CABARET Looming over Jules Aaron's production of Fred Ebb and John Kander's now-classic 1966 musical about an American writer in Berlin, as Nazis slither in and around the Kit Kat Club, hangs the question, why are they staging this? As though Joel Grey's and Liza Minnelli's images, and Bob Fosse's staging in the 1972 movie, aren't etched into our consciousness. As though brownshirts aren't still bad, and the people they persecute aren't still forlorn. The only answer I can conjecture is, because they can. Brian Paul Mendoza's jerky, bottom-slapping choreography has Fosse written all over it, and Erin Bennett's Sally Bowles channels Liza, right down to her cropped 'do. Bennett is fine, but she's playing a dangerously presumptuous game of imitation. Jason Currie's MC dances on similarly thin ice, with a voice and charisma that are shadow presences of Grey's. Aaron has amped up the gay quotient, both with Soojin Lee's rubbery costumes and with a platoon of boy-on-boy innuendoes. Christopher Carothers' American-lost-in-Germany has a particularly appealing charm and silky voice, but this show goes to supporting players Eileen T'Kaye, Paul Zegler and Joshua Ziel — respectively as the kindhearted but expedient German landlady, the Jewish retiree who loves her, and the Nazi operative working largely in disguise, until the sky falls. International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 9. (562) 436-4610. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THE FLU SEASON Will Eno's play is set on promising ground — a Man (Tim Wright) and a Woman (Jamey Hood) meet in a psychiatric institution and fall in love. From the start, though, we sense our David and Lisa expectations will be thwarted. First, the evening is introduced by two characters named Prologue and Epilogue (Michael McColl and Christopher Goodson, respectively), who will narrate the scenes we are about to watch, as well as comment on them later. They won't merely discuss the couple's affair, but also its relationship to language and what might be called the pathology of theater. As if it weren't bad enough having two Wilderesque stage managers onboard, more narrators, the Doctor and the Nurse (David Fruechting and Christina Mastin), also take a hand at editorializing, and the Man and Woman often speak to each other as though they're quoting themselves to other people. By unconventionally stressing certain words, they bestow ambiguity on some lines or add unexpected meaning to others — it's as though Barbara Kruger had written the script. There is some funny, provocative repartee here, but before long, our interest sags beneath the weight of Eno's self-referential irony. "This is neither a not-winter nor a not-summer," one character exhales; at least as an acting spectacle, the evening is a not-disappointment under Jonathan Westerberg's direction, with Hood making a lasting impression as one very fragile patient. [Inside] the Ford at John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru March 2. (323) 461-3673. A Circle X Theatre Co. production. (Steven Mikulan)
GO FROZEN Not unlike an ice floe, the chill in Bryony Lavery's 2004 play creeps up on you, before working its way into your bones. In the first half-hour, we learn of a girl's abduction somewhere in the north of England through a series of interweaving monologues told by the child's mother (Jenette Goldstein) and the pedophile (Hugh Mason) who led the girl to his van, and much of the play's first half is about the mother's activism on behalf of missing children — a thin veneer for her stoic, fraying hope. This all arrives in a blanket of domestic minutiae — the mother's wavering relations with her other daughter and her husband, for instance, which almost undoes the play's small tug of mystery. Add to the mix a visiting American scholar, a clinical psychiatrist (Deanne Dawson) out to prove that serial killers' absence of compassion is directly related to a malady in a frontal brain lobe rather than inherent evil. With this, the play turns into a probing examination not only of criminal pathology, but of how we come to be humane. Lavery's twists and turns, when the mother finally meets her daughter's killer, come marbled with deeply human contradictions stemming from primal emotions, which director Billy Hayes' stark but relentlessly detailed staging (with Leif Gantvoort's delicate lighting, Sal Valdez's understated sound design and Scott Siedman's Spartan set) eventually brings to the fore with awesome beauty. Lillian Theater, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 22. H&D Productions. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD Under Charles Otte's tender staging, Richard Nelson's adaptation of James Joyce's literary gem is nothing short of superb. Nelson's book stirs and then sweetens all of the poignant subtleties of Joyce's prose, and it's all neatly complemented by Nelson and Shaun Davey's music and lyrics, under Dean Mora's splendid musical direction, in which the oft-singing characters are accompanied by piano, cello, violin and some Celtic percussion. The story is the final one in Joyce's Dubliners collection, and takes place during the Christmas holiday in the fashionable home of the Morkan sisters in turn-of-the-last-century Dublin. For 30 years, friends and family have joined Julia (Jacque Lynn Colton) and Kate (Judith Carpone) to celebrate the blessed event, as narrated at the outset by their nephew, Gabriel (Rob Nagle). And for most of the evening, food, song, dance, revelry and music are richly displayed; but inexorably, some portent of change looms, the emotional tenor darkens as recollections of the past emerge, none more subtly powerful than the memory of a long-ago someone who stands between Gabriel and his wife, Greta (Martha Demson). Gabriel achingly sings one of literature's most haunting, final perorations, even if it is a bit gussied up by Nelson: a prayer for the living and eulogy for the dead, as snow falls across Ireland. This is about as close to a flawless production as you can get. The ensemble is polished and convincing. Otte and Teresa Enroth's lighting design is devastatingly effective. Kis Knekt's parlor-room set is designed with craft and care against the backdrop of an ice-blue back wall, as are Christina Wright's beautiful period costumes. Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 22. (323) 882-6912 (Lovell Estell III)
GO JOAN RIVERS: A WORK IN PROGRESS BY A LIFE IN PROGRESS Writer-performer Joan Rivers' confessional play shows the comic legend as both an unapologetically shticky standup preoccupied with female anatomy and the effects of plastic surgery, and as an existential show-business survivor who's still going strong at 74 in an industry ruled by men and obsessed with youth. These two conflicting impulses create a tense balancing act that Rivers, under Bart DeLorenzo's soft-touch direction, navigates with ease and intimacy. The show (co-written by Rivers with Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell) imagines Rivers stuck in a B-list dressing room shortly before she is to begin interviewing Oscar-night arrivals with daughter Melissa. Joining her are Kenny (Adam Kulbersh), an inept neophyte producer, and Svetlana (Emily Kosloski), an equally clueless emigre makeup artist. Rivers' references to Svetlana as "Anastasia," "Rasputin" and "Sputnik" — her shtick impulses — are too archaically old-school to be offensive. Instead, she hits her stride when recalling a rough-and-tumble life as a struggling comedian and talk-show host who endured both the betrayal of friend Johnny Carson and the wrath of Barry Diller. After the suicide of her husband Edgar, she reinvents herself as the queen of the Academy Awards' red carpet, which brings us back to the show's setting. The 110-minute, intermissionless evening, however, feels overly long, which could've been avoided if Work in Progress had been developed strictly as a one-woman show. Gay Kenny, innocent Svetlana and icy blond TV exec Evan (Tara Joyce) are mildly funny stereotypes, but they remain two-dimensional shadows infringing on a real-life memoir. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no perfs Wed.-Sun., Feb. 27-March 2); thru March 30. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Mikulan)
GO THE MONKEY JAR At a close-knit charter elementary school, a struggling fourth-grader (Josh Ogner) brandishes a gun at his teacher, Mr. Dori (Henry Hayashi). The district's rule book is clear: expulsion. Muddying the waters, however, the gun is a nonfunctioning relic, and the teacher has a well-known animosity toward the boy, whose learning disability he thinks is simply learned helplessness. Only months into his governance as the school's first black principal, Mr. Rees (Mark Berry) must satisfy everyone with his resolution — the kid's bewildered parents (Sally Saffioti and Richard Horvitz), a meddlesome PTA doyenne (Addie Daddio), an empathetic district psychologist (Amy Tolsky) and the enraged teacher — before he goes public and ruins everyone's reputation. Playwright Richard Martin Hirsch has set up a credible and inextricable trap that teeters into issue overload. Though Warren Davis' production is engrossing, the parents' scenes are discordantly screwball; Act 2 rehashes the problem in ever louder voices before homing in on what feels like the least-satisfying solution. But among the script's strong achievements is the tightly wound Mr. Dori, an undeniably good — if authoritarian — teacher who's proud that his kids score in the state's top 5 percent, and bristles at the insinuation that spurring them to achieve doesn't prove that he cares. Theatre 40 on the Beverly Hills High School campus, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; in rep, call for schedule; thru March 9. (310) 364-0535. (Amy Nicholson)
