Theater Reviews: Attempts on Her Life, The Last Schwartz, The Piano Lesson

ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE Playwright Martin Crimp’s pastiche of cultural perceptions and judgments is composed of 17 disparate sketches united by the attempts of their various characters to describe an unseen woman named Anne, whose incarnations include terrorist, missing person and even a luxury car. The result is meetings and encounters between movie execs, journalists, cops, parents, et al., in which they disgorge memories or theories about Anne. Crimp’s script merely consists of dialogue written in sentences without stage directions or indications of who exactly speaks the lines. This gives a show’s director wide latitude for creativity, or a very long rope with a noose at its end — how it’s staged spells the difference between a concept and a gag. This production, fortunately, showcases the talents of two capable helmers, Bart DeLorenzo and Chris Covics, who use 17 explosively energetic actors in a tightly paced 90 minutes. The action plays out on Covics’ set, which mostly consists of suspended chairs and, on the stage’s sides, translucent panels that never quite hide the preparations and TV-watching of the ensemble’s noninvolved members. The funniest moments include the self-important film folk who are obsessed with creating a backstory to Ann, and a bilingual radio broadcast in which a woman haltingly proclaims the feminine empowerment bestowed upon her by acting in pornographic films. The problem with pastiche theater is that without a plot, or at least an editorial voice, the show cannot sustain its initial emotional or intellectual charge for very long. No matter how appealing Crimp’s scenes might be individually, when braided into a chain of other scenes their impact is diminished — the more so the further down on that chain they appear. Evidence Room and UNKNOWN THEATER, 1110 N. Seward St., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Dec. 15. (323) 466-7781. (Steven Mikulan)

LOVE LOVES A PORNOGRAPHER is worth seeing for the care and technique (in performance and in Gary Smoot’s stunning, enveloping set design) that’s been lavished upon Jeff Goode’s new play. Perhaps it’s rude to suggest that Circle X Theatre Company, which produced it, is becoming Manhattan Theatre Club west, with spectacular though infrequent productions of works about nothing in particular, designed more to tour the provinces than apply some rigor to philosophical or theatrical ideas. Such rigor — mingled with playfulness — used to be this company’s hallmark in comedies such as Glen Berger’s Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22; dramas like Paul Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata; and a revelatory musical about the origins of filmmaking, Laura Comstock’s Bag Punching Dog, by Jillian Armenante and Alice Dodd. Armenante directs Love Loves a Pornographer as a perfectly calibrated send-up of English gothic literature, revisiting the much-ado-about-nothing themes of Dodd and Armenante’s In Flagrante Gothicto. Here, in the Loveworthys’ parlour, somewhere in the English countryside, the lord and lady of the manor (William Salyers and Gillian Doyle) invite neighbors Miles and Millicent Monger (Jim Anzide and Johanna McKay) for a friendly game of blackmail. Loveworthy is a novelist; Monger, a cleric and chief literary critic for “The Times” — which Anzide haughtily spits into the crowd at every reference: funny stuff. Loveworthy needs a good review from Monger, which would be his first in 20 years, and we’re off and running. The Loveworthys’ rebel daughter (Kathleen Rose Perkins) returns home from America with her fiancé, Earl Kant (Matt Ford), a boorish bookseller in a dog-skin cap, whose shop specializes in erotica. (The play gets comic mileage when any character says, in somber tones, “Mr. Kant.”) Goode’s clever writing comes marbled with alliterations and a well-sculpted structure. I just don’t understand, in a new play especially, why we should care about these jokes or what they attack — venomous literary critics (most newspapers’ book sections are now being eviscerated, along with the book industry), the gender superiority of stupid men (an old and easy target) and the moral hypocrisy of the English upper class. (Glad they brought that up; it’s hardly mentioned in world lit.) Is this really worth all these resources? That said, Anzide’s villainous Monger comes lathered in oily pompousness; McKay’s performance as his wife, pocked with twitches from the abuse of her idiot spouse, is a comedic masterpiece amid this excellent ensemble, which also includes Weston Nathanson as the Loveworthys' manservant. Circle X Theatre Company at [INSIDE] THE FORD, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 20 (no perfs Nov. 22 & Dec. 23). (323) 461-3673. (Steven Leigh Morris)

