THE BIRTHDAY BOYS In Aaron Kozak's drama, three young soldiers performing routine guard duties in Baghdad's Green Zone are kidnapped by several swarthy, kaffiyeh-wearing thugs, who whisk them to a creepy warehouse for "interrogation." Tied up, blindfolded and left on their own in a filthy storeroom, the three young men desperately struggle to escape, while also attempting to resolve rising resentments among them. Angry young Private Lance (Trevor St. John David) is furious with his best buddy, Private Carney (Nando Betancur), for trying to cut and run, while a third hostage, Private Guillette (James Ryen), tries to figure out a sensible way to save their skins. However, the stakes rise as a sinister terrorist goon (Ali Saam) arrives to break down the three military men. To director Kozak's credit, the production's claustrophobic, boiler-room-like trappings and the increasing desperation of the hostages artfully establish a taut, suspenseful mood. As the three soldiers wriggle, curse and fret, we share in real time the sense of foreboding that nothing good is going to happen to them. Yet Kozak's work as a playwright rarely rises above the workmanlike, and the piece's dismayingly bloated writing and slight incidents strain to fill out the show's two acts. Worse, without giving too much away, the final scenes rely on a clumsy plot twist that's so contrived, it undercuts almost any goodwill the cast might have built up to that point. The play ultimately turns into an overlong episode of Scare Tactics, but with fewer dramatic incidents. Still, the ensemble work is appealing, with Betancur's shy Carney, a character who discovers unexpected depths of bravery when confronted with appalling circumstances, nicely offset by Saam's lusciously wicked terrorist. Theater Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 3. (800) 838-3006. (Paul Birchall)
DEAR HARVEY Playwright Patricia Loughrey was commissioned by San Diego's LGBT Diversionary Theatre to create this tribute to San Francisco gay activist, organizer and political figure Harvey Milk on the 30th anniversary of his death. Loughrey chose a documentary format, relying entirely on primary sources: Milk's writings and speeches, and the testimony of his ardent supporters — including fellow activist and creator of the AIDS Quilt, Cleve Jones, and Milk's campaign adviser Anne Kronenberg — and occasionally his passionate detractors. The all-black set, wreathed in votive candles, suggests a memorial service, with emphasis on celebration rather than grief. Many events are familiar: Milk's successful campaign to defeat Proposition 6, which would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in California schools; his alliance with San Francisco Mayor Moscone; their deaths at the hands of disgruntled homophobe Dan White; the massive outpouring of rage when White received a minimal sentence due to the infamous "Twinkie" defense. But the use of the words of people who were there lends color, humor and authenticity. For director Anthony Frisina and his large, able ensemble, this Beat Project production is clearly a labor of love, assisted by a musical score by Thomas Hodges. John Meeks plays Milk throughout, with other roles divided among the ensemble. Lee Strasberg Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 10. (323) 960-7782 or plays411.com/dearharvey. (Neal Weaver)
DON GIOVANNI TONIGHT, DON CARLO TOMORROW Fans of Robert Altman may take a kinder view of playwright Dennis Miles' sprawling, minimally plotted comedy than this critic, who found his spoof of a company of opera singers to be a meandering letdown. The action unfolds backstage in a concert hall and concerns the neurotic obsessions and carryings-on among the various players. A jealous feud between singers Maria (Jennifer Kenyon) and Claudia (Kimberly Atkinson) comes to an end when the bombastic company manager (Joseph Back) fires Claudia for miming her lyrics instead of singing them. A voluptuous tease (Marianne Davis) parades her body nonstop for her lover (Pete Caslavka) and, when he's not around, for anyone else. An existentially minded player (Gregory Sims) obsesses to one and all about aging and death; a bearded stage veteran (Greg Wall) bursts into an impassioned non sequitur monologue about a man unjustly incarcerated in a 19th-century prison for 30 years. Under Kiff Scholl's direction, each role is skillfully played, with Wall's speech — perhaps the meatiest juncture in the script — an emotional highlight. Overall, however, the storylines are so skimpy, the characters so thin and the humor so tame that there's just so much the performers can do to compel our attention. The production aims for a Bruegel-like canvas effect, with most of the large ensemble onstage all the time, pretending to some activity. Terence McFadden's set is artful in its shabby disarray, but its cluttered busyness only compounds the challenge to find a focus. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 17. (310) 281-8337. (Deborah Klugman)
MYSTERIOUS SKIN In Prince Gomolvilas' harrowing drama, a young man is troubled by fractured memories in which he believes he was kidnapped and tortured by aliens as a child. Attempting to piece together his past, Brian (Scott Keiji Takeda) befriends Avalyn (Elizabeth Liang), a geeky young woman gleefully obsessed with tales of alien abduction. The more Brian talks with her, the more he remembers. Meanwhile, another young guy, Neil (David Huynh), moves to New York from sleepy Kansas and dabbles in prostitution, much to the dismay of his best friend, Wendy (Christine Corpuz). When Brian tracks down his childhood friend Neil, he learns that the truth of what happened when they were kids is more horrifying than the disturbing mystery. Director Tim Dang makes good use of designer Alan E. Muraoka's stylized set of chain-link fencing, dominated by a massive, blue full moon that also serves as a projection screen. Dang also keeps us alert with startlingly loud sound effects and elicits fine performances from his mostly young cast. But the play, with its rapid-fire dialogue exchanges, thunders along like a freight train to a grim destination. Perhaps Gomolvilas cleaves too closely to his source material, Scott Heim's presumably autobiographical first novel, because real people don't actually talk like this. Nevertheless, Liang beautifully captures the awkward effusion of adolescence with her portrayal of Avalyn, offering some bright and funny moments within this profoundly tragic tale. East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 10. (213) 625-7000. (Pauline Adamek)
