Theater Reviews: Scarcity, The Conquest of the South Pole, The Value of Names, Flight

THE CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH POLE German playwright Manfred Karge’s 1988 fantasia about a quartet of unemployed men re-enacting Roald Amundsen’s 1911 trek to the South Pole. Rory C. Mitchell’s nicely animated staging remains tethered by lapses of acting technique. Elephant Performance Lab, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through November 22. (323) 960-4429. A Smith and Martin Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

GO  CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ adaptation of the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Craig Bilknap stages the work crisply with technical aplomb, though it’s all a bit actorly. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep; through December 17. (818) 240-0910 Ext. 1. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

GO  THE END OF CIVILIZATION doesn’t entail an-end-of-the-world holocaust, though it might feel that way to Harry (Eric Curtis Johnson) and Lily (Jaime Andrews), the middle-class couple at the nub of Canadian George F. Walker’s ominously dark comedy. One of six in Walker’s “Motel Series” of plays, it takes place against the backdrop of a national financial crisis, which has left Harry — and millions more — jobless. The prescient Walker wrote this in late 1998. For reasons never entirely clear, Harry has opted to job-search from a seedy motel room rather than his comfortable suburban digs, which are now in danger of foreclosure. Leaving their kids with her sister, Lily has accompanied him as a show of support, but her confidence — along with the raison d’être for her entire existence — is teetering, as Harry’s behavior grows progressively more erratic and rage-driven. Their new, nightmarish existence roils out of control when two detectives (Phillip Simone and Bob Rusch) — one of whom is obsessively fixated on Lily — show up, suspecting Harry of having murdered three men. Keeping track of this plot is not always easy, as events are presented in nonchronological order, and it’s not till the end that we become privy to the story’s point of departure, from which the shattering climax ensues. Under James Sharpe’s direction, Johnson and Andrews display their marital torments in persuasive three dimensions. Gemma Massot is spot-on as the take-no-prisoners hooker next door, while Simone and Rusch are also effective. Yet the punch the production lands only puts us on the ropes; with a bit more timing and finesse it could knock us to the floor. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake; Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; through November 29. (818) 838-3006. A SkyPilot Theatre Company production. (Deborah Klugman)

FLIGHT These six short plays by EM Lewis are minimalist, and four are downright slight. In “Leonard’s Voice,” directed by Darin Anthony, Leonard (Michael Lorre) is tormented by a voice (Stephanie Erb) in his head, urging him to stab his mother (Helen Slayton Hughes). Michael Shutt directs “This Isn’t About Love,” in which Eric (Jon Amirkhan) wants his lunch-hour tryst with Kate to become something more, but Kate (Laura Buckles) doesn’t. Drug-addicted prodigal sister Shelley (Maya Parish) comes home to try to touch brother Alex (Rob Nagle) for money in “Sing Me That Leonard Cohen Song Again,” directed by Emilie Beck. In “Reveille,” directed by Julie Biggs, a father (Richard Ruyle) is furious with his son (Casey Nelson) for enlisting in the military after 9/11. The other two plays are a bit more substantial: “The Incident Report,” directed by Lee Wochner, centers on two airline passengers (Shutt and Brian P. Newkirk) who are being questioned by a security agent (Erb) about a violent incident on their flight. In “Six Bottles of Heineken After the Silverado,” a couple (Daria Balling and Ruyle) find their brief encounter developing into something richer. The productions are all excellent, but they feel more like appetizers than dinner. Son of Semele Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Wed., 8 p.m., through November 8. (323) 666-3259 or Produced by Moving Arts. (Neal Weaver)

