THE CLEAN HOUSE Playwright Sarah Ruhl's bittersweet farce consists of quickly shifting emotional extremes — at times characters may burst out laughing, but then they start weeping from sorrow midchortle. Kind-hearted Brazilian comedienne Matilde (Elizabeth Liang) might very well be the funniest woman in the world (in her native Portuguese), but she emigrates to the United States and gets a job working as the maid to sourpuss doctor Lane (Colette Kilroy), who is understandably perturbed that her servant prefers cracking jokes to swabbing the floors. When she learns that her surgeon husband Charles (Don Fischer) has fallen in love with one of his mastectomy patients (Denise Blasor), Lane's world crumbles — but she gets help and support from Matilde and from Lane's emotionally fragile sister Virginia (Shawna Casey), who, as it happens, has a cleanliness fetish. It's awkward, but the theme of emotional extremes extends to the two acts of Ruhl's play: In co-directors Stefan Kruck/Ron Sossi's uneven production, Act 1 is crisp, involving, and scathingly funny, while Act 2 meanders, miring itself in a self indulgently sentimental tone, random plotting and aimless pacing. However, when Kuhl's comedy is strong, it delights with sharp dialogue, brittle characterizations, and smart ironic juxtapositions, such as the exchanges between Kilroy's hilariously uptight Lane and Liang's wonderfully inscrutable Matilde. The play is not so much a standard depiction of the American class system, as it touches on the idea that individuals contain an fixed core of self which is either happy or miserable — whatever situation arises in life, their ultimate default emotional reaction surfaces. It's just a shame that the show goes off the rails midway through, into terrain of forced and surreal fragments. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (after July 3, no Thursday performances); through July 18. (Paul Birchall)
GO DRUNK TALK Welcome to McSwiggins. For the motley assortment of career barflies, neighborhood hotheads, Walmart Casanovas and lovelorn alcoholics who make it their home away from home, the old-school Hollywood watering hole is the kind of place where everybody knows your name (or soon will, though you'll probably regret it long before last call). Playwright Lance Whinery's irresistibly goofy, one-act parody of the hallowed saloon sitcom takes the form into the kind of seedy, low-rent dramatic neighborhood where the denizens of Cheers were never drunk enough to tread. Its intentionally insipid plot, cliché-ridden characters and wincingly corny one-liners are frighteningly familiar. And in Thomas Blake's environmental staging, where the audience has ostensibly joined the regulars to toast the beloved bar's final night in business, the manner in which the actors shamelessly cheat their punch lines toward the spectators creates the impression of being a captive member of a live TV-studio audience. Then the other shoe drops: As the story and the drinking progress, and the characters' alcohol-fueled belligerence morphs into an increasingly maudlin and effusive bonhomie, Blake unleashes his cast of expert ad libbers and insult comics (standouts include David Alfano, Tobias Jelinek and Kim Estes) into the audience to harass and humiliate. But there won't be any hard feelings — because in true sitcom logic any conflicts that erupt or are miraculously resolved will be mercifully nullified in the amnesiac haze of the morning's hangover. Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 1, brownpapertickets.com/event/111874. (910) 367-6735. (Bill Raden)
GO GRACE AND GLORIE Sensitive direction by Cameron Watson and distinguished performances by Beth Grant and Melinda Page Hamilton transform playwright Tom Ziegler's predictable tear-jerker into genuinely compelling theater. In a virtuoso turn with not a false note, Grant portrays Grace, an illiterate and opinionated nonagenarian who's outlived her husband and five sons, and is now living and dying alone in her backwoods Appalachian cabin. Enter Glorie (Hamilton), a hospice volunteer with an MBA from Harvard (and a wardrobe from Bloomingdale's), determined to care for the crotchety old lady despite her cantankerous objections. Grace's primitive living conditions and trust-in-the-Lord philosophy dismay the sophisticated Glorie, whose do-good resolve falters after she burns herself on Grace's wood-burning stove and confronts a rodent under the sink. The holy-rolling Grace, on the other hand, is appalled by Glorie's blasphemous language and feminist thinking. Gradually, these two very different people find common ground as they uncover each other's secrets and become open to mutual solace and support. Because Grant's character has the best lines and the choicest opportunity for laughs, she frequently steals the limelight, but Hamilton's less flamboyant persona is no less skillfully drawn. Designer Jeff McLaughlin's admirably detailed set, embellished with props by MacAndME, enfolds the drama with a rich atmospheric dimension. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 18. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)
