BEHIND THE GATES Annika Marks delivers a mesmerizing performance as an angry American teenager whose exposure to an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect in Israel revolutionizes her life. A crack baby who grows into a problem child, the 17-year-old punkish Bethany (Marks) harbors venomous rage toward her adoptive middle-class parents. Unable to cope, they ship her off to an Israeli boarding school for girls, where they hope she'll absorb some modesty and discipline. One day, wandering the Jerusalem streets, Bethany encounters a rabbi (Oren Rehany) from the fundamentalist Haredi community; he invites her home for Shabbas dinner. The susceptible girl is struck by the seeming harmony within his family; later, she undergoes a ritualistic conversion and joins their sect. All this emerges at the top of playwright Wendy Graf's discrepant drama: The central character turns out not to be Bethany but her mother, Susan (Keliher Walsh), whose psyche radically transforms as she searches for her lost daughter within the strangulating confines of the Haredi ghetto. Directed by David Gautraux, the play deals with the spell ancient Jerusalem casts on some; most fascinating is the glimpse it offers into a cultish antifeminist society — measuring its values against the strengths and weaknesses of our own. Unfortunately, these thematic virtues are undermined by a soap-operatic element that plays out around Susan's marital problems and her personal insecurities. Walsh offers a sensitive portrayal, but other performances are weaker and less nuanced. Ultimately, the narrative never recoups its initial power, despite Walsh's efforts. Lee Strasberg Institute, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 27. (323) 960- 5772. (Deborah Klugman)
BOOM An underground lab, a central fish tank and an adjoining control booth with a timpani (meticulously designed by Kurt Boetcher) provide the setting for Julia Duffy's silent entrance in the L.A. premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's play. Duffy arrives filled with a sense of exasperated sarcasm as she peeks at the audience and then begins to manipulate computers, operate switches and pound on the drum. It is soon apparent that she is a godlike figure controlling the actions of a young biologist (Nick Cernoch) and the woman (Megan Goodchild) he lures to his lab through a sexual-encounter ad. She is naturally surprised when he announces his homosexuality, and doubtful as he predicts a worldwide catastrophe. Duffy then prevents any escape from this lunatic situation. The mood and situation quickly darken, as the nonsexual relationship deteriorates, but there is always a sense of sly comedy, and irony ultimately wins out in what is essentially an unsatisfying 90-minute sketch in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Still, the appeal and skills of the three actors under Dámaso Rodriguez's airtight direction create such an enjoyable theatrical evening, one might even forgive the script's many, probably purposeful holes. Furious Theatre Company at the Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Drive, Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7:30 p.m.; through June 20. (626) 792-7116. furioustheatre.org. (Tom Provenzano)
DEN OF THIEVES Stephen Adly Guirgis' comedy is a loony fairy tale, which whimsically combines addiction support groups and 12-step programs with benevolent thieves who use their ill-gotten gains to support libraries and book mobiles in impoverished neighborhoods. Hyper Puerto Rican would-be wise guy Flaco (Eric Ritter) plans to rob a local nightclub of $750,000, and enlists his former girlfriend Maggie (Jessica Lightfoot), an accomplished fellatrix named Boochie (Victoria Truscott), and Paul (Sean Hill), a supposedly reformed safecracker who is addicted to addictions (he belongs to more than a dozen support groups for everything from thieves to overeaters). What they don't realize is that the club is run by Mafioso Big Tuna (Jason Adkins), his son Little Tuna (Josh Cormier), and trigger-happy henchman Sal (Carlos J. Castillo). The incompetent would-be thieves are apprehended by the Tunas, tied to chairs, force-fed donuts, and face mob-style execution. Guirgis' play contains some funny stuff, but it's haphazardly constructed, and director James Madeiros made the curious decision to add music to the mix. The songs, written and performed by James Babb, are pleasant enough, but they're stylistically at odds with the play and tend to stop the action in its tracks. The result is slapdash but amusing. Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Boulevard, N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through May 29. A New Acro Theatre Company production. neoacrotheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)