MASKS Terryl Daluz and Mann Alfonso, who wrote, directed and star in this passionate buddy drama about at-risk adolescents, work as counselors in the juvenile justice system, so they know what they’re talking about when it comes to kids in and out of trouble with the law. Jason (Daluz), a young man with anger issues, winds up at a foster home after his pothead single dad proves unable to cope with him. He forges a close bond with his stoner roomie T.G. (Alfonso), who has been damaged by his own hateful father’s physical and sexual abuse. The pair share their hopes and aspirations: Jason wants to be a writer, while T.G. dreams of becoming a DJ. However, as Jason and T.G. grow up, they frequently find themselves running afoul of both the law and their own inner demons. The execution of Daluz and Alfonso’s drama is undeniably rough. The pacing is occasionally languid, and much of the blocking is stiff and awkward. Yet criticizing the work for these flaws all but misses the point: The production possesses a poignant sincerity and makes its points vividly. Alfonso and Daluz are skillful at creating characters who make godawful decisions, but who are still worthy of redemption. Judging from the rowdy but enthusiastic reactions of the opening-night audience, many of whose members were residents of foster homes, the work’s scathing portrait of the juvenile justice world is hauntingly authentic. NOHO ACTORS STUDIO, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Dec. 2. (866) 811-4111. (Paul Birchall)

THE PIANO LESSON At 5 a.m., Doaker (Alex Morris) is awakened by pounding on the door of his Philadelphia house. It’s his brother, Boy Willie (Russell Andrews), and his friend, Lymon (Roscoe C. Freeman), up from the South with a truck of watermelons they intend to sell. Boy Willie’s noisy entrance also wakes up Doaker’s sister Berniece (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who sees Boy Willie as trouble in the making. As soon as Berniece’s daughter, Maretha (DaShawn R. Barnes), leaves for school and Berniece for work, Boy Willie tries to enlist Doaker in his plan to sell the family heirloom: a piano hand-carved with the faces of relatives and African totems. Set during the Depression, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is one of the most engaging in his ten-play cycle about African American life in the 20th century. Claude Purdy directs a uniformly strong cast, including Julius Tennon as a preacher and Diarra O. Kilpatrick (substituting for Tammi Mac) as a floozy. Joel Daavid’s production design lends itself to non-intrusive stage business on the well-thought-out set, which is, of course, dominated by the piano. RKA/StageWalker Productions with 444 Productions at THE HAYWORTH, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 9 (no perfs Nov. 22-23). (213) 389-9860. (Sandra Ross)

SHAKESPEARE’S R&J Four boys in a rigid, puritanical Catholic high school obtain a clandestine copy of Shakespeare’s “forbidden” play, Romeo and Juliet, and join forces to read it aloud, sharing the roles. The project becomes a voyage of discovery in which they must deal with disturbing ideas and feelings regarding gender, repression and their own sexuality. Joe Calarco’s script is more elaborate concept than original play, since most of the words are the Bard’s. Director Derek Charles Livingston opts to treat the framing device perfunctorily, emphasizing Shakespeare instead. So what we see is not dangerous, spontaneous adolescent exploration, but a fully rehearsed production, with revelations already processed. Though, as Shakespeare, it’s rousing, inventive, and exuberantly physical, the nature of the boys’ responses is only fitfully articulated, and the subtleties and nuances of Calarco’s vision concept get short shrift. David Pintado charms as a brash, boyish Romeo, while Wyatt Fenner offers a shyly ardent Juliet and a loyal, self-effacing Benvolio. Eric Fagundes provides a flamboyant Mercutio, a sententious Friar Lawrence, and a broadly sketched Lady Capulet, while Topher Brattain plays a fiery Tybalt and a pushy, insinuating Nurse. August Viverito designed the simple, handsome set. The Production Company at THE CHANDLER STUDIO, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., thru Dec. 8. (800) 838-23006. (Neal Weaver)

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