BEFORE I FORGET The gift in Kirk Douglas’ one-man show being perfored at the theater named after him is his courage, for whatever reason, to tell his story at the age of 92 in the aftermath of a stroke. Regardless of his celebrity and the parade of superstars from his life, whom he trots out through references and in projected slides and videos, the giant has been felled by time, as we all are, or will be, and Douglas’ determination to show that, through slurred speech and an ambling gait, is a testament to being human. That testament is both brave and rare, coming from a man of the movie culture, where appearance is everything. He performs with sly wit, which emerges through winking expressions; it’s also candid to the point of being both charming and maudlin. He tells of meeting his second wife in Paris. She was his assigned translator, who spoke five languages — here the image of this French beauty appears on the screen — “and she knew how to say ‘no’ in all of them.” The show is a crowd-pleaser, which offers many personal revelations but no scandal and few insights, despite its excursions into theology and mortality. The man nonetheless commands respect because he’s simply, obviously speaking his mind, and that’s a considerable risk when there are legacy issues at stake. He’s the kind of uncle anyone would boast of. Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Fri., March 13, 8 p.m.; Sun., March 15, 2 p.m. www.centertheatregroup.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO BEGGARS IN THE HOUSE OF PLENTY John Patrick Shanley’s semiautobiographical one-act about growing up in a dysfunctional working-class Irish-American Catholic family is smartly directed by Larry Moss. The play opens when Johnny (Chris Payne Gilbert) is 5 years old and is only dimly aware that love is missing from his life. His sister, Sheila (Lena Georgas), is escaping the household through early marriage, so the real problems don’t start until brother Joey (the excellent David Gail) returns home from the Navy. His death-obsessed mother (Francesca Casale) is disappointed by the gifts he brings, and nothing he can say or do will please his father (Jack Conley). Moss’ bold directorial style is most evident in the darkly comedic scenes, with exaggerated line deliveries such as when cousin Sister Mary Kate (Denise Crosby) leads the family in a mangled version of “Hail Mary.” The action jumps ahead 15 years, as Johnny’s just been thrown out of college and he’s doing battle with his elder brother. The final segment is a dream sequence that’s been effectively lit by Leigh Allen to emphasize the hellish qualities of home life. Johnny knows that his escape from his family will come when he has “the words,” for he doesn’t want to just hate his parents — he wants to understand them. Conley is superb as the violent father who wields a meat cleaver with ease. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 29. (800) 838-3006. (Sandra Ross)
THE CONTEST Set in an art-school studio, Jennifer Rowland’s play begins with a game of “what ifs” between Karl (Albert Meijer) and Amanda (Jules Wilcox), who are not only star students but lovers as well. While they explore their hypothetical futures, their present concerns center on the school’s upcoming contest, whose winner will presumably take the art world by storm. Into this den of lust, anticipation, creativity and insecurity wanders Faith (Heleya de Barros), a first-year student who befriends Karl and Amanda almost too quickly. Faith latches on to the games they play but takes the questions to a new level, creating a triangle of confusion, jealousy and doubt. Rounding out the ensemble is the sometimes mocked but influential Jerome (Dan Kozlowski), who teaches at the school and serves as a judge in the contest. As the events play out, the winner of the contest is declared, setting in motion a series of events that affects these characters professionally and personally for the next 15 years. Director Sarah Zinsser uses the space well enough and facilitates transitions between the short scenes, but she allows her actors emotional turns that are too quick, never letting us feel the gravity of the stakes at play. Among the cast, only Kozlowski stands out, stealing almost every scene in which he appears. The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through March 14. (800) 595-4849. A Pudd’nhead Productions Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO LIE WITH ME Mutineer Theatre Company makes an impressive debut with Keith Bridges’ pitch-black new play. The verb in the title is deliberate double entendre in a drama about a family that keeps deflecting the consequences of their hideous behavior in matters of both sexuality and honesty. The device of a matriarch (Emily Morrison) slowly dying in an upstage cot is the only reason her daughters would come anywhere near the home where they grew