DISILLUSIONED: CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL MAGICIAN Matt Marcy has been entertaining people with his trademark blend of comedy and magic for decades. He showcases his skills in this 90-minute production, which features some amazing feats. Marcy's charm and wit are matched by his self-effacing humor. If you think you've seen card tricks, you're in for a few surprises. Early on he performs what he calls "the world's simplest card trick," which will leave you scratching your head in wonder. Ditto for the trick he performs at show's end, with a sword he fashions from a balloon, then uses to cut an apple in half and spear a card from a deck thrown into the air — which happens to be the exact one selected by an audience member minutes into the show. Marcy also gives us a brief, sketchy account of his life, touching upon his childhood in Santa Monica, high school crushes and antics, and his early years as an amateur magician. He and director Nicole Blaine aren't nearly as effective here, as many of these narrative digressive segments are gratuitously silly; they also rely too heavily on video media. But these shortcomings pale in comparison to Marcy's mind-blowing sleights of hand. Jules Hartley is equally engaging as Marcy's assistant. Imagined Life Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through June 19. (800) 838-3006, disillusionedshow.com. (Lovell Estell III)
FORBIDDEN ZONE: LIVE IN THE 6TH DIMENSION "What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic," Susan Sontag famously noted. At least such is the hope of adaptor Michael Holmes and director Scott Leggett in their anarchic musical tribute to film director Richard Elfman and composer Danny Elfman's failed, 1980 dadaist sci-fi fantasy, Forbidden Zone. A crude, lewd and urgently outré attempt at a John Waters–like burlesque of middle-class mores, the movie stands as an exercise in clownish impudence; its story of a Venice Beach family's adventure in a bizarre, Alice in Wonderland dimension they enter via a portal in their basement, is almost beside the point. Holmes happily excises some of Elfman's more gratuitous racial and anti-Semitic caricatures while contributing judicious narrative tweaks, primarily in expanding the character of Satan (a leering Marz Richards) into a lipsticked, vamping, Tim Curry–esque narrator/emcee. Leggett and his talented production-design team provide the polish, including the glam dazzle of Wes Crain's costumes and Kat Bardot's makeup, and the cartoon razzle of Tifanie McQueen's scatological set. The pleasure comes courtesy of musical director Ryan Johnson and his 14-piece band, Natasha Norman's Max Fleischer–inspired choreography, and an enthusiastic cast that sings and dances the collection of mainly early–20th century pop tunes only lip-synched in the movie (Bryan Krasner's rendition of the Yiddish Theater classic, "Giter Brider Itzik," is a standout). The problem is in Holmes' cultist fidelity to his source, which carries over into Elfman's sneering contempt for his characters, thus robbing the show of the heart and pathos it so desperately needs. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., June 13, 7 p.m.; Sun., June 20, 7 p.m.; through June 26. (310) 281-8337. (Bill Raden)
MAN VERSES MOON In a theater, a playwright-director named Federico Lorca (Adrian Kaley) is trying to work actors through an interpretation of a play that looks very much like Blood Wedding, while being warned that soldiers are poised to arrest him as a dissident. This theater is no haven. And writer-director Dan Oliverio's collage of Lorca's play, his poems, classical mythology and homegrown surrealism sends Lorca and his company into netherworlds and moonscapes. The "theater" itself is claustrophobic and barren — compared to when the set's "walls" roll away to reveal a dreamscape of cascading sheets and kaleidoscopic lighting. Designer Chris Covics employs rigs and pulleys and actors to move drapery and flats into some scintillating compositions. Dan Mailley's costumes — grounded in the 1930s but also taking off into flights of fancy — front-load the event with exotic appeal. This is conspicuously a labor of love on Oliverio's part, an homage to Lorca and the various agonies he suffered — including what's generally believed to be his execution at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. But the portrait and the purpose are lost in the coming together of texts and styles, so that the result is less an understanding than a feeling: one of lunacy (to borrow from the play's dominant image of the moon) that's nonetheless locked in one of the prisons of 1930s Spain. The event presumes a depth of knowledge that would be better teased out in the piece itself. The kind of romantic/surreal horrors Lorca wrote about are no strangers to our century. What's so odd about this production is that they appear to belong to place and time far away and long ago. Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through June 26. (323) 466-7781. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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GO MORE LIES ABOUT JERZY This West Coast premiere of David Holmes' fascinating drama about whether truth lies in facts or in fiction hangs on the title performance of Jack Stehlin as Jerzy Lesnewski — obviously based on the late Polish novelist-screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski, and the scandals surrounding what he eventually claimed was his fictional Holocaust memoir, The Painted Bird. Either by omission or design, Kosinski neglected to clarify at the outset that the memoir was anything but autobiography — until, according to Holmes, Poles from his past (Jordan Lund and Cameron Meyer) showed up in New York, peeved that the famous author was discrediting the very people who had protected young Jewish Jerzy from the Nazis. Aside from a swirl of wives and mistresses (Meyer and Kristin Malko) orbiting the womanizing author, the play drives along the investigation by journalist Arthur Bausley (Adam Stein) — once a fan and eventually an investigator — clearly troubled by Jerzy's continuing penchant to play fast and loose with the facts. They won't ask if he is lying, Arthur goads him, They're only going to ask why is he lying. Holmes plays just as nimbly with the facts as Kozinski did, which would be an affront if Holmes were really out to discredit his protagonist, as the Village Voice did in 1982. (That discrediting is a central issue in the play, which anachronistically unfolds between 1972 and 1974.) In the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith published an article accusing the five-time best-selling author not only of having denied co-authorship or editor credit to the English "translators," who may have actually written The Painted Bird, based on Kozinski writings in Polish, but they also claimed that Kozinski plagiarized his short story (made into film), Being There, from 1932 Polish best seller The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma — which few people outside Poland knew about. Holmes' Jerzy has a potent defense and an almost tragic downfall — made all the more so by Stehlin's gregarious, petulant and charismatic interpretation, with just the right tinge of Polish dialect. Argues Jerzy: Truth does not lie in facts but in symbols and myths and legends — an argument he could have lifted from W.B. Yeats, who said much the same. Holmes' journalist tries to psychoanalyze why Jerzy would make stuff up so habitually — perhaps a war trauma or something — and Jerzy ridicules that process as petty psychoanalysis. The degree to which Jerzy may be right is the degree to which this play gets very interesting, veering from its dangerous trajectory of celebrity bashing. David Trainer directs an efficient production with enough momentum to compensate for its tangled relationships. But it's the play, and Stehlin, that are stage center. And speaking of truth, they probably shouldn't clink those plastic champagne tumblers when toasting. That rings even less true than many of Jerzy's excuses. Circus Theatricals at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through June 26. (323) 960-7788. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO SECOND In an earlier NYC staging, Joe LaRue staged Neal Utterback's trifurcated theatrical composite, swirling around the theme of redemption, as a comparatively traditional production. He juxtaposed scenes of the play's three locations on a single stage. For its L.A. premiere, however, LaRue takes the play in a far more conceptual, site-specific direction. During a blizzard in NYC, which suggests the end of the world, two thugs (Chad Christopher Kline and Jason Bonduris) hold an apartment resident (Marco Neves) at gunpoint, tied to a chair while awaiting orders for what to do with him (shades of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and Mamet's American Buffalo.) Meanwhile, at a different location, a prostitute (Kristin D'Andrea) listens to the troubling, perhaps deluded, confession of a client (Hilarid Saavedra). And in the third setting, lesbian lovers (Tane Kawasaki and Carla Nassy) work through their interpersonal troubles. Through the streetwise sometimes soap-operatic realism, the stories come laced with mysticism and eventually interconnect, particularly after the play