GO THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Lisa Wolpe's traditional but silky-smooth production of Oscar Wilde's crowd-pleasing comedy is a gender-bender — at least partially. Jack and Algernon are played by women (Wolpe and Cynthia Beckert), Lady Bracknell is performed by a man (John Achorn), and the remaining roles are given gender-appropriate casting. Wolpe and Beckert are stylish and elegant, though Wolpe is more convincingly male. Achorn's Lady Bracknell is a sort of Wagnerian bulldog, masking iron determination behind a relentless mask of respectability. Katrinka Wolfson gives us a haughtily kittenish Gwendolen, and Laura Covelli daintily captures Cecily's faux naiveté and maidenly modesty. Kevin Vavasseur doubles as the two butlers, playing Lane as an urbane and perfect servant, and sketching Merriman as a more rural bumpkin. Linda Bisesti's Miss Prism is coyly demure, and Mark Bramhall's Dr. Chasuble is a gallant, plummy-voiced clergyman. Wolpe's production is briskly played, running a bit more than 90 minutes without intermission, and she leads her cast in faithfully playing the situations as well as the lines. The simple formalized sets are by Mia Torres, and the terrific Victorian costumes are by Allison Leach, who's particularly to be commended for the men's tailoring. The Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica; performed in rotating rep as part of The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival, through June 27; check schedule at lawsc.net. A production of the L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company. (800) 838-3006, brownpapertickets.com. (Neal Weaver)
GO THE JESUS HICKEY Billboards, potato chips, freeway underpasses, tree stumps and pigeon coops are just some of the places Christ's image has appeared, or alleged to appear, in recent years. In Luke Yankee's ticklish comedy, the Savior-sighting takes place in the Emerald Isle city of Sligo, and comes by way of a girl as pure as the Virgin mother herself. Agnes Flynn (Anastasia Lofgren) is a wholesome teenager who shares a home with her imperious grandmother (Barbara Tarbuck), and her gruff, barfly father Sean (Harry Hamlin). They seem like a happy bunch, in spite of money problems due in large measure to Sean's drinking and troubles on the job. But a miracle is in the offing, as one night Agnes and her young beau Seamus (Aaron Leddick) slip away for some quiet time together, and he plants a "love bite," on her neck. As it turns out, the hickey is the face of Jesus and has miraculous healing powers, even curing the dim-witted Father Boyle (Tom Killam) of chronic back pain. In Act 2, we see Agnes transformed into an angelic figure and a media sensation, with all that implies, making the rounds in Europe — and making a lot of money for her avaricious father. Unfortunately, the fame comes with a price for all concerned that may be too much to pay. Yankee's well-written script nimbly skirts the boundaries between morality play, satire and comedy. Performances are quite good under Yankee's direction. Tarbuck is especially engrossing as a saintly woman with a penchant for foul language. Katselas Theatre Company at the Skylight Theater, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., LA., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 18. (310) 358-9936. (Lovell Estell III)
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GO LEIRIS/PICASSO "We try not to have so many guests. It disturbs what's left of the neighbors," says Michel as he stumbles around his Paris home in the dark, falling down stairs, knocking over crudités, and scalding himself on a teakettle. It's all rather amusing ... until you realize that it's 1944 and there's a Nazi patrol outside. This just the sort of dark humor that characterizes writer-director David Jette's farcical take on an actual evening at the house of Michel Leiris (Michael Bulger) when members of the French Resistance produced Pablo Picasso's play, Desire Caught by the Tail. The play itself is nonsensically awful (but oh, how the man could paint), so Jette has instead written about the circumstances surrounding its production, a sort of play without a play. In it, Leiris, his wife Zette (Jenny Byrd), Albert Camus (Tyler Jenich), Jean-Paul Sartre (Patrick Baker), Simone de Beauvoir (Amy K. Harmon), and Picasso's mistress Dora Maar (Melissa Powell) scramble to set up while they wait for the master. Besides their own petty but hilarious squabbles, they also have to deal with a Nazi (Joseph L. Roberts) who keeps popping up, as well as the leader of the resistance, Sam Beckett (Dan Gordon). Jette's direction keeps all the moving parts well synchronized as the actors enter and exit Juliana de Abreu's well-designed, multi-door set. The ensemble is strong overall, though Baker's over-the-top bombastic caricature of Sartre and Bulger's sincerity as the put-upon host stand out. And while the work isn't historically accurate, it succeeds because, as Camus says, sometimes "happiness feels better than truth." Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 24. (213) 290-2782, BrimmerStreet.org (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO MAGNUM OPUS: SURF DOGS UNITE! No writer is credited for Magnum Opus Theatre, and it's for his or her own protection. Every week, the ensemble mines one of L.A'.s richest natural resources -— terrible unsolicited screenplays — and gives the unknown author's words a sweet, brief life. And they use every word. When the description calls for "a beat," the cast beat-boxes "oonce-oonce-oonce." As host Thurston Eberhard Hillsboro Smythe (Brandon Clark) vows, "We didn't change a thing." Yes Virginia, someone sincerely wrote Surf Dogs Unite!, a bitchin', brawlin' morality play about a debauched biker (Troy Vincent) and a bible-toting sand dune disciple (Eric C. Johnson), who wrassle for the souls of promiscuous surfer Dan (Michael Lanahan) and friends Swave (Victor Issac) and Little Rad (Colin Wilkie). "To surf, or not to surf? Intense question," opines Dan, but Jonas Oppenheim's direction suffers no lack of purpose. Crisp and assured, it's so funny, the proselytizing writer might be tempted to take a bow. But judging by a few loud audience members who hissed whenever Joshua flogged John 3:16, maybe not. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive; L.A.; Fri. 11 p.m.; thru June 25. (Final two perfs at The Paul Gleason Theater, 6520 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.) (Amy Nicholson)
GO A MEMORY OF WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN George Bernard Shaw wrote that "men and women are made by their own fancies in the image of the imaginary creatures in [their] youthful fictions, only much stupider." Life imitates art, in other words, and usually very badly. Or so it goes in playwright Robert Riemer's wickedly funny assault on the myth of romantic love. A day and a half after walking out on their respective marriages and families, middle-aged fugitive lovers Gordon (Joseph Aaron Campbell) and Nina (Jackie Quinones) wake up in a cheap Baja California motel room to take stock of their impetuous flight to rekindle their onetime teenage romance. In the sobering light of day, however, spent passions can't conceal doubts festering under the blazing Ensenada sun. For one thing, the tempestuous, now-alcoholic Nina is no longer the winsome flower of Gordon's memory. For another, the motel's resident mad playwright, Tony (the antic Hunter Greene), and his creepy idiot-child of a Mexican fishing guide, Mayolo (the hilarious Jonica Patella), have not only been eavesdropping on their neighbors but Tony is appropriating their tryst for a romantic tragedy that uncannily anticipates Gordon and Nina's every thought and deed. Worse, he has already determined the denouement to be a bloody crime of passion. As the affair careens to its catastrophic conclusion, Zombie Joe's stylish direction of a crack ensemble on Jeri Batzdorff's appropriately seedy set leavens Riemer's grim romantic fatalism with touches of manic absurdity and simmering suspense. ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through June 26. (818) 202-4120. (Bill Raden)
TWO FIGURES If television shows like The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life, and Felicity already hadn't gone undercover and revealed the truth of the teenage experience; or if Matthew Chester had explored why his lead female, a motherless 17-year-old virgin, has sexual domination fantasies, this new play might break new ground. In its current form, however, it's just a well-acted rerun of one of the more predictable, albeit racier, teen dramas. Bethany Esfandiari, who actually looks like the adorable love-child of Kevin Arnold and Felicity, plays petulant and puppy-dog cute equally well as Penny, an emotionally isolated high-school student with artistic ambitions. It's only a matter of time before she tumbles head-over-heels in love with her socially awkward, professionally frustrated art teacher, Mr. Sacher (a soft-pedaled, pitch-perfect characterization by Noah Silverstein). Chester deserves credit for pushing culturally defined boundaries and for challenging accepted notions of appropriate sexual behavior. The resulting affair elicits more tenderness toward the couple than discomfort until Mr. Sacher casually mentions his age near the end of the play; the couple's sweet Alicia Keys' sing-along then transitions abruptly into sadistic role-playing — and just as abuptly, I was squirming in my seat. But Chester's attempt to draw a parallel between breaking the rules in artistic mediums and the couple's taboo relationship is a stretch. "There never really were any [rules]," Mr. Sacher says in a lecture, and you realize he's as much of a teenager as Penny. Ahimsa Collective, Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through June 20. (213) 674-6682 (Rebecca Haithcoat)