GO OF GRAPES AND NUTS Humor à la Joad comes to Burbank in this revival of a parodic hybrid between two of John Steinbeck's best-known novels, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Written by Doug Armstrong, Keith Cooper and Tom Willmorth, the plotline is loosely that of The Grapes of Wrath, following Tom Joad (Ian Vogt) and the Joad family on their trek from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. The primary additions from Of Mice and Men are the characters of Lenny (David Reynolds), Candy (David Ghilardi) and Curly (Kimberly Van Luin). Director Paul Stroili, part of the original 1990 Chicago cast, lets his actors go full-bore into an over-the-top campiness that winks heavily at the gritty realism of the source material. The self-made frontier ethos is particularly lampooned in a production that gets mileage from both the sly anachronistic jokes in the script and the gusto with which the cast tackles them. Casey Kramer, as Ma Joad, has some particularly hilarious rants, as does Lauren McCormack, who plays the womanizing preacher Jim Casy. Reynolds portrays dim-witted Lenny with such earnestness that we can't help but like him, and Ghilardi (who plays four roles) and Jen Ray (playing both a bulldozer driver and a waitress) showcase their versatility. Even David George's wooden grape crate of a set is comical, providing an appropriate backdrop to a show that puts the "funny" in the "bone" dry Dust Bowl. Little Vic Theatre at Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Oct. 24. (818) 623-6666. seaglasstheatre.org. A Sea Glass Theatre production. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO PARADISE PARK A profoundly despondent fellow (Kenneth Rudnicki) wanders into an amusement park for distraction from his agony. Inside, he slips into a fantasia of scenes — including his own romance with a young woman (Reha Zemani) from the Midwest, igniting a bundle of neuroses that keeps them estranged; a ventriloquist/philosopher (Ann Stocking) and his bifurcated dummy (David E. Frank); a tourist couple (Bo Roberts and Cynthia Mance) at the end of the tether that's barely holding their marriage together; their irate young daughter (KC Wright) who yearns, in vain, for an effete Cuban (Tim Orona); a psychotic pizza-delivery boy (Jeff Atik); a wandering violinist (Lena Kouyoumdjian); a circus clown (Troy Dunn); and, in a directorial flourish, a guy in a chicken costume. Charles Mee's comedy is like a sonnet with a couple of repeated motifs: distraction, love and the general feeling of being cast adrift in cultural waters that are partly enchanting, partly evaporating, and partly polluted by the refuse of our ancestors, of our families, of our determination to follow impulses we barely comprehend, and to wind up unutterably lost. He's one of this company's favorite scribes, and mine, for the way in which, with the literary touch of a feather, he conjures primal truths of what keeps us at odds with ourselves and with each other, keeps us yearning for the unattainable. And though there's obviously psychology at work, the driving energies of the language and of the drama are subconscious, cultural and historical currents. Production designer Charles Duncombe anchors his platform set with a wading pool stage center, in which sits an alligator, and he decorates it above with strings of festival lights. Josephine Poinsot's costumes are thoroughly whimsical with primary colors and a feel for an America of the late 1950s — with the possible exception of the married couple's matching shorts and T-shirts that read, "Kiss my ass, I'm on vacation." Director Frederique Michel stages the poetical riffs of text in her typically arch style, and it serves the play almost perfectly, except for the pizza-delivery scene, where the choreography distracts from the psychosis that lies at the core. Even so, I found the evening to be indescribably affecting, tapping emotions that lurk beneath the machinery of reason. This is the last production to be staged at this back-alley venue in Santa Monica, where the company has been putting on plays for 15 years. The ventriloquist's lines couldn't have been more ironic and true: "Then, because the theater is the art form that deals above all others in human relationships, then theater is the art, par excellence, in which we discover what it is to be human and what is possible for humans to be ... that theater, properly conceived, is not an escape either but a flight to reality, a rehearsal for life itself, a rehearsal of these human relationships of which the most essential, the relationship that defines most vividly who we are and that makes our lives possible, is love." City Garage, 1340 ½ Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5:30 p.m.; thru Nov. 7. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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PIECES OF ME Loretta Devine has worn many hats during her three decades as an entertainer, working on Broadway (she originated the role of Lorrell in Dreamgirls), starring in numerous television roles and appearing in scads of movies on the big screen. Here, she brings her considerable talents to an evening of poems, songs and autobiographical anecdotes, not all of which are engaging, but her singing voice offers serious compensation for that. She also possesses an enthralling, charismatic personality and sense of humor. Devine gives a sketchy but interesting survey of her early life in Houston growing up in a family of females, and the challenges she faced becoming a singer and performer. Some segments are nothing but slide presentations showing Devine at different junctures in her career; there is also a collage of celebrity photos that are only vaguely entertaining. Devine is at her best when crooning about matters of the heart. "Panties and Pearls and Trilogy" recounts the highs, lows and deceptions attendant to a bittersweet love affair. "My Father" is a heart-wrenching homage, and "Except for the Grace" serves up a powerfully evocative mediation on the homeless and hopeless, embellished by haunting still shots of destitute people. Stage 52 Theater, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 & 7 p.m., thru Oct. 3. (323) 960-7780. plays411.com/lorettadevine. (Lovell Estell III)
GO LA RAZON BLINDADA (THE ARMORED REASON) How does a prisoner survive without hope? Writer-director Aristides Vargas drew inspiration for this poignantly horrific black comedy from the experience of his brother, a political prisoner in Argentina during that country's military dictatorship. Confined in solitary, prisoners were permitted a brief respite on Sunday, when they could meet and talk, albeit while remaining seated and with their hands on the table. That setup provides the physical framework for this luminously surreal 80-minute one-act in which two incarcerated men come together to role-play — one calling himself De La Mancha (Jesus Castanos Chima), the other Panza (Arturo Diaz de Sandy). The actors remain seated throughout, navigating across the stage on wooden chairs with wheels. Within these loosely assumed personae, the pair frolic through a hallucinatory landscape, clowning their way through speculations about madness, sanity, heroism and human bonding, and conjuring an elaborate fantasy of regency over an island that brilliantly mocks the nature of power. In the end, the aim of the game is survival — not as rational beings, because reality would be too painful, but as madmen whose lunacy frees them from the shame of powerlessness. The performances are consummate and the staging, as eloquent as the text, features a videographed landscape over which their sunken shadows pass, and Faure's Elegie for Violoncello and Orchestra to underscore the pathos. 24th Street Theater, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Nov. 7. (213) 745-6516. (Deborah Klugman)
TRUE WEST Usually birthdays are occasions for celebration in which the aging honoree is the recipient of gifts, cake, good wishes and lots of brazen, barefaced flattery. And while there are some ingratiating aspects to the party director Aliah Whitmore throws for the 30th anniversary of Sam Shepard's 1980 sibling-rivalry satire, her decidedly uneven production could hardly be considered a gift. The deceptive comic naturalism of Shepard's tale about two brothers locked in psychological siege warfare camouflages a far more serious allegory on the inherent schizophrenia of artistic identity. So the director's decision to lavish this symbolic drama with the hyperdetailed, trompe l'œil realism of production designer Jacob Whitmore's rambling, overly busy suburban-house set (replete with a never-used stairway to nowhere) is the first hint at the bumpy ride ahead. The evening's flattery comes in the form of the mutton-chopped Andrew Patton, who brings a swaggering menace to the role of the older, vagabond brother, Lee. If Lee smolders, however, Andre Verderame's screenwriter brother, Austin, is something of a wet blanket. Instead of Shepard's edgy intellectual, Aliah Whitmore has Verderame play him as a weepy, whining mama's boy — a choice that proves all but fatal to the climactic merging of the brothers' identities. The fine Mike Genovese provides equal measures of sleaze and breeze as the movie producer, Saul Kimmer, while lighting designer Bob Primes succeeds in preventing the actors from drowning in the ocean of superfluous stage scenery. Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 3. (323) 939-9220. A Whitmore Eclectic production. (Bill Raden)
GO THE WEB This paranoid fantasy by Michael John Garcés tells a wildly baroque tale of identity theft. New Yorker Chris Quinones (Ian Forester) discovers, while trolling the Internet, that there is another Chris Quinones out there, whose story and vital statistics are almost identical to his own. Suddenly he's being harassed and questioned by two mysterious men, Kepesh (Edgar Landa, who choreographed the brutal fight scenes) and Warner (Justin Huen, who doubles effectively as a super-sadistic Paraguayan thug), who apparently think he's the other Chris. They're also hassling his best friend (Tony Sancho) and his girlfriend (Betsy Reisz). Meanwhile, his apartment is invaded by Arrowsmith (Stan Kelly), who claims to be working for the FBI, NYPD and CIA. Arrowsmith saddles Chris with a mysterious wounded femme fatale (Amanda Zarr) and a very large gun, and Chris finds himself renditioned to Paraguay, in the midst of a drug war. Nothing is what it seems, and contradictions breed like rabbits. For a while it seems Garcés is simply indulging in obfuscation for its own sake, but eventually things start to add up. Director Alyson Roux has assembled a top-notch, energetic cast, which she deploys with speed and precision. All tech credits are excellent. Art/Works Theater, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., thru Oct. 17. A Needtheater production. (323) 795-2215. needtheater.org. (Neal Weaver)