Theater Reviews: Proof, A Song at Twilight, West

GO  BOBRAUSCHENBERGAMERICA When Bob Rauschenberg's mother (Mari Marks) delivers her tender slide show about the rural Texas childhood of her artist son, and none of the slides matches the descriptions she's offered, you have to know something's up, conceptually. Whether or not you're familiar with the '50s-'60s collagist painter-sculptor Charles L. Mee's 2001 extrapolation of what Rauschenberg might have written in order to explain how he assembled junk into evocative reflections on our place in the world stands alone. Marina Mouhibian's set decorates the stage and the proscenium walls with vintage kitsch as the 10-member ensemble plays out a series of somewhat interconnecting sketches about romances gone awry, violence, politics and metaphysics — though there are digressions for a series of chicken jokes. Bart DeLorenzo's staging preserves the tone, inherent in the text, that's both wry and frivolous, abstract and pop, with one breakout poetical excursion into Walt Whitman–esque grandeur, delivered by a hobo (Brett Hren) and accompanied by Dvorák's Symphony From the New World. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; through Feb. 28. (323) 461-3673. SpyAnts Theatre Company. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

THE CITY Director Stan Mazin's adaptation and update of Clyde Fitch's 1909 play has a lot going for it. That said, references to Lady Gaga and Desperate Housewives can't disguise the fact that it's an overly talky melodrama. Act 1 takes place in Middlebrook, where wealthy patriarch George Sr. (Klair Bybee) holds forth on the values of small-town life. However, his wife, Molly (Kady Douglas), daughters Megan (Trisha Hershberger) and Teresa (Jaclyn Marfuggi), and especially his son, George Jr. (Hector Hank), are bucking for the lights and excitement of New York City. Interloper Fred Hannock (Glenn Collins) comes to blackmail George Sr. over financial improprieties, and before his unexpected demise, George Sr. reveals to George Jr. that Hannock is his half brother. The overly long Act 2 takes place five years later in the family's new abode in New York City, where George Jr. is hoping to secure his party's nomination for senator. Lawyer Burt Vorhees (Bix Barnaba) begins the vetting process, asking George Jr. to pressure Teresa not to divorce her playboy husband (Alexander Leeb). But a bigger problem is how to get rid of the drug-addicted Hannock, who's been installed as George Jr.'s secretary. Mazin marshals the cast well, but some of the acting is uneven. Trefoni Michael Rizzi's plush scenic design can't be faulted. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Feb. 28. (818) 700-4878. (Sandra Ross)

GO  CONFUSIONS Alan Ayckbourn's 1974 slate of five one-acts, under John Pleshette's tight direction of an exemplary cast, illustrates the comical consequences when we choose not to listen to each other. In "Mother Figure," a quarreling couple (Steve Wilcox and Abigail Revasch) have to revert to childhood in order to connect with each other during an encounter with a formidably maternal neighbor (Mina Badie). "Drinking Companions" offers us a traveling salesman (Brendan Hunt) in a hotel bar, masking his loneliness with pathetic yet hilarious attempts at seducing two increasingly harried young women (Revasch and Phoebe James). What a waiter (Hunt) hears is all that we hear too in "Between Mouthfuls," as the dialogue of one dining couple (Adrian Neil and Bridget Ann White) is intercut with that of another (Wilcox and James), slyly revealing a salacious secret. "Gosforth's Fete" turns into a debacle as the organizer of a charity event (Neil) learns a secret from a local teacher (Badie), which wreaks havoc for him and the teacher's fiancé (Hunt). In "A Talk in the Park," a quintet of disparate folks (Hunt, James, Neil, White and Wilcox) finds their desperate attempts to connect with each other sadly falling on deaf ears. The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through March 7. (323) 960-5775. (Martín Hernández)

