely. The moral of J-Powers drama seems to be that warrior adventuring is ultimately vanity, while the brave are often left behind on the home front to cope. The problem, though, is that Powers seems unsure whether hes telling a soapy tear jerker or a hard-hitting polemic against the war, and the uncertain, halting text is unsatisfying as both. Director Paul Linkes production mainly consists of the two performers seated behind a pair of laptops for the entire show. The resulting mood is intimate, although stasis and even claustrophobia inevitably seep through. Still, Myers is touching as the dopey, irresponsible would-be hero and so is McClendon as his waiflike and increasingly desperate wife. RUSKIN GROUP THEATRE, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 20. (310) 397-3244. (Paul Birchall)
ATLANTA Marcus Hummon and Adrian Pasdars brand-new American Civil War musical never ceases to amaze. At every point where you say to yourself, This couldnt possibly get any worse, they roll out a new scene that defies such prophecy. Not that individual elements are lacking. If you removed Hummons music and lyrics from the play onto which theyve been grafted (like a peach tree branch onto a cactus) youd be left with a very pleasing amalgam of James Taylor and Ry Cooders musical stylings with some gospel thrown in for good measure. Hummon and Pasdars story idea has its merits as well starting with a bewildered Yankee soldier, Paul (Ken Barnett, who with good reason bears the expression of a deer stunned by headlights). Paul steals the uniform and love letters of the Confederate grunt he just killed in order to pursue an epistolary fantasy. He wanders into the brigade of a Confederate colonel (John Fleck), who has a penchant for Shakespeare and for having his merry band of slaves (Leonard Roberts, Merle Dandridge and Moe Daniels) perform scenes from the Bard while his brigade is in retreat. All the worlds a stage, I guess. Some of this might work if the telling of the story werent so soppy. Yes, theres a secret about heritage thats going to pop out at the end, sort of like a stripper out of a birthday cake. Then add a jealousy triangle involving the colonel and two of his slaves. The larger problem is the creators attempt to exploit Southern gothic rather than explore it, resulting in a compendium of cliches spun from Faulkneresque literary images and a Ken Burns documentary. Stir in Kay Coles choreography, which has the ensemble stompin their feet and swayin their shoulders back and fro, as though snagged on the barbed wire fence between opera and a hoedown, and the event devolves into a parody of itself. The performances are fine and the onstage band is great, but here lies a good idea that got executed, in the military sense of that verb. Randall Arney directs. GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no perf. Dec. 25); thru Jan. 6. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)
PICK BENEDICTUS The virtues of Israeli playwright Motti Lerners drama of political intrigue (translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris) come from its world-weary humor and very global perspective a prescient saga written post-9/11 yet before U.S. saber rattling against Iran started getting louder, its set as the U.S. prepares to bomb an Iranian nuclear facility. In a Benedictine monastery near Rome, childhood friends now in middle age reunite if not to save the world, at least to save their part in it. Iranian-born Jew Asther Muthada (Ali Pourtash) dressed like a used-car salesman on holiday in an all-white suit has become an Israeli arms dealer and is now terrified of what will become of his sister and her family who remained in Iran, once American bombs start dropping on Tehran. The drama consists of a series of his clandestine meeting with a moderate Iranian cleric, Ali Kermani (Al Faris) in black religious garb who might or might not have a chance of being Irans next president, and who might or might not wield the influence to get Muthadas sister out of Iran. In their youth, the men shared a schoolyard and prison cell during the revolution against the Shah. The play is set mostly in the dank claustrophobia of the Spartan meeting room stained glass beamed onto the black wall like a mirage (set by Daniel Michaelson). And despite the somewhat stock melodrama, and the constricted range of line deliveries by Pourtash, who still possesses an appealingly wry portrayal of the Israeli, the two men negotiating for arms has the scintillating wit of bluff and counterbluff, as the Israeli tries to save his sister, and the Iranian tries to save his skin. Earll Kingston has a thundering voice, and John Boltons snake-oil charm, as an American diplomat/intermediary dont tread on U.S. But an opening scene is emblematic of the plays droll humor: On the eve of World War III, a nun (Lisa Tateosian), who may or may not have planted listening devices, welcomes the Israeli visitor with ingratiating formality, saying that the church would do anything for world peace, and Muthada just stares at her as though she were just released from the mental ward. The play was created in collaboration with