BETTER LATE THAN NEVER Writer-performer Virginia Watson’s staged bio takes its title from the 25 years it took her to finally receive her diploma from USC. This somewhat scrambled, minutiae-filled account of her life begins with her childhood, when, as a latchkey kid, she indulged in her passion for TV and eventually nabbed a role in the ’70s as the token African-American in The Brady Bunch. In high school and at USC, Watson was a cheerleader (she energetically and impressively re-enacts her routines) on otherwise all-white squads. Curiously, it takes to the end of a prolonged first act for Watson to expose the scarring recollection of her mother’s rape at knife point, which she witnessed when she was 4 years old. Later, in Act 2, she recalls her own rape and its emotional aftermath, and her foray into drugs, further escalated in the company of her cocaine-using father, Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Directed by Iona Morris, Watson’s strengths are her energy and warmth; the problem lies in the haphazard disarrangement of her material and the emphasis on personal melodrama, which never segues into a more shared or universal motif. The same disorder in her narrative is also reflected in the set, which Watson co-designed with Myke LaMarr, but here the effect is a positive one, reflecting an individual with an eclectic zest for life. The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Fri., 8:30 p.m.;Sat., 8 p.m.; through Nov 8. (323) 769-5049 or wwwPlays411.com;A Top of the Head Productions production. (Deborah Klugman)
GEM OF THE OCEAN August Wilson’s 10-play chronicle of the 20th-century African-American experience is one of the great achievements in dramatic literature. Gem of the Ocean, the first play in the cycle, is probably the playwright’s most symbolic and provocative. The setting is 1904 Pittsburgh, a time when many blacks were no better off than they were during chattel slavery. But the home of 287-year-old Aunt Ester (alternate Carlease Burke), is a place of rest, refuge and mystery for a colorful group of residents and regulars. Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter) is a boarder/handyman with an angel’s heart; Black Mary (Tené Carter Miller) is a long-suffering maid and washerwoman; and her brother Cesar (Rocky Gardiner), a badge-heavy cop with a Napoleon Complex, whose primary function is to control the “colored” people of the city. Then there’s the rabble-rousing, garrulous Solly Two Kings (a star turn by Adolphus Ward), a former Union scout who helped runaway slaves. When a troubled stranger, Citizen Barlow (Keith Arthur Bolden), steals into the house, seeking Ester’s magical soul-cleansing powers, it sets off a chain of events that forever alters the lives of all those involved. Gem is a play where grand themes, like the connection between past and present, the nature of freedom and spiritual redemption, are explored, but you don’t get that sense here, at least not in a dynamic fashion. With the exception of Ward, the performances lack the necessary polish and emotional resonance. Director Ben Bradley, who did brilliant work in Fountain’s production of Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is not at his best here, as the pacing at times is far from crisp — though I did see it late in the run. Rounding out the cast is Stephen Marshall. The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323)-663-1525. (Lovell Estell III)
GO LIONS Vince Melocchi’s new play features nine men and a woman decaying slowly in a private watering hole during a major economic slump — this major economic slump. Set during the 2007-2008 football season, Melocchi’s story centers on John Waite (Matt McKenzie), an unemployed metalworker whose desire to see the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl supplants all other priorities in his life. As his immutable pride keeps him from opportunity, he grows sour and angry, providing a textured and nuanced transformation that McKenzie performs poetically, even at explosive heights of cursing and fighting. The rest of the denizens seem to spiral around him, perhaps sinking into his black hole of self-worth. Director Guillermo Cienfuegos allows us to spend time with each of the hopeless, revealing the play’s pith and brutality with a sensitive hand. But this tends to expose the play’s relatively minor weaknesses: the conveniently contrived exits and entrances, the shapelessness of some of the relationships — especially considering the large cast and clumsy dialogue that sometimes spills awkwardly into scenes. The strong ensemble, though, piles through these uneven aspects to deliver an all-around touching portrait of Middle America, a reminder that “real Americans” need not be so reductively characterized as simply Joe the Plumber. Pacific Resident Theater, 705 ½ Venice Blvd., Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; no perf Thanksgiving weekend; through Dec. 7. (310) 822-8392. (Luis Reyes)
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A MAJORITY OF ONE In the late 1950s, the era of the “well-made-play” was clearly waning. Still, playwrights like Leonard Spigelgass stuck to this form of tightly structured drama, in which societal problems trumped characterization. This chestnut follows the story of Brooklyn Jewish widow Mrs. Jacoby (Paula Prentiss), who carries with her the grief of losing her son to the Japanese in World War II. When her daughter Alice (Anya Profumo) and son-in-law Jerome (Ross Benjamin) inform her that they are bound to Japan for the foreign service and wish to take her along, she is dismayed but ultimately agrees. On the crossing, she reluctantly befriends Mr. Asano (Sab Shimono), Jerome’s diplomatic adversary. Issues of family ties, race and culture are pieced precisely together, leading to the appropriate climax and immediate denouement. While the play leans toward the tedious, director Salome Gens nonetheless brings out more characterization than the author offers. Prentiss and Shimono share delightful senses of stage presence — though he tends to be verbally halting and she is often grasping for lines. In an amusing turn, Edison Park plays a ne’er-do-well Japanese servant who brings in welcome comic moments. The production is not helped by an oppressive brick-wall set (presumably to keep Brooklyn in mind at all times), in which small windows are opened with little bits of evocative visuals for each new scene. This is a failed attempt at scenic Schenectady. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (800) 838-3006.(Tom Provenzano)