GO  JUST 45 MINUTES FROM BROADWAY Suffused with a near-Chekhovian mix of the wistful and the melancholy, playwright Henry Jaglom’s world premiere comedy is a delight — an intimate and thoughtful ensemble piece that is as much a paean to the theater as it is a meditation on the perils of living entirely by emotion. In a picturesque but rundown country house in Upstate New York (realized in Joel Daavid’s beautiful, detailed set), a theatrical clan spends what is probably for them a typical fall weekend of histrionics and melodrama. These are people who have lived their whole lives for art — which, one might say, means that dinner is never on time and no one gets up before noon. Elderly thespian George (Jack Heller) and his beloved wife, Vivien (Diane Louise Salinger), are in the twilight of their careers but regret nothing about a life spent on the road, performing small plays. Also staying in their home is their beautiful, unstable daughter Pandora (Tanna Frederick), who is taking a “rest” from acting after getting over a recent failed romance. The typically “artsy” family chaos turns even more tumultuous with the arrival of the family’s estranged eldest daughter, Betsy (Julie Davis), who has grown weary of her eccentric family. When Betsy introduces her lawyer fiancé, Jimmy (David Garver), to the family, sparks unexpectedly fly — but the sparks are between Jimmy and free-spirited Pandora. Some overwritten sequences teeter on self-indulgence, yet the piece is also wise to the follies of human behavior, and director Gary Imhoff’s subtle staging elegantly juxtaposes the warmth and frustration that underscore the relationships within so many families. The ensemble work is sensitive yet comically charged, with Frederick’s calculatedly daffy turn as the ever-performing Pandora smartly offset by Davis’ increasingly angry Betsy. Heller’s leonine elderly actor-dad and Salinger’s actress mom, tender and sad, wonderfully craft the sense of elders who have never truly grown up, and are amazed by what has happened to their bodies while their minds remain youthful. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. (dark Thanksgiving weekend); through December 20. (310) 392-7327. A Rainbow Theatre production. (Paul Birchall)


GO  SCARCITY Kappy Kilburn’s nicely acted production of Lucy Thurber’s domestic drama (making its West Coast premiere) gets to the unspoken truths of a rural Massachussetts family ensnared by poverty, though there’s plenty on that theme that’s spoken as well. Unemployed and alcoholic, Herb (Randy Irwin who turns his off-the-charts alcohol-blood levels into a bliss that’s almost charming) lashes out at his wife, Martha (a spirited performance by Rebecca Jordan), because he sees the unwanted romantic attentions she’s getting from her cousin, local cop Louie (Steve Walker, whose comedy background makes itself felt here), who’s also been buying Herb’s family groceries they can’t afford themselves. If Louie gave his own wife, Gloria (Wendy Johnson), even half the attention he lavishes on Martha, he’d be a far better husband, but that would make for a comparatively tedious play. At Herb’s dinner table, with Louis and Gloria present, Herb lashes out at Martha for the blowjobs he imagines she’s giving Louis. “If you don’t get a job, I may have to start,” she snaps back. Actually Herb and Martha’s sex life is robust, as their embarrassed children — 11-year-old Rachel (Bridget Shergalis, wry and smart) and 16-year-old Billy (Jarrett Sleeper) — could tell you. But that doesn’t stop Herb from expressing his incestuous erotic attractions to his kid daughter. It’s a source of disgust that goes nowhere dramatically, just one in a series of perverse idiosyncrasies that floats in the mire of their lives. The more relevant perversity comes from Billy’s smitten schoolteacher, wealthy Ellen (Kim Swennen), whose do-gooding is too conspicuous to be in good taste. Young, sadistic Billy tortures her psychologically, as she pulls out all her connections to get him funded to a private college. While she masturbates him in the family kitchen, he forces her to say out loud that she’s stupid — a confession that works (on him) as an aphrodisiac. These S&M dynamics are a bit like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, with Billy’s precocious little sister pining not be left behind. Director Kilburn hasn’t refined the tone, so that the agony ostensibly provoking them all to be so cruel, and the comedy which garners so many laughs, feel as though they belong to different plays rather than stemming from the same wellspring of frustration. The story, however, never lets go, and Adam Rigg’s realistic set (with wooden Mallard duck and duckling perched on a low, wooden cabinet) speak the design-language of excruciatingly authentic 1970s chic. Imagined Life Theatre, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 22. (800) 838-3006. A NeedTheater production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SHERLOCK’S LAST CASE Charles Marowitz’s 1984 farce finds Sherlock Holmes (Stephen Van Dorn) facing double jeopardy. He’s receiving death threats from the son (Michael Tauzin) of his long-standing enemy, Professor Moriarty. The younger Moriarty seeks revenge for his father’s death. Holmes is also pursued by a woman of doubtful identity (Teresa Bisson), and worst of all, he has declared, “Elementary, my dear Watson” once too often. Watson (Steve Gustafson), pushed over the edge by Holmes’ arrogance and condescension, has hatched an elaborate plot to do the master in, via the fiendish Frontenac Chair, which traps its occupant in its lethal clutches. Marowitz knows the Holmes canon well, and provides all the staple ingredients: clever ruses, impossibly erudite and perceptive deductions, disguises, dramatic reversals, and improbable escapes. The piece amuses for much of its length, but eventually the joke wears thin. Director Jeremy Lewit’s mostly nimble production is occasionally heavy-handed, but he makes clever use of the Baker Street Irregulars (Bisson, Marcos Estevez, James Ledesma, and Tauzin) to effect the elaborate changes on Tim Farmer’s handsome and ingenious set. Kimberly Overton provides fine period costumes. Actors Co-op, 1760 North Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; through October 31. (323) 462-8460. (Neal Weaver)