GO  DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD Yes, Charlie Brown, you're still a good man. But in Bert Royal's darkly funny parody of the Peanuts comic strip, the gang is all grown up, raising hell and dealing with some very adult issues. CB (Stephen John Williams) has lost his famous beagle to rabies and is questioning the meaning of life. Van, aka Linus (Brett Fleisher), has become an affable stoner who has smoked his beloved security blanket, and his sister Lucy (Dana DeRuyck) has been incarcerated in a psych ward for setting fire to one of her classmates. Tough guy "Pig Pen" now goes by the name of Matt (Brian Sounalath) — a germaphobe with a trainload of emotional baggage. Most of what transpires entails watching the screwball antics of these foul-mouthed sex-obsessed hellions, which renders a goodly share of laughs (the "Peanuts" dance at the opening of Act 2 is a real hoot). But Royal's script isn't all about teenage angst and high jinks. The strip's original cartoonist, Charles Schulz, never backed away from controversy. Honoring that legacy, Royal's play explodes with physical and emotional abuse, and CB's coming out of the closet results in a tragic finale. This all unfolds neatly on Rebecca Patrick's set — two swings, a graffiti-pocked wall and bleachers. Director Mike Dias would do better with sharper pacing, but he has skillfully balanced the light and dark elements. Rounding out the excellent cast are Lisa Valerie Morgan, Collins Reiter and Mikayla Park. Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., Jan. 31, 7 p.m., through Feb. 6. (562) 293-8645. An Urban Theatre Movement production. (Lovell Estell III)


GO  HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE "Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson," announces L'il Bit (Joanna Strapp) in the first lines of Paula Vogel's highly acclaimed and richly awarded play (including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). Set in 1960s rural Maryland, the nonlinear, episodic plot focuses on L'il Bit's questionable relationship with her Uncle Peck (David Youse) during the different stages of her adolescence. Because she is more educated than her blue-collar family and becomes well-endowed at a young age, L'il Bit always feels out of place, finding solace in Peck's company, even if his advances aren't always appropriate. In addition to the two leads, the three members of the Greek chorus (Skip Pipo, Jennifer Sorenson and Allie Grant of Showtime's Weeds in her stage debut) fill out the cast, playing the other members of this dysfunctional family as well as secondary characters. Director August Viverito, who also designed the set, finds the perfect balance between the text's emotion and humor, all while choreographing the rapid scene changes seamlessly. Strapp and Youse are captivating in their pas de deux, subtly expressing powerful emotions, and the chorus members convincingly shift personas while enhancing the piece's theatricality, with their secondary function as transition markers and set movers. As has been its hallmark, this company tackles the challenge of mounting theatrical classics in a "closet," and once again succeeds admirably, especially with such an intimate piece. The Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Feb. 20. (800) 838-3006. The Production Company. (Mayank Keshaviah)

THE JAMB Tuffer (Kerr Seth Lordygan) and Roderick (Brad C. Wilcox) are gay men who have been friends for 20 years. Though they seem to love one another, they've never had sex. Now they're on the scary threshold of age 40, and their conflicts are looming large. Tuffer is addicted to sex, alcohol and meth, while Roderick is an angry control freak with a messiah complex. Tuffer can no longer bear Roderick's constant disapproval, while Roderick is fed up with having to rescue Tuffer from his self-destructive impulses. Hoping to cure Tuffer's immaturity, Roderick invites him to come along with him on a visit to his ex-hippie mother (Kenlyn Kanouse) in New Mexico — but Tuffer will come only if he can bring his boy-toy, Brandon (Garrett Liggett), with whom, it emerges, he has never had sex. Gay men who only want to cuddle? Playwright J. Stephen Brantley gives a clever and quirkily amusing account of his oddball characters, and achieves a resolution of sorts. But his play doesn't always convince, and one senses a more complex, unexplored level beneath this tangle of relationships. Director Susan Lee provides a brisk, straightforward production, and elicits fine performances from the four actors. The Eclectic Company, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (818) 508-3003. ­ (Neal Weaver)

GO  THE KINGS OF THE KILBURN HIGH ROAD What is home to the emigrant? Is it, in the lowercase sense, merely the place where one lays one's hat? Or is it a more mythic capital — an idea of both origin and aspiration in which the psychic distance between the two becomes the self-measure of the man? In Dublin playwright Jimmy Murphy's remorselessly probing elegy, the question is more than academic. For Murphy's six middle-aged Irish expatriates, who, 25 years earlier, left County Mayo to seek their fortunes in London's working-class Kilburn district, home has become a kind of spiritual sickness that, for one of them, has already proven fatal. And as the survivors gather in a local pub to mourn his passing, a potent cocktail of whisky, guilt and recrimination dissolves what's left of their camaraderie and dreams of youth to reveal only the bitter disillusionments and regrets of old men. Under Sean Branney's sure-handed direction, Dan Conroy gives a blistering performance as Jap, the hard-drinking men's bellicose, hair-triggered leader, who, with his sidekick and flatmate, Git (the fine Matt Foyer), has the least to show for the lost years while being the most intransigent in his denial. Maurteen (a simmering Dan Harper) and Shay (John Jabaley) occupy a middle-ground of resigned acceptance of their meager circumstances, while Joe (Steve Marvel), as the group's single, successful exception, serves as the truth-seeking provocateur needling the friends to a lacerating self-knowledge. The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 28. (818) 846-5323. (Bill Raden)