up, and where their father, Stan (Christian Lebano), had a lingering sexual relationship with one of them, Carla (Taylor Coffman). The now adult young women are like far-flung satellites whom Stan struggles to bring home in order to say whatever needs to be said to their fading mother. It takes an interloper — Carla’s boyfriend, Ian (Jon Cohn) — to provide a perspective on the “gentle” abuse (Carla was not raped or forced by her dad to engage in sex with him) that have transpired in this house. Both daughters now seethe with fury, and not only at their father. Young Susan (Amber Hamilton) cuts herself and tries to hit on Ian, just to spite Carla. Susan’s envy of the attention Carla received from her father is one place where Bridges’ drama slips off the rails. And the redundancy of Stan’s earnest, plaintive appeals to both daughters (“Why do you hate me so much? What did I do?”) would be more credible from an emotional dope, but those appeals become theadbare from such an otherwise savvy character. The play’s enormous strength lies in its smart, well-observed dialogue, how its characters deflect painful truths in moody, merciless games of emotional torture, how brash cynicism becomes a line of defense. “I’ll be here if you need me,” Ian tells Carla in one of their many spats. “Need?” she spits back, contemptuously. The performances are truer than true, particularly the women’s ferocity (they are like wounded animals) and how Lebano turns Stan’s endless rationalizations into a kind of psychosis. None of this would ring true without Joe Banno’s textured, cinematic staging, which helps eek out the mystery, drop by drop, with the help of Davis Campbell’s detailed set and the theological bridges of sound designer James Richter’s original music. Art/Works Theatre 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 5. (323) 960-7787. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO THE LOFT VARIETY HOUR FEATURING NAUGHTY NANCY Director and emcee Adam Chambers is panicked: His actors are late, his puppets are belligerent, and his star, Naughty Nancy, is in jail. Still, the show must go on, and so it does — with chaotic charm. Chambers recites excerpts from rapper Young Jeezy’s interview with Playboy; a Mexican sandwich tap-dances across the stage. The harried (and fun) nine-person cast swirls through a glow-stick ballet and a Spanish number that shows off their ability to count from uno to diez, and the set sparks to life with 18 marionettes that threaten to upend the evening with TNT, molestation, and an acting lesson hosted by Laurence Olivier’s sofa. With the outraged entrance of Nancy (Christina Howard) — an English prostitute by way of Amsterdam — comes intermission and then a complete derailment of the show’s triumphantly goofy spark, as Nancy seethes and coos through 10 miserable vignettes during which she swills vodka and vents about the lameness of her johns, the perfection of her pedicure, and the pain of her Brazilian wax. Directed by Geoffrey Hillbeck and acted fearlessly by Howard, it’s a great character and a great performance but also a poison chaser to so much joy. L.A. Fringe Theatre, 929 E. Second St., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through March 15. (213) 680-0392. A Loft Ensemble production. (Amy Nicholson)
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THE PAINTING comes with very broad brush strokes. Writer-director Bill Becker’s new play concerns the obsession of a wealthy, recently widowed painter (Sarah Boghatti), living somewhere in America in the middle of nowhere, with a male model (Daniel Richardson) whom she hires as part of a commission by what one would surmise to be a gay client, since the provocative pose requested is to be nude. Though Becker has all his actors keep at least their underwear on at all times, there’s nonetheless a leering quality to the writing, which only demonstrates that nakedness doesn’t always concern clothes. The play also contains the buff grandson (Lorenzo Bonzales) of an offstage Latina housekeeper. He drops in for reasons that are vague, dramaturgically. There’s also another housekeeper, a perky blonde (Tricia Alley) whose constantly rebuffed sexual advances toward the model should be a hint of the young man’s proclivities, but she doesn’t seem to get it. The play is designed to hang on a kind of mystery that’s undermined by the blatancy of the character’s motives, in both performance and in the writing. In the role of the model, Richardson comes off as cloyingly smug with a presumed intelligence that’s out of sync with his pedestrian lines. In Act 2, however, the character reveals a psychotic dimension, and this is where the performance catches up to the character. As the widow, Boghatti shows a delicate intelligence and truthful acting style. English is not her first language, however, and her struggle with it takes a toll. Alley’s seductress is appealingly childlike and Gonzales’ groundskeeper is fine. Gardner Stages, 1501 N. Gardner Street, West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 22. (323) 960-7735. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO PARADISE HOTEL The new Menander Theatre Company is off to a rousing start with a harum-scarum production of this classic French farce by Georges Feydeau, nimbly translated by Nicholas Rudall. The hotel in question is a disreputable house of assignation (it advertises hourly and group rates) where, by a series of unlikely coincidences, most of the characters wind up. M. Pinglet (Philip D’Amore) is attempting to elude his domineering wife (Catie LeOrisa) in order to seduce Marcelle (Jeanne Simpson), the wife of his neighbor Paillardin (Michael Bonabel), who’s also visiting the hotel for reasons of his own. The sassy French maid Victoire (Eris Migliorini) is out to seduce the clueless young philosophy student Maxime (Chris Arnst). Mathieu (Jim Kohn), a man who stutters only when it rains, thinks the Paradise is a respectable hostelry, and puts up there with his three daughters (Karen Grim, Jen Hoyt and Liza Morgan). The hotel manager (Sid Veda) specializes in spying on the guests, while the overzealous porter (Jason Thomas) is hell-bent on seducing Marcelle. Sex is in short supply, as confusions and contretemps escalate and multiply till loony Inspector Boucard (Eddie Pepitone) carts everybody off to jail. It’s a genuinely funny rendition, skillfully played, and nicely directed by Gina Torrecilla. Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through March 29. www.gomenander.com. Menander Theatre Company (Neal Weaver)
SIX YEARS Stagey but with redeeming moments, Sharr White’s well-intended play examines the posttraumatic stress of a World War II vet. Launched on a note of high melodrama from which it rarely descends, it is jump-started in a dumpy motel room in 1949, where an ex-GI named Phil (G. Scott Brown) has cloistered himself away. Unlike other soldiers who returned home to their families after the war, Phil has wandered about the country. Now he’s confronted by his young wife, Meredith (Wendy Kaplan Foxworth), who wants to bring him home to try to salvage their marriage. From that point, the play spans 24 years, tracking the couple’s ups and downs against a socio-historical backdrop, culminating in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, neither the play nor the production matches their respective good intentions. Framed against a bleak, black backdrop, White’s inconsistent script is often derivative. Under Kevin Kaddi’s direction, Brown gives his all, but it’s clear he hasn’t internalized his character’s battle-engendered torment. Less challenged, Foxworth gives a believable performance as his long-suffering and ultimately adulterous spouse. The six-member supporting ensemble is uneven; Alex Gunn overcomes an initial awkwardness to present an effective portrayal of Meredith’s disappointed lover, while Sarah Cook offers a well-crafted cameo as a gal who contemplates giving Phil a whirl, then cuts and runs when she realizes the baleful imbroglio that might ensue. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 22. (323) 871-1150. Momentum Theatre Group (Deborah Klugman)
STITCHING Combine equal parts Harold Pinter, EC Comics and Al Goldstein, then shake — but not stir — till thoroughly black and blue, and you might approximate the acrid, psychosexually explicit minimalism on tap in Anthony Neilson’s bleak, 2002 relationship melodrama. Two narrative timelines trace the final, grueling chapters in the troubled marriage of 30-somethings Abby (Meital Dohan) and Stu (John Ventimiglia) when infidelity and an unplanned pregnancy transform a merely bad marriage into a nightmarishly sadomasochistic dance of death. Alternating between past and present, the narrative effectively juxtaposes the bickering couple’s fateful choice to remain together and have the baby with that decision’s grimly ironic aftermath — an unseen tragedy and the increasingly self-destructive and brutal role-playing sex games through which the couple attempts to expiate their guilt. Neilson, a graduate of Britain’s much-trumpeted “in-yer-face” playwriting school, injects the proceedings with enough graphic sex and violence (including a particularly grisly twist ending) to justify his alma mater’s transgressive reputation, but the intended shock effects quickly wear thin. Despite Dohan’s searing and soulful turn, Abby is too much of a cipher for Stu’s sexually degrading antics to signify as much more than phallocentric pornography. Director Timothy Haskell doesn’t mitigate matters by smothering the delicate rhythms of Neilson’s abstract text under an overblown, kitchen-sink mise en scene and interminably long scene changes. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 5. (323) 962-7782. (Bill Raden)