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THE BUSY WORLD IS HUSHED Why do bad things happen to good people? How is it that God not only allows suffering but often appears to engineer it? These existential conundrums, plus a bevy of theological issues about Jesus, abound in playwright Keith Bunin’s weighty, wordy play structured around an Episcopalian minister named Hannah (Judy Jean Berns), her assistant, Brandt (Josh Mann), and her prodigal son, Thomas (Robert Hardin). Long a widow, Hannah spends much time absorbed in Biblical scholarship, and has hired Brandt to ghostwrite a book about a recently uncovered gospel. Fiercely resentful of his mom, Thomas has recently returned home after one of his many wild escapades, in time to fall in love with the shy soft-spoken young writer. The liberal-minded Hannah accepts their relationship and even encourages it, but Thomas remains inexplicably hostile toward her. Indeed, one of the play’s prominent flaws is that it’s never clear why Thomas is so angry; here and elsewhere, the writer’s blueprint for conflict is evident, while the whys and wherefores are not. The problem is exacerbated by Hardin’s display of untempered machismo and, later, grimaced expressions, under Richard Kilroy’s direction. While he lacks range, Mann’s circumscribed performance at least comes across as honest. It’s left to Berns, in the trickiest and most intellectual of the three roles, to shoulder the drama’s emotional weight, which she does with finesse. Meta Theater, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (323) 960-5770. A Bright Eyes Productions production. (Deborah Klugman)
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN Ariel Dorfman’s political/philosophical melodrama centers on Paulina (Hungarian actress Enci), who was tortured and raped while a prisoner of her country’s dictatorship. Now, the dictator has been overthrown, and Paulina’s husband, Gerard (Eric Curtis Johnson), is investigating the crimes of the former regime. But when Dr. Robert Miranda (Benton Jennings) comes to their beach house to visit Gerard, Paulina believes he is the sadistic doctor who once tortured her. While Gerard sleeps, she takes the doctor prisoner, binding and gagging him. What follows is a three-way battle: Paulina is intent on extracting a confession from Miranda and wreaking vengeance, while Gerard opposes vigilante justice, urging her to let the democratic process and the forces of law prevail. Miranda seeks only to preserve his life and escape. Enci provides a strong and eloquent performance, but Dorfman’s carefully contrived play requires a seamless production to be credible, and director Dado is not entirely successful in providing one. Neither Gerard nor Miranda seems strong enough to be serious contenders against Paulina, and a longish scene played out in near-total darkness produced more giggles than dramatic tension. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Dec. 21. A SkyPilot Theatre Production. (800) 838-3006 or www.SkyPilotTheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)
IT’S A PRETTY GOOD LIFE This scattershot and offbeat musical revisiting of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (book credited to Kathleen Cramer, music to J. Raoul Brody, from a story by Cramer, O-Lan Jones and Andrea Stein) is an idiosyncratic concoction, with a few Christmas themes attached. On X-mas Eve, three eccentric, angelic ladies (Jones, Molly Bryant and Martha Gehman) descend on a theater to present a slapdash production of Dickens’ famous story of Scrooge. The so-called “Three Wise Babes” have no props, costumes or actors, and their previous theatrical attempt — a rap production of “The History of Women’s Rights,” set to saxophone — mortally offended their audience. Nevertheless, the women hold some hasty auditions and are pleased when the perfect Scrooge — wheelchair-bound, paraplegic physics genius Stephen “Hawkings” (John Fleck) — careens into the theater, accompanied by his sexy nurse (Ali Tobia). Director Tony Abatemarco’s energetic but occasionally undisciplined staging boasts some impressively creative and comically charged acting but ultimately in the misbegotten service of a random and incoherent text. Cramer’s gags frequently don’t make sense, while Brody’s darkly philosophical songs belong in some other musical. The muddy wind-tunnel acoustics of the Miles Playhouse play havoc with David O’s sprightly musical direction — many of the lyrics are overpowered by the piano. Still, Jones is always a marvel in whatever show she’s in, and here she dazzles as the boisterously witchy “wise babe” who takes on the show-within-a-show’s directorial chores. And Fleck’s magical transformation from paraplegic to repellant Scrooge is a magnificently bug-eyed turn. Miles Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 655-2410. Overtone Industries. (Paul Birchall)
GO KILLING GAME Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s little-known play seems a logical, and theological, extension of his more famous, politically charged Rhinoceros, about the steady conversion of a rural town’s population into pachyderms (stand-ins for the Nazis); here, the setting is an “idyllic city,” where a seemingly passé gathering of people on a street turns bizarre when, one by one, they all drop dead, including two infants in a stroller. Soon, the citizens are told that a mysterious plague has broken out and that the city is to be quarantined, after which all hell breaks loose. We witness scenes of panic, rabid paranoia, murder by gunshots and lots of dying, as the populace reacts much like a horde of lab rats. The grim mis en scène is not without its funnier side, such as when two convicts attempting an escape from jail are given the keys to their freedom by the jailer, but they refuse to leave; or a gathering of snooty uptowners whose serene sense of propertied safety is shattered when death comes calling. Ultimately, the playwright is not really concerned with death but with what happens when mass fear and irrationality seep in and infect the community. Every actor in director Chris Covics’ white-clad, nameless ensemble dies at least once, which makes the proceedings, after a time, rather predictable. But the monotony isn’t seriously contagious and is offset by many thought-provoking, lighter moments. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 466-7781. (Lovell Estell III)