GO  ORPHEUS DESCENDING Lou Pepe stages Tennessee Williams' study of singer-songwriter Val Xavier (Gale Harold), who wanders into a Southern mercantile shop, a reluctant seducing machine living in and belonging to a different world. Being both an updated interpretation of the Orpheus' visit to the underworld, with biblical allusions heavily laced into the plot, Williams' saga is study in the how the otherworldy artist becomes scapegoated and sacrificed to the prosaic reality of the here and now. The theater is a bit of an echo chamber, and Brandon Baruch's murky lighting doesn't really help Pepe's decisions to eliminate distracting details, such as walls and knickknacks, in order to place us inside Val Xavier's head and heart. That said, the ensemble saves and elevates the event, particularly Claudia Mason, Francesca Casale and Denise Crosby as the women whose hearts become wrenched by the musician in the house. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 21, (800) 838-3006. Frantic Redhead Productions (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW In his much-anticipated first major stage appearance since 1991, obnoxious-sweet man-child Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) appears at Club Nokia downtown in what is essentially a slightly updated re-creation of his CBS kids' show, Pee-wee's Playhouse. It's populated on David Korins' set of colorful animated objects by an array of puppets and the live characters who made the Playhouse a cult classic among kids of the '80s — and adults who wanted to be among them. These include Mailman Mike (John Moody), Bear (Drew Powell), Jambi (John Paragon), Sergio (Jesse Garcia), Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), King of Catoons (Lance Roberts) and Firefighter (Josh Meyers). The spectacle, directed by Alex Timbers, is really an exercise in nostalgia that aims to restart Pee-wee's public life, and in that motive resides the show's drawbacks. Reubens is as limber as ever, having barely aged, and with odd, agile and moralistic Pee-wee rollicks in an ill-fitting gray suit, trademark red bowtie and greased hair. Ensnaring our infantalism and self-absorption, with moments of poignant generosity, Pee-wee's 7-year-old mentality, locked into his psyche as though with the huge chain of his bicycle, was and remains a brilliant invention. This show, however, co-written by Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by John Paragon, is less so. The Pee-wee shtick wears out quickly, as though even Reubens is getting tired of it, and the droll, '50s moralizing, captured in vintage cartoons about the importance of washing hands and showing courtesy in a lunch line, is as thin as the kind of kitschy wrapping paper you might have once found in Wacko. There's a lovely moment where Pee-wee suffers the consequences of giving away a wish he's been granted — which means he has to suffer for his compassion by not getting what he wants. Life lesson? Hardly, when that consequence is gratuitously reversed. The reversal isn't the problem; it's that happy endings come out of the sky if you're just nice to people. No, they don't. The campiness and irony are just an excuse for sidestepping a real idea, or the kind of scrutiny that sharp kids' entertainments rely on. Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtwn.; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 & 7:30 p.m.; through Feb. 7. (800) 745-3000. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  PROOF What's the link between mathematics and madness? If you inherit your father's genius, will you also fall heir to his lunacy? Playwright David Auburn garnered a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for this play, which poses these questions within the framework of a family drama. The story begins a week after the death of Robert, an acclaimed mathematician (Brad Blaisdell, appearing in flashback); mentally ill in his last years, he'd been cared for by his mirthless, troubled daughter, Catherine (Teal Sherer). Alone and grieving on her 25th birthday, Catherine can just barely tolerate the presence of Hal (Ryan Douglas), a former student of Robert's searching through his papers for some shred of intellectual value. More annoying to Catherine is her older sister Claire (Collette Foy), in from New York and intent on whisking Catherine back with her — an option Catherine resents and resists. At the nub of the plot is whether, as Catherine claims, she wrote the mathematical proof uncovered in a locked drawer, or whether, as Hal and Claire suspect, Robert devised it during a period of clarity. For this critic, Auburn's script has always registered as contrived and lacking subtlety — but this production blows away this bias by virtue of Sherer's uniquely winning portrayal. That the character — like the performer — is wheelchair-bound adds a layer of vulnerability that brings the play to life for me as it hadn't before. Make no mistake: Sherer's accomplished performance stands on its own; it's the material that's been enriched. Kudos also to Foy for excellent work. Bob Morrisey directs. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (323) 960-7863. (Deborah Klugman)


