CHASING MONSTERS The eruption of laughter that opens Gabriel Gomez's drama is one of the few light moments in what is otherwise a relentlessly bleak tale. Dominic (Richard Azurdia) is celebrating with his friend Sandra (Deborah Geer) his pending nuptials at his favorite bar, anticipating a happy future. In the next scene, with a vicious, alcohol-fueled argument between Dominic and his bride-to-be Amy (Carolyn Zeller), the bottom drops out of the future, and the play. Utilizing an overlay of dreamy flashbacks, Gomez attempts to provide context to this story of generational family dysfunction. We learn of Dominic's early dependency on alcohol, his conflicted relationship with his emotionally unstable mother, Vanessa (Monica Sanchez), and brother (Xavi Moreno), and his confusion and rage toward his absentee father. Gomez and director Armando Molina show us what lies behind this family's torments but fails to eloquently or convincingly probe underlying causes that address the "why." More importantly, he fails to establish emotionally vibrant, credible connections between these characters, which makes empathy next to impossible. Dominic becomes nothing more than a hard-luck loser drunk, and everyone else just people plagued by nasty problems. Things turn painfully melodramatic after one character's terminal medical prognosis, transforming the play into a lugubrious vigil. There's no argument with the performances, which are uniformly good. Natalya Oliver rounds out the cast. Company of Angels at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.; L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m., through June. 13. Sonofsemele.org. (Lovell Estell III)
CRIMES OF THE HEART The Magrath sisters are all back home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to take care of another family crisis. Mama hanged herself, Granddaddy is in the hospital and now Babe's gone and shot her husband. Yes, it's all funny; and if they didn't laugh, they might never stop crying. There are some subtle touches that do a Southern girl's heart good in the South Coast Repertory's version of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize–winning play: Chick (Tessa Auberjonois) sucks her finger to prevent any lipstick from bleeding onto her teeth; Babe (Kate Rylie) mixes two parts sugar to one part water in her lemonade. Under Warner Shook's direction, though, the care that Henley took to spin a delicately layered cocoon around the black-fisted blow of suicide, abuse, mental illness and racism is trampled by one-note screeching that drowns out any nuance in the script. The 1978 play is still relevant — Southern women stuck in the South resort to desperate measures on a daily basis — but this production not only rips out its heart but also its head. Henley's sharp-knifed social commentary (the sisters pity the "half-Yankee" children of a townie who married a Northerner) is dulled by an ensemble whose crimes are bad accents and brittle insouciance, and those Southern stereotypes suddenly seem true and offensive. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Sun., Tues., Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through June 6. (714) 708-5555. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO IT AIN'T ALL CONFETTI! "Rip Taylor? Isn't he dead?" opined an unkind family member upon learning that this weekend I was reviewing the new one-man show written and starring Rip Taylor, the comedian and pop culture "character." TV viewers of A Certain Age (and older) will doubtless recall Taylor, an omnipresent fixture of the 1970s, familiar from countless appearances on game shows like Match Game and Password, and also a Vegas go-to opening act for stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and Eleanor Powell. With his masterfully mugging schtick, bugging eyes, waggling tongue and silly one-liners, Taylor's style wasn't for anyone — and it was easy to dismiss his "character" as a rube. Yet, as his solo effort (directed by David Galligan) aptly indicates, any performer who has managed to have as big a career for as many decades as he has clearly possesses a mighty amount of talent — and steel willpower. In the opening moments of Galligan's fast-moving, intimate production, Taylor strides onto the stage, clearly somewhat frail but still every inch the showman. His flapping toupee perches hilariously askew, as his pointy mustache waves. Next, he whips out a thick pile of file cards, each containing an individual one-liner — and, in a dizzying display of jaw-dropping gagsmanship, he goes through every one, more than 80 in all, within the show's first 10 minutes. From there, Taylor rips off his toupee, tosses it behind him, and switches to more serious subject matter (with barely a joke in sight), as he describes his troubled childhood, his early successes as an emcee on the Atlantic City strip-club circuit, his discovery while performing at the Catskills and subsequent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the gradual honing of his carefully calculated stage persona, which has been his bread and butter for more than half a century. Many of Taylor's revelations are fairly surface-level, dealing with his interactions with the stars he's come across — and he often seems so in control over what he's saying, you could starve to death waiting for any "behind-the-mask" information about the performer. The show is ultimately a compelling presentation of a life — and it's as much a must-see for students and historians of the comedy of a certain era as it is for folks who just want to share a warm laugh with a thoroughly amiable performer. El Portal Theatre, 11206 Waddington St., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 6. elportaltheatre.com, (866) 811-4111. (Paul Birchall)