GO POOR BEAST IN THE RAIN It sometimes seems that Irish writers are the only ones who can still write a traditional, realistic genre drama with conviction, and without deconstructing, satirizing or saturating it in irony. Billy Roche's play is set in a betting shop in the town of Wexford, during the All-Ireland Hurling Finals. Ten years ago, local bad boy Danger Doyle (Andrew Connolly) ran off to England with the wife of ineffectual Steven (Michael O'Hagan), who runs the betting shop with the assistance of his pretty daughter, Eileen (Kate Steele). In his absence, Danger has been mythologized by young Georgie (Christopher Carley) and Joe (Kevin Kearns). When Danger unexpectedly returns as a diminished figure, but still strong and undeluded, his arrival is the catalyst for disillusion among the others, including his bitter former lover, Molly (Joanne Whalley). He tells her, "Whatever it is you think I took from you, I haven't got it." It's a skillfully written piece, beautifully acted and finely articulated by director Wilson Milam. The production's only serious defect is that the Irish dialect is occasionally almost impenetrable. Laura Fine Hawke provides the large, detailed and atmospheric set. MATRIX THEATRE, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 16. (323) 960-4420 or www.salemktheatreco.org. A Salem K Theatre Co. production. (Neal Weaver)
GO ROBOTS VS. FAKE ROBOTS In playwright David Largman Murray's clever dark comedy set in the year 6000, it's still the cool kids against the dweebs, only this time, the cool kids are supersmart, superbeautiful robots, while the dweebs are, well, us. In a postapocalyptic world, a physically perfect, godlike race of robots frolics in its own underground city, while its human creators live in squalor on the surface. Dressed in immaculate white suits and looking like living Vogue ads, the robots spend their days re-enacting tableaux of human history while slaughtering errant humans who fall into their lair. Into this world comes Joe (Steven Connell), a ragged human, who dreams of becoming a robot himself. Dumping his doting human girlfriend (the beautifully warm Ida Dervish), Joe sneaks inside the robot city, and, with the Machiavellian assistance of the robot king (Greg Crooks, nicely jaundiced), he becomes the perfect New Model. With its unexpectedly nuanced undercurrents of melancholy and sharp irony, director Emily Weisberg's production possesses a snap that draws us in from its first, dazzlingly choreographed moments. Murray's deft and penetrating dialogue, which boasts both comic timing and perceptive emotional awareness, elegantly focuses the play's theme on the tragedy of unrequited desire. The ensemble, particularly the cast of often unbearably cruel robot beauties, is enthralling — it powerfully depicts the contrast between the glamorous, selfish immortal robots and human despair. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 15. (310) 396-3680, Ext. 3. A Push to Talk Theater Company production. (Paul Birchall)
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THEATER PICK SEXY LAUNDRY In the American premiere of Michele Rimi's look at making love in middle age, Alice Lane (Frances Fisher) brings her reluctant husband, Henry (Paul Ben-Victor), along with a copy of Sex for Dummies, to a fabulously expensive hotel in hopes of rekindling their romance. From the start, Joel Daavid's production design is striking, creating the hotel's lush atmosphere with a beautiful blend of naturalistic detail and minimalism. Despite such sexy surroundings, Alice and Henry's conversation quickly degenerates into a series of arguments about everything from the thin towels to fantasies of seduction by Italian baristas. While their sparring provides much hilarity, between the barbs are painful and touching moments of a couple scraping the dark corners of their marriage. Their digs at each other bring to mind George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but their tenderness, as well as the play's economy, sets them apart from the famously tormented pair in Albee's marital slugfest. Both Fisher and Ben-Victor are masterful in their roles, embodying characters who have us in stitches one minute and teary-eyed the next. Gary Blumsack's direction is equally nuanced and dynamic, using the entire stage and allowing the characters to live and breathe in between lines. The only minor drawback is Christopher Game's cinematic musical underscoring, which distracts from the verbal fireworks. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Westlake; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 16. (213) 389-9680. (Mayank Keshaviah)