Michaelson, Roberta Levitow, Torange Yeghizarian and director Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. Golden Thread Productions at THE NEW LATC, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 9. (323) 461-3673. (Steven Leigh Morris) CRY-BABY John Waters new musical is a Broadway-style camp frolic about teens in 1954 Baltimore that follows in the stylistic footsteps of Hairspray. Its harmless and delightful, lacking the ironic depth of Waters 1990 film, on which its based. Cry Baby (James Snyder), a rock singer and member of the bad-boy Drapes gang, falls into a star-crossed love affair with Allison (Elizabeth Stanley) the prettiest of the Squares, a group that includes her should-be boyfriend, Baldwin (Christopher H. Hanke), a member of a four-part harmony crew. Deftly guided by director Mark Brokaw, the cast deliver the sappy comedy with aplomb, particularly the hilarious Harriet Harris as the lead den mother of the Squares. David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesingers songs are catchy and clever, especially under the fine musical direction of Lynne Shankel. However, the excitement of this show comes mostly from Rob Ashfords nonstop, over-the-top choreography, which takes full advantage of the outstanding dancers. Catherine Zubers bright and intensely period costumes perfectly match Scott Pasks ambitious, constantly moving sets, brilliantly lit by Howell Binkley. LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 16. (858) 550-1010. (Tom Provenzano)
HARMS WAY Shem Bittermans play is a thoughtful, stateside view of Americas actions in Iraq, centered on an Army atrocity that is investigated by a military father (Jack Stehlin) whose daughter (Katie Lowes) falls in love with the cases chief suspect (Ben Bowen). While it doesnt completely fulfill its dramatic potential, the two-hour show, directed by Steve Zuckerman, mostly avoids editorializing, preferring instead to question how good people do terrible things. CIRCUS THEATRICALS STUDIO THEATER at the Hayworth, 643 Carondelet St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 21-22, 28-29 & Jan. 4-5); thru Feb. 9. (323) 960-1054. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.
LOCAL STORY Kristen Palmers play suggests you can go home again, but you may not be welcomed when you get there. Years ago, DLady (Michelle Hilyard) ran away with goofy guy Jimmy (Jeffrey Emerson), and took him to an isolated Colorado melon patch, then absconded with his car. In the melon patch, Jimmy had a brief encounter with a fey, barefoot young woman, Betsy (Mandi Moss), who seems to have escaped from a folk tale, but in the plays action has now returned in pursuit of Jimmy, who now shares a house with passive Bubba (David Wilcox), who carries a torch for DLady. (Bubba hasnt set foot out of doors since she left.) Bubbas sister, Amory (Jennifer Anne Evans), is a control freak who manipulates her husband, Roy (Monroe Makowsky), by withholding sex. But now that shes eager to have a child, he reacts passive-aggressively by becoming impotent. (He also sees ghosts.) When DLady reappears on the scene, she serves as a catalyst to energize the others. Director Inger Tudor gives the piece an excellent production, and the performances are fine, but its a rambling (though often amusing) tale about eccentric characters behaving eccentrically. THEATRE OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 16. (323) 993-6103. (Neal Weaver)
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MONNA VANNA Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlincks bloated 1902 melodrama has not been produced in this country for more than a century, and now we know why. This fusty work tells of one mans willingness to sacrifice thousands of lives to protect his wifes virtue and his own honor. In 15th-century Italy during a war between Pisa and Florence (Pisa, on the losing end, is besieged, and its people starving), Guido Colonna (Stephan Smith Collins), the ruler and military leader, is desperate when he gets word that Prinzivalle (Bryant Romo), his Florentian counterpart, will spare the city if Guidos wife, Vanna (Emily Wing), visits his tent. Despite the dire situation, the enraged, jealous husband refuses, turning aside the pleas of his father (Robin Field) to spare his people. Act 2 details the meeting between Prinzivalle and Vanna who defies her husband and delivers herself revealing the pair as long-lost childhood sweethearts, and forcing her to a hokey choice between love and duty. Directed by Joel Marquez, the production doesnt find whatever psychological complexity might be ferreted from the long-winded script favoring instead head-splitting histrionics and slushy sentimentality. A spare set leaves the performers with little to do while delivering their long speeches. Field is watchable as a seasoned elder, and Wing communicates vulnerability in a wan performance. However, both the bombastic Collins whose arrogant commander never questions his own virtue and the bathetic Romo are in over their heads. Lizbeth Lucca and Sarah Moores colorful period costumes are thoroughly wasted. STELLA ADLER THEATRE, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 16. (323) 465-4446. (Deborah Klugman)
SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK The 19 ditties belted out by Chad Borden, Tameka Dawn, Antoine Reynaldo Diel, Eduardo Enrikez, Elaine Loh and Susan Rudick are one-third of the entire output of the beloved 70s and 80s kids program and, as such, they cover a lot of educational ground. Listen up and learn about grammar rules, womens rights, the solar system, time tables and a whole lotta American history. While the lyrics are often so mumbled that the exact definition of a pronoun is indecipherable, the tots in the surprisingly hipster-free matinee audience were downright giddy about multiplying by fives and pretending to be Russians and Italian immigrants as they jumped into a melting pot superimposed with a long wooden spoon. But the standout is the cherubic Rudick, whose crystalline voice makes a haunting lullaby of Figure 8 and gives Interplanet Janet extra bop (though Pluto is now thrown dismissively into the wings). Stringing along the favorites like Conjunction Junction and Im Only a Bill (along with a grating framing device about a teacher who needs inspiration, darn it), director Mark Savage and choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza keep the mood peppy without parody, though as the character Bill (as in Senate bill) shuffled offstage, someone couldnt resist shouting, Can we get out of Iraq now? GREENWAY COURT THEATER, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Sat., 4 p.m.; Sun., 4 & 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 24. (323) 655-7679. (Amy Nicholson)
SPLIT SECOND The action in Dennis McIntyres gritty 1984 drama unfurls on a seamy New York street where a black cop, Val (William Christopher Stephens), makes what seems to be a routine bust of white car thief William Ellis (Taber Schroeder). Offhand banter between the pair turns ugly when Ellis taunts his black captor with an onslaught of racial insults, after which Val snaps and dispatches the garrulous perpetrator with a bullet to the heart. What follows is straight out of dirty-cop protocol. Val works the scene to make the murder appear legitimate, lies repeatedly to a skeptical inspector (a fine performance by Gary Robinson), and finds himself doing the same to his cop buddy, his wife, Lea (Janora McDuffie), and his straight-laced father (Ernest Harden Jr.), a former policeman. The final scene offers no surprises and little perspective. In his overwritten script, McIntyre fails to make this killer cops feelings of guilt, moral ambiguity and ultimate self-betrayal viscerally convincing, opting instead for a melodrama, contrivance and racial animus to explain and justify the indefensible. No fault can be found with JWJs direction, or the fine performances. THE NEXT STAGE, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., Second Floor, Hlywd.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru. Dec.13. (323) 850-7827 (Lovell Estell III)
THE WINTERS TALE Shakespeares dream play starts in Sicily, where King Leontes (Geoff Elliott) grows suddenly and weirdly jealous of his house guest, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Stephen Rockwell), for the way the hostess queen, Hermione (Jill Hill), cajoles Polixenes to stay a bit longer. Something about the way their noses almost brush up against each other sets the Sicilian king into a rage like Othello but without Iago goading him. Rather, Leontes manufactures this insanity all by himself, and for no apparent reason. Out of his gourd, he formally, publicly charges his pregnant wife with infidelity, and anybody else of treason who might stand up for her, such as his loyal servant, Camillo (William Dennis Hunt). At her trial, an oracle defends the queens honor, but this is not evidence Leontes can hear, or bear. Being of Greek origin, the tale entails some fleeing, and the abused queens death, but not before the premature birth of her daughter, whom the lunatic king banishes as a bastard. The other pole of this bipolar play is Bohemia, 16 years later, where the mid-section unfolds, revealing King Polixenes predatory issues with his son (Ross Kidder), whos now wooing the Sicilian Kings banished daughter (Alison Elliott), though only we know her ancestry. A scene much like the raising of Lazarus from the dead provides the hypnotic peak to the dramas slow crescendo of events. A lush visual beauty envelopes co-directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliotts elegant production. Some of this is contained in the opulent beauty of Peer Gottliebs lighting design, and the way it falls on Soojin Lees Edwardian costumes. Theres also Darcy Scanlins deceptively spare set, framed by metal spikes at the stages perimeter that reach at varied angles into the sky. That the language is so beautifully spoken goes without saying in this company, but here its supplemented by a wandering violinist (Endre Balogh), whose sparingly selected accompaniments give this production its meditative grace. A NOISE WITHIN, 134 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, call for schedule; thru Dec. 8. (818) 240-0901, ext. 1. (Steven Leigh Morris)