suggests that one of the characters might be the Messiah. LaRue sets the three scenes in three separate rooms of a private residence. The audience is similarly split — privy to one-third of the play in front of live actors. Video monitors in each stage transmit the action to the two audiences in the two different rooms. This tech underscores the themes of detachment rife in Utterback's play, perhaps in strokes that are too detached. The videography consists of one camera swinging back and forth between characters engaged in sometimes very intense conflict. This is obviously a decision — this company is way too smart to come up with such a plan by accident — but I found myself yearning for these scenes to have at least two camera angles and an editor, if only to keep up with the intensity of Utterback's dialogue. Watching a video that careens back and forth between the lesbians' personal fallings-out may have you gripping the side of your chair but only for balance. The actors play the hostage scene with riveting intensity; the confessional is tenderly performed with an accent on the underlying intrigue; the lesbian scene is somewhat banal, but that's in the writing. The strength of physically separating the settings stems from the three scenes being written in markedly different styles, and the segregation of them masks what might otherwise be a problem of unity. It's also a fascinating way to take in any story but particularly this one. Filament Theatre Company at 1367 LaVeta Terrace, L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 29. filamenttheatreco. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO SUPERNOVA Mabel (Bonnie Hunt), a naive Des Moines housewife, calls a graveyard-shift salesman named Joe in Los Angeles (Timothy McNeil), to order an expensive watch for her son's 18th birthday. She can't yet go through with the purchase — her loutish husband (Tony Gatto) says the boy (Edward Tournier) doesn't deserve it, and once we meet him, we agree. But these two strangers both have a black hole of loneliness, and she keeps calling Joe back until both allow themselves a sharp sliver of hope that they might still redeem the mess they've made of their lives. McNeil's play flags under slow plotting, but he has a merciless, intuitive ear for how bullies manipulate their prey. In nearly every scene, Gatto, Tournier and a sales boss played by Micah Cohen (alternating the role with James Pippi) destroy these two secret sweethearts, as well as Mabel's divorcée neighbor Gina Garrison, who's insecure enough to start her own secret affair with the teen. These three villains are so terribly good, it's a miracle that a rattled audience member hasn't slashed the actors' tires during intermission. And when Mabel and Joe cling to each other on the phone, we're happy they're happy. Director Lindsay Allbaugh's fantastic ensemble sells us on each individual scene, even if the play as a whole doesn't add up to more then some well-acted catharses. Kelly Elizabeth and Joe Wiebe join in for the furious climax as two fellow high schoolers who bear witness to what even the adamantly optimistic Mabel admits is the world's worst birthday party. Elephant Space Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 20. (323) 962-0046. (Amy Nicholson)
U.S.S. PINAFORE In addition to directing this production, Jon Mullich also did the adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore to the Starship Enterprise. This obviously includes restringing the lyrics and even song titles, so that "He Is an Englishman" becomes "He is an Earthling Man." The concept is a mash-up of Star Trek and Galaxy Quest — with accompanying jokes on both — all played upon designer Tony Potter's terrific starship brig set. The transference of Gilbert and Sullivan's social satire into a few quips on our pop culture feels like a reduction of scale but nothing compared to the reduction served up in the tinny sound track. Delivering the goods with confident glee, this excellent ensemble deserves better. In fact, this would be a sinking ship were it not for the ensemble's charisma and the first-rate performances and voices of some key players, including James Jaeger's physically nimble, sonorously voiced Dick Deadeye — imagine French Stewart as a lizard man. Jesse Merlin's Captain Corcoran is also magnificent, the embodiment of swagger, with facial muscles locked into a smirk and a voice that just keeps going. Ashley Cuellar's musical chops are similarly apparent as the Captain's daughter, Josephine. Her stage presence is perfectly adequate, but her voice hits the moon. Crown City Theater, 11031 Camarillo St., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 27. (800) 838-3006. (Steven Leigh Morris)