THE BALD SOPRANO Eugene Ionescos brilliant absurdist farce unfolds in a universe dislodged from logic and even common sense. Yet, even in this bizarre world, a good laugh is still a good laugh, thanks to director Frederique Michels assured staging that comes marbled in cool irony. A middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Jeff Atik and David E. Frank in drag), relaxes in a suburban living room not far from Paris, after having had a delicious dinner. Mrs. Smith rhapsodizes about the meal, while her genial hubby replies in incomprehensible grunts and gurgles. Suddenly, the Smiths friends, Mrs. and Mr. Martin (Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts), show up on the doorstep and soon the characters are squawking, babbling and ejaculating random bits of nonsense. Are they a pair of typical suburban couples? Or barking animals at the zoo? Its best to simply roll with Ionescos wonderfully random and playfully chaotic plot, which Michel sets with impeccable comic timing. The performers rattle off the non sequiturs with glee and gusto at times the piece resembles a long Monty Python sketch. Franks turn as Mrs. Smith is particularly droll he plays the character as a frumpy suburban matron, but with buggy, lunatic eyes. Atiks harrumphing hubby and Mances seriously deranged Mrs. Martin are vivid, multidimensional characters. CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; thru Dec 16. (310) 319-9939. (Paul Birchall)
DAMN YANKEES As its new artistic director, Jason Alexander is determined to remake the production company Reprise! Broadways Best, which he hopes to shake out of its penchant for the pleasant. His first outing is a reimagining of the classic 1950s white suburban musical about baseball, as a 1980s African-American urban entertainment on the order of Dream Girls. He was given permission by the various estates, so its on the up-and-up, but ignoring how the Adler and Ross score and lyrics dont fit the concept is on the down and down not offensive, just a mismatch. Gone is Ray Walstons conservative, crew-cut devil in favor of Jimmy Earl (played by Cleavant Derricks), who cons an aging baseball fan (gorgeous-voiced Ken Page) into a deal to trade his soul to become a great ball player he becomes Joe Hardy (charming Ty Taylor). Much of the singing is exhilarating Lillias Whites rendition of You Gotta Have Heart, for example, is so powerful, we understand why this great vocalist is here in the tiny role of a neighbor. Alexanders betrayal comes from a string of stale jokes, added for this production. Among them, Jackée Harrys parody of her own hilariously obnoxious television persona from the 90s. Reprise! began with simple concert versions of musicals. In this new vision the show is entirely staged, but with sets and costumes that appear to have been pulled from the mothballs of some provincial Civic Light Opera. UCLA FREUD PLAYHOUSE, Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 18. (310) 825-2101. (Tom Provenzano)
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PICK TONIGHT AT 8:30 Noel Cowards 1936 experiment with a repertory of one-acts emerges with vivacity from the vault of museum theatrics over two evenings. John Iacovellis elegant, moveable sets and A. Jeffrey Schoenbergs gorgeous costumes are perfectly lit by Jose Lopez. The plays are slightly weaker in Part 1: Star Chamber presents a motley group of theater folk planning a charity function. Coward cut it from the 1936 and 1937 editions of the anthology, and this company should have followed suit. We Were Dancing is a fun, slight musical, and director Michael Murray brings out all of its silly joy. The Astonished Heart is a tortured melodrama that Stephanie Shroyers obvious directing skills cant make believable. However, Hands Across the Sea, a comic tour de force Coward created for his friend, Gertrude Lawrence, ends the evening with a joyous, wicked skewering of the upper class. Part 2 of the cycle is nearly flawless, mostly because it boasts some of Cowards most elegant and mature work, but also because of the sparking combination of directors and actors (all double cast). Pre-show, were invited to surround a piano (fine musical direction by Matt Goldsby), singing famous Coward songs as if in a 1930s theatrical party. The evening then segues into Red Peppers, a glimpse into the seedy world of third-rate English music hall entertainment. Director Bob Goldsby then brings to life Fumed Oak, one of Cowards nastiest works about middle-class uglies, in an over-the-top staging that foreshadows Joe Orton. Following intermission, Still Life (made famous later as the film Brief Encounter ) is a drama about an upper-class love affair transpiring in view of workers in a tea shop all of which director Shroyer imbues with emotion, thanks to her remarkable cast. Brendon Fox stages Family Album, an odd parody of operetta that doubles as a gentle study in one familys grieving. Antaeus Theatre Company at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 23. (866) 811-4111. (Tom Provenzano)