A MAN’S A MAN In an army brigade, three machine gunners are in immediate need of replacing their fourth, who was recently kidanpped. And so, in Bertolt Brecht’s furious early play, they lure a docile man named Galy Gay (Beth Hogan) with whiskey, cigars and women — and when he dares to refuse to adopt the missing soldier’s name and identity, they give him good reason to relent: by stringing up Galy on nonsensical criminal charges. Meanwhile, opportunistic barkeeper Widow Begbick (Diana Cignoni) — an early vestige of Mother Courage — and her troupe of traveling prostitutes scheme to undermine a despotic Sergeant (Will Kepper) while packing up their saloon to follow the army from India into Tibet. (Brecht has slyly populated his India with pagodas and Chinese hucksters in yellow face). Director Ron Sossi takes an inconsistent approach to Brecht’s stylistics, a flaw most visible in the miscast and misdirected Hogan, who starts off blank and guileless, only to blubber like the heroine of a five-hankie weepie during Galy’s tribunal. (Such aggressive emotional manipulation would have been parodied by Brecht.) Already smaller and more fragile than the rest of the pert and heartless ensemble, Hogan’s stunt casting works best when Galy, now calling himself Jip, ascends to control the destruction of Tibet like a pint-sized General Patton barking out orders. This Brecht piece is given the oversimplified interpretation of exploring how the trauma of war warps soldiers, but with Hogan so clearly at the reins in the battle scenes, what’s indicted here is a callow culture that exploits everyone. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 21. Call for added perfs; no perf Nov. 27. (310) 477-2055. (Amy Nicholson)
MARY’S WEDDING Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte tries, in a two-actor play, to re-create a World War I battlefield, a horseback ride across the Canadian prairie, and a desperate cavalry charge. As if that weren’t challenge enough, he combines realism, fantasy, flashbacks, dreams and fractured chronology in an uneasy mix. Telling us the play is a dream doesn’t quite solve the problems. Somewhere in Canada, farmer’s son Charlie (Brett Ryback), along with his horse, meets émigré English girl Mary (Ashley Bell) in a barn, where both take shelter from a storm. They fall madly in love, but her snobbish mother disapproves of him as “a dirty farm boy,” and soon they’re parted by the Great War. He feels an obligation to join the Canadian Cavalry, and she bitterly resents his leaving. Bell also doubles nimbly as a tough, heroic (male) sergeant. The horse is an abstract sculpture, like a modern-day Isamu Noguchi, which also serves as a troop ship, and the trenches at Ypres. It’s not clear whether it’s part of David Potts’ handsome set or a clever prop by MacAndME. Director David Rose has mounted a sensitive, inventive production, with expert lighting by Jeremy Pivnick and sound by Cricket Myers. Colony Theatre Company, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through Nov. 23. Call theater for added perfs. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15, or www.colonytheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)
GO SPRING AWAKENING What’s a nice play like you doing in a barn like this? The spectacle here is bewitching and too large for Frank Wedekind’s turn-of-last-century story of teenage angst, from which Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s touring Broadway-hit musical has been crafted. I found myself more dazzled than moved, but dazzle can be a good thing, and the production is too ornate an accomplishment to be ignored. There’s never a dull moment in Michael Mayer’s staging, but rarely is there a soulful moment. The story is about social and sexual repression in puritanical Germany, and it arrives here as bloated in style as a rock concert. Lighting designer Kevin Adams provides exactly that ambiance with a plot that flips from washes of lurid red to purple with the stomp of 10 boots, and lighting instruments that float down along the back wall from the rafters, creating the effect of some cosmic galaxy. Bill T. Jones’ choreography looms just as large, with, in one song, the company stomping feet in unison, as though they were performing Butoh dance in order to arouse the spirits of the dead. Onstage, and in onstage bleachers, where members of the company are planted amidst the audience, heads gyrate to and fro, as if possessed by demons, which is exactly how the Teutonic society depicted here is trying to make them feel. The paradox is that the sneering Expressionism mingles with the mechanical robotics to such an extent — clearly to reach a house considerably larger than in New York — that the story’s underlying sensitivities are tempered, if not eviscerated. One powerful scene that gets short shrift here is that between teen Melchior (Kyle Riabko) and his peer/lover Wendla (Christy Altomare), out in the country. She goads him to beat her, even playfully, with a switch — because she’s sexually aroused by the brutal daily beatings inflicted on her friend, Martha (Sarah Hunt). The scene itself contains disturbing and deeply human revelations about suppressed sadism and masochism, which here are treated as broadly and swiftly as in a burlesque, depriving the scene of its core sensuality. Still, the creators and designers are accomplishing exactly what they want, as the cast is precision-perfect. Moreover, the overinflated scale and hyperactive style of this touring production can’t diminish the powerful beauty of Sheik’s music and Sater’s lyrics. There’s scant melody but ample musical motifs that float on intricate, poetical phrases and sophisticated orchestral support, as though from the Suzanne Vega era. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m; Sat., 1 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (no perf Wed., Nov. 5 or Thurs., Nov. 27; no eve perf Sun., Dec. 7; added perf Mon., Nov. 24, 8 p.m. and Thurs., Dec. 4, 2 p.m.); through Dec. 7. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)