SWEENEY TODD From its origins in 19th-century fiction to its numerous adaptations for stage and screen, this oft-revived tale of the Fleet Street barber who gives his customers the closest of shaves remains popular for its dark themes and, in Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award–winning version, complex polyphonic sound. Sweeney Todd (Kurt Andrew Hansen), back in London after being sent to Australia by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Weston I. Nathanson), is both bent on revenge and in search of his wife, Lucy (Harmony Goodman), who was raped by Turpin, and daughter Johanna (Jenny Ashman). He is aided first by the young sailor Anthony (Brian Maples), and then by pie-shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Donna Pieroni), who becomes his confidante and partner in their grisly scheme. Director Derek Charles Livingston cleverly uses the rhythms of the score to execute transitions between scenes, while August Viverito’s set pieces are amazingly versatile, and his lighting shifts, complex and well-executed (especially the innovative “oven effect”). Hansen, with his rich baritone and wild-eyed demeanor, is spot-on for Todd, and Pieroni is a solid Lovett (though I missed her traditional cockney twang), but Nathanson seems a bit mild-mannered for the slimy, malevolent Turpin. However, the production’s main drawback is that it really needs more space, which the often-crowded stage and one-dimensional choreography made clear. Even the polyphonic sequences in the singing become muddied, all of which is surprising from a stellar company that normally astounds with its ability to maximize its cramped quarters. Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through November 22. (800) 838-3006. A Production Company production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

THE VALUE OF NAMES Playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s drama asks the provocative question: “Is it ever possible to forgive a wrong done to us decades ago?” The play’s unexpected answer turns out to be a resounding “never!” Norma (Stasha Surdyke) is a young actress and the daughter of elderly TV star Benny Silverman (Peter Mark Richman), though the pair is estranged these days. Still, Norma stops by Benny’s Malibu mansion to tell her father that she’s just been cast in a new play in which she will not only show her breasts but she’ll also be directed by Benny’s old enemy Leo (Malachi Throne). Back in the bad days, Leo sold out Benny to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Benny, perhaps understandably, is still angry after all these years. Leo stops by in an attempt to win over his old buddy, but, as they say, old grudges are the best grudges and, within minutes, long buried wounds are disinterred. Sweet’s drama-of-ideas is the sort in which a pair of figures, each symbolizing one side of an argument, debate until they’re blue in the face and the audience’s ears are red. Although Sweet’s writing suffers from a fusty tone — and Howard Teichman’s staid staging doesn’t really tell us why these characters are willing to stay in the same room with each other — the crackling intelligence underlying the arguments is nevertheless frequently engrossing. Also hard to resist are the powerful performances, headlined by Throne and Richman, a pair of veteran character actors whom you’ll recognize from dozens of your favorite TV shows (at least, you will if you are a baby boomer). Watching these two frosty lions in winter essentially tearing into each other, as well as into the scenery, as they storm and bluster, makes for a thrilling evening on any terms, and Throne’s coolly pragmatic Lou and Richman’s feisty, embittered Benny easily rise above the workmanlike material with which they’re matched. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through November 22. (323) 506-8024, West Coast Jewish Theater. (Paul Birchall)

VINNIE: THE DEATH AND AFTER-LIFE OF VINCENT VAN GOGH One hundred and nineteen years after his “accidental” suicide, the ghost of Vincent van Gogh (Glen Anthony Vaughan) leaves his limbo for prematurely deceased geniuses to visit Brooklyn painter David (Herbert Russell), who, like him, is broke, desperate and depressed. The master’s first advice: “Get over it, fuckhead!” From there, the two get along like gangbusters and embark on a fun, aimless rant fueled by coke and absinthe, which climaxes when David’s girlfriend (Emma Ford) and brother (Michael Postalakis) cart him off to Bellevue. The second act of writer-director Peter Abbay’s comedy takes place in the cuckoo’s nest (complete with catatonic-guy comic relief), where David fights to prove his sanity and discover his artistic raison d’être. By this time, it’s clear the play doesn’t have one of its own. Vaughan’s van Gogh is vibrant and scabrous (his reaction to visiting the MET is “I’m so fucking famous, it’s, like, not even funny”) but trapped in David’s nut house, there’s little for him to do besides interject jokes as the production pads its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time with inessential subplots and three separate endings. The legend is alive yet adrift. Pan Andreas Theater, 5125 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; through November 7. (Amy Nicholson)


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