GO  A SONG AT TWILIGHT "I've been in America too long. It's so lovely to see a steak that doesn't look like a bedroom slipper! ... Memory is curiously implacable. It forgets joy but rarely forgets humiliation." That's probably not the Noël Coward that you've ever heard before, but Noël Coward it is. Given that this 1966 bittersweet comedy was one of Coward's final plays, it's startling to learn that James Glossman's beautifully mature staging is actually the show's West Coast premiere (a pruned one-act version of the play was produced here in 1975 in a nationally touring double bill called Noël Coward in Two Keys, starring Hume Cronyn). Is it too late to nominate Coward for some kind of a "best new writer" award? Some have theorized that the show's explicit homosexuality-related themes were Coward's attempt at "coming out" — but even if one doesn't totally agree with the idea, the show still appears to be years ahead of its time — and this partially explains why it's so ripe for rediscovery. Ensconced in his Swiss hotel suite for the season, elderly author-legend Sir Hugo Latymer (Orson Bean) spits venom at his long-suffering, astonishingly supportive wife, Hilde (Alley Mills), who also serves as his secretary and dogsbody. In fading health, Sir Hugo realizes that his best days are behind him, but an unexpected visit from his long-ago mistress, Carlotta (Laurie O'Brien), can still bring out the elderly writer's flamboyant rage. Retired leading lady Carlotta wants permission to publish their love letters in her upcoming autobiography, but when Hugo refuses, it turns out the woman has an ace up her sleeve, involving other love letters to someone even further back in Hugo's past, and memory. Glossman's elegantly melancholy staging showcases both Coward's glittering writing and the unexpectedly piquant themes of regret and bitterness. Bean's crusty, curmudgeonly Sir Hugo may miss the smooth veneer of civility we expect, but he adroitly conveys the sense of a twisted, petulant old tool who's as dismayed by the loss of his physical faculties as he is regretful of his past mistakes. O'Brien's faded vixen is wonderfully snarky, with a mischievous malice suggesting a hurt creature who is enjoying her spiteful vengeance. Mills' understanding but coolly clear-eyed wife turns out to be unexpectedly powerful. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 7. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)

GO  WEST Steven Berkoff's 1983 tale of adrenaline, lust, rage and violence among a group of young thugs in 1960s London is written in modified metrical verse, which makes for a text whose heightened sense of reality is both unusually challenging and piercingly dramatic. The juxtaposition of these lowborn, brawling goons, and the lyrical dialogue that comes out of their mouths makes for a beautifully ironic tale — the play hints that the great Shakespearean epics of old are really tales of goons and criminals. Young thug Mike (Brad Schmidt) leads a gang of East End thugs whose dapper, shiny suits belie the fact that they're engaged in a bitter and bloody feud with a rival gang out of Brixton. The battles usually consist of the gangs getting drunk and beating each other up on their way home from their pubs. In an attempt to make peace, Mike and the other gang's chief thug (Joshua Schell) agree to a one-on-one duel, with the loser's gang surrendering. As the night of the fight approaches, Mike suffers self-doubt, both over his ability and his willingness to fight. Berkoff's beautiful, vivid writing is also dense and quite hard to penetrate. Yet with this startlingly crisp and at times acrobatic staging, director Bruce Cooper leaps over the play's hurdles of incomprehensibility and crafts a clear and emotionally searing production. The piece is perfectly cast: The young men have pitch-perfect East End accents and dead eyes; you'll swear you're watching Kray-era thugs, who, along with knowing how to throw a good punch, somehow manage to get their jaws around the mouth-mangling verse. Nicely volatile turns are offered by Schmidt's brooding Mike, Kate Roxburgh as his miserable doormat of a mother, and Annie Burgstede, offering a delicately Julie Christie–like performance as Mike's sexy but neglected girlfriend. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 6. (310) 823-0710. Presented by Hellion Pictures. (Paul Birchall)

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