THE MAIDS French poet, playwright, novelist and thief Jean Genet, dubbed a criminal/saint by Jean-Paul Sartre, was an eternal outsider who embraced themes of oppression, betrayal, transgression and opposition to accepted social values. Here, he tells the bizarre tale of two sisters, Solange (Rachel Kanouse) and Claire (Nicole Erb) who are employed by Madame (Meagan English) as maid/servants. Corroded with self-loathing, they bitterly resent their menial existence, and become enmeshed in an intense love/hate relationship with each other and with their employer, whom they hate, envy, adore and fantasize about murdering. They have already, via an anonymous letter, sent Madame's lover to jail, and whenever she is out, they act out sadistic fantasies of murder and rebellion. Inevitably the end-game is lethal. Director Armina LaManna begins the piece with Edith Piaf recordings and a choreographic interlude that establishes the perverse erotic bond between the sisters. The actors skillfully and meticulously navigate the shoals of shifting fantasy and reality. J.C. Gafford provides a handsomely baroque set, all red velvet, flowers and ornate porcelain. Rachel Sachar's costumes cleverly dress the sisters in positive and negative variations on the same uniform. However, Genet is so subjective and personal that there are no apertures the mind can slip in through. The Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., Thursdays June 17 & 24, 8 p.m., through June 27. (818) 508-3003, eclecticcompanytheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)
GO ROAD TO SAIGON You don't need to be a devotee of theater lore to enjoy director Jon Lawrence Rivera's assemblage of show tunes, pop standards and showbiz anecdotes. (But it helps.) You don't even need to be familiar with songs from the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon, the source of the evening's theme and reminiscences. (Because none are present.) All you need is an appreciation of big talents, and Rivera has gathered three of the biggest. Besides being Filipino-American actresses, Joan Almedilla, Jennifer Paz and Jenni Selma all cut their musical-theater teeth playing Miss Saigon's tragic heroine, Kim, on Broadway or in a national touring company. Their memories of winning the coveted role become the "book" for what Rivera clearly hoped would have the appeal of a real-life A Chorus Line. And while the results feel more like a talky cabaret revue, what's not to like about a trio of powerhouse singers belting out beloved Broadway favorites under Nathan Wang's rousing musical direction (musical staging by Kay Cole). Almedilla's soulful covers of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" and Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Say a Little Prayer" are sensational; Paz proves her mettle on comedy numbers like "Here I Am" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and "In Short," from the musical Edges; and Selma sizzles on inspirational anthems like "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl, and Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," as well as more wistful ballads like the Kelly Clarkson hit "Beautiful Disaster." East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 13. (213) 625-7000. (Bill Raden)
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ROCKIN' WITH THE AGES II Considering the paucity of employment opportunities for older performers, it's not surprising that they should band together to create their own show, cast entirely with singers and dancers older than 70. Most performers are eager for love and approval, but when it becomes too obvious, as it does here, it gets embarrassing. They've put together a lively show, consisting largely of show tunes, plus a few evergreen standards like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," performed by Susan Lacroix, Carmelita Pittman and Bobbi Stamm, and "The Tennessee Waltz," given a heartfelt rendition by Sue Smart. "Puttin' on the Ritz" is a lively tap-dance number, featuring the Razzmatappers and Dennis Wickham. Raffi Mauro provides a sweetly funny version of "Mr. Cellophane," and joins forces with Stamm and Hallie Richman in an antic "Two Ladies," from Cabaret. Big ensemble numbers include "Hey, Big Spender," "Money, Money" and a raunchy "Cell Block Tango." With such a huge cast, it's impossible to single out individual performers, but most are able and thoroughly professional. One wishes some younger performers could see them and be reminded that with a little old-fashioned projection, one can be heard loud and clear without relying on body microphones. Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., matinees Wed., Thurs., & Sun., 2 p.m. Produced by The Pink Lady and Senior Star Power Productions. (818) 606-6679, PinkLady7@earthlink.net. (Neal Weaver)