STADIUM DEVILDARE: BATTLE FOR G*DZILLA X Playwright Ruth Margraff's engrossing, surreal opus is an ungodly anime-style love child of Finnegans Wake and American Gladiators. And, although the piece's narrative imperfections and marginally impenetrable writing style threaten to overburden the show, the creativity of co-directors Richard Werner and Karen Jean Martinson's production makes for jaw-droppingly weird fun. At the Stadium Devildare, the world's superhero warriors battle for the right to win the mighty Suit of Guts and Glory. With rivals including the diabolical Frank Zappa-mustachioed Dazzler Brothers (Justin Brinsfield and Jennifer Ann Evans) and Lone Wolf Reiko (Hiwa Bourne, resplendent in a Xena cave-lady outfit), hunky American hero Game Boy Palaiologoi (Jonathan Klein) has his work cut out for himself. During the play's best moments, Werner and Martinson ensure that the stage crackles with bizarre incidents. In one battle, the Dazzler Brothers wield a gigantic, comical cardboard bulldozer that crushes all in its path, and during another, a seemingly random audience member is yanked out of her seat to be devoured by a gigantic anime snake. Unfortunately, Margraff's dialogue suffers from disjointed, dense and needlessly talky verbiage, which veers from non sequiturs to ham-fisted mock-Japanese poetry. Still, the hilarious ensemble work boasts exciting turns from Brinsfield and Evans — while the romance that develops between Game Boy and Lone Wolf is unexpectedly tender. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 22. (323) 856-8611. (Paul Birchall)
GO STUPID KIDS Playwright John C. Russell might have been a fly on the wall in the school cafeteria when he wrote this endearing and insightful teen drama about sex and power in a suburban American high school, aptly named Joe McCarthy High. Jim (Michael Grant Terry) and Judy (Tessa Thomson) are two blessedly beautiful people, attracted to each other and with enough quirkiness to keep them from running with the herd. The pair tread the borders of peer acceptance by befriending two outsiders, Neechee (Ryan Spahn) and Kimberly (Kelly Schumann). Gay and "geeky," the latter are smart, sensitive would-be poets. The affections of all get tested when the ruling school clan — led by Judy's discarded ex-boyfriend — demands that Jim and Judy cut their ties to their loyal friends, as well as undergo ritual humiliation, before being accepted into the in-crowd. Directed by Michael Matthews, the four-person ensemble is spot-on from first moment to last — each crafting a distinct and beguiling persona. Indeed, scanning the predominantly aging audience, I saw many, like myself, recalling their own vulnerable juvenescence, with its roller-coasting blend of exuberant narcissism, raging hormones and emotional volatility. The piped-in rock & roll sounds canny, but Marvin Tunney's choreography furnishes yet another plus, with one solo gambol by Thompson being a special treat. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 23. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. (Deborah Klugman)
VOICES FROM OKINAWA There must be merit in John Shirota's study of an American (one-quarter Okinawan) who's teaching English in the land of his great-grandfather, but I found it shrouded in the sentimentality of old-world mysticism and the well-trod humor from cultural divides, as Jama Hutchins (the ingratiating Joseph Kim) tries to get his shy students to tell their stories in English, which leads to painfully expansive recitations in Pidgin English. Under Tim Dang's direction, we see the mostly muted and occasionally open hostility toward U.S. troops, against the story-in-the-wind of an Okinawan girl being raped by an American GI. This confrontation would seem a perfect opening for an examination of Okinawan-vs.-American sensibilities, but Shirota and Dang settle for the soft-shoe belief that a mystery can be fathomed with a kind of storytelling where conflict is muted beyond recognition. This play isn't merely delicate, it's inert. Amy Hill turns in a sweet rendition of Hutchins' 90-some-year-old distant relative, who is both feisty and wise, naturally. East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 9. (213) 625-7000. (Steven Leigh Morris)