SKYLIGHT Along with his works Plenty and The Secret Rapture, David Hare's 1995 drama is one of his "Big Lady" plays, in which a strong-willed female protagonist is ultimately hoisted by the petard of her own glittering ideals. In this case, the woman in question is sensitive Kyra (Erin Shaver), who has broken up with her former restaurant tycoon lover, Tom (Stuart W. Howard), after his wife found out about their affair. Kyra, now punishing herself by living in a frosty flat in an unfashionable part of London, where she ekes out a living teaching inner-city schoolkids, is unexpectedly visited by Tom, who, now that his wife has died of cancer, is eager to rekindle their flame. The romantic sparks start to sputter, though, when the piece sidelines into a fiery debate about the principles and flaws of capitalism and liberalism, which, frankly, is Hare's real concern. It's possible that in a few weeks director Ken Meseroll's stodgy production of the seething drama will gel to reflect the play's subtle emotional shifts and nuances in a more involving way. At this point, though, Meseroll's staging is merely workmanlike, with flat line readings and stiff blocking, while also missing the psychological edge and layering implied by Hare's delicate, yet fiercely intelligent script. Shaver offers a likable, if emotionally restrained turn as Kyra, while Howard is nicely oily and pompous as Tom. However, it's hard to believe for a moment that the pair would have had an affair. In addition, the performers are often so hamstrung by their attempts to wrestle with the British dialect, you almost wish they had jettisoned it entirely. Set designer Joel Daavid crafts a beautifully detailed, warm, and intimate living room set, which nevertheless feels utterly at odds with the frigid description of the location in the play itself. Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 20. (866) 811-4111. (Paul Birchall)
GO TRACERS Thirty years after its Los Angeles debut, writer John DiFusco's antiwar drama retains its relevance and power. Written collaboratively in the 1970s by DiFusco and seven other Vietnam vets, and directed by Christina Howard with insight and skill, it portrays the trauma of young military recruits plucked from mainstream American life and thust — inadequately trained and poorly equipped — into the nightmare of combat. Howard, displaying a metaphysical perspective, stages the production on a deep, cavernous proscenium. Prior to curtain, an intense, almost suffocating, scent of incense permeates the theater; meanwhile, for perhaps 20 minutes, the six "trainees" jog in military unison, the rhythms of their booted tread being ominous and haunting. When at last the performers do, individually, speak, it's in a darkness resourcefully illuminated by handheld flashlights; indeed, throughout the play, the lighting design (consultant Tiger Reel) registers as a quintessential element of the spectacle. The talents of Howard's adept ensemble collectively emerge in a sequence depicting the recruits' initial training under the command of an abusive drill sergeant (the terrific Tucker Smallwood), who addresses them as "maggots" while forcing them to undergo arbitrary punitive discipline. Once in Vietnam, the men medicate their brutalized psyches with dope, alcohol and infantile horseplay — understandable given their tasks, which include sorting through body parts to try to match limbs with torsos. While not every component of this production is unimpeachable — the sound design (Howard) and vocal sound track, effective in part, can be intrusive — the imaginative production is compelling. Loft Ensemble at L.A. Fringe Theatre, 929 E. Second St., Studio 105, L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through June 27, LOFTensemble.com. (213) 680-0392. (Deborah Klugman)
A TYRANT'S TALE Pared to 80 minutes, writer-director Lisa Wolpe's breakneck adaptation of The Winter's Tale opens with a fatal temper tantrum. King Leontes (Scott McRae) believes his wife (Heidi Rose Robbins) is hugely pregnant with the child of his friend — and now, sworn enemy — Polixenes (Andrew Heffernan). In short order, the king has banished or doomed nearly his entire court, though before she's hauled off and declared dead, Robbins, whose character is weak from torture and tall with dignity, commands the stage with a killer last speech. Miraculously, Apollo will set this right, but en route, the actors rush, shout and muddy their lines with needless accents, and risk losing the audience in so doing. In such a taut tragedy, Wolpe could easily cut the scene of comic relief between a shepherd (McRae) and his idiot son (David Glasser) and amp up the heat, especially in the steamy dance of love between a prince (Glasser) and a secret princess (Laura Covelli). With tweaks, this very likable staging could be a pocket-sized success. Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sun.; through June 27, brownpapertickets.com. (800) 838-3006. (Amy Nicholson)