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THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED As Gertrude Stein once put it (but not about this play), “It’s almost about something, and then it’s just not.” Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy brings with it the New York cast that put the play on the map and which secured Julie White a Tony for her role as a Hollywood actors’ agent who fires off scathing retorts with contrapuntal animation and a shit-eating grin. But is it really worth the trouble spending two-plus hours in the theater waiting for said actor (Brian Henderson) and the street hustler (Johnny Galecki) he regularly employs to figure out whether or not they’re really gay, and whether or not they’re really capable of love? If Mitchell (Henderson) comes out of the closet, there goes his career, ’cause a straight guy playing gay is “noble,” whereas a gay guy playing gay is just “boasting.” It’s a play that probes the obvious and discovers almost nothing amidst some sweet repartee, and a quartet of performances (Zoe Lister-Jones plays the hustler’s sardonic girlfriend) that are convincing enough to add the illusion of substance. One brilliant scene in which the actor and the agent interview an offstage playwright for the film rights to the scribe’s openly gay opus snares the Industry’s layers of deception with contemptuous delight. It’s the one scene to which the entire comedy is tethered — philosophically and dramaturgically. As funny as it is, it too pokes at truths so evident, there’s no actual discovery. (Gosh, they lie in Hollywood!) When the play isn’t ripping at such generic truths, it goes after things that just aren’t true. The agent makes a quip about how L.A. has solved the problems of cell phones in the theater by not doing theater. “Choices were made.” Big laugh. At what? A myth about L.A. that’s so false they don’t even believe it in New York anymore. The difference between Beane and Oscar Wilde is that Wilde poked at hypocrisies that were assumed and barely discussed, thereby ripping open some fabric of the culture. Beane tears at threads that are clearly frayed, which is just like a kid firing spit wads from the back of the class just to prove he can. Scott Ellis’ direction is meticulously timed, though the technique used widely across regional theaters of having movable set pieces slips into place with the sound effect of a whoosh, or a reverberating slam – as though lifted from an ancient episode of The Matrix — is fundamentally anti-theatrical and wearisome to those who believe that the possibilities of live theater can rise higher than such cheesy sound effects — and the gaps they’re trying to fill. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 628-2772. A Center Theatre Group production. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO THE LOVER TALKER Deborah Pryor’s mystical potboiler takes us into Romulus Linney turf — the land of Appalachian folklore, where we meet two sisters (Kelley Birney and Stephanie Mitchell) scraping out a roughshod existence in woods rife with sprites. The seductive visits of spirits such as The Red Head (Sharyn Gabriel) and a Pan-like elf named The Love Talker (Sean Galuszka) to the younger sister, Gowdie Blackmun (Mitchell), trigger a brutal protectionist stance by the elder, Bun Blackmun (Birney), based on a combination of Bun’s personal history and perhaps jealousy. Therein lies the glue to the story; far more interesting than the slowly emerging backstory is Pryor’s florid, indigenous poeticism, which carries with it primal philosophies drawn from a stark life, ruminations that cut to the bone of who we are beneath the veneer of our wobbly comfort and confidence. All of this comes wrapped in the authentic rags and dirt of Galuszka’s staging (costumed and choreographed by Gabriel) and Logan Wippern’s ominous lighting design — working together to lift Pryor’s mystery into a visceral event. Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 11. (818) 255-5330. Dancing Barefoot Productions. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS It’s a merry Guy Ritchie Christmas for the British louts in Anthony Neilson’s dark, uneven holiday comedy. Security guard Gary (Doug Newell) finds a short man in glitter and knickers (K.M. Davies) breaking into his London warehouse. (Christie Wright’s set is made of boxes that appear to stretch on endlessly, like Citizen Kane’s Xanadu.) Bound to a chair, the wee bloke tries to convince Gary and his best mate, Simon (Troy Metcalf, a boulder-sized tough), that he’s not a burglar but an elf — or, more precisely, “an employee in an international gift-distribution agency.” Neilson bills his real-time hour-length show as a savagery of Yuletide, and sure enough, the tremulous elf is addicted to a white powder he swears is the spirit of Christmas, and for which the thugs promptly try to shake him and Santa down — even if it ruins Christmas. (Neilson’s one truly bleak gag is that the drug is forbidden for raped children.) The entrance of a headstrong local hooker named Cherry (Nina Silver) demanding Power Rangers for handjobs is a needed jolt of energy, as is the elf’s bribe of wishes in exchange for freedom. Yet, director Robert Pescovitz isn’t able to reconcile the sweetness of Neilson’s spot-on observations of blue-collar holiday blues with his sour frustration vented at his bottom-feeding characters, who are blind to anything greater than their own materialism and misery; we exit with neither redemption nor catharsis. Pasadena Playhouse, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Dec. 20. (800) 595-4849. A Furious Theatre Company production. (Amy Nicholson)
O JERUSALEM Best known for his mild metatheatrics and wistful meditations on the emotional burden of WASP privilege, A.R. Gurney might seem an incongruous choice to dramatize 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not to worry. Gurney’s 2003 romantic fantasy carries nary a trace of political finger- pointing or even cogent analysis. When oil executive – and inveterate lady’s man — Hartwell Clark (Don Schlossman) takes a diplomatic post in Israel as the new, Bush “Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs,” he loses no time in arranging a liaison with old college flame Amira (Lauren Campedelli), a Palestinian Christian. Ignoring the reservations of lifelong friend (and ex-lover) Sally (Gretchen Koerner), Clark meets Amira only to find her fronting an offer from Hamas: Push their latest peace proposal in exchange for the plans to al-Qaeda’s upcoming strike on New York. Clark reluctantly agrees but is too late to avert 9/11 or save his job and marriage, when word of his Amira meetings reach home. Director Tiger Reel and a capable ensemble give the improbable proceedings a spirited production. But their efforts are continually undermined by Gurney’s cloying conceit that the performance is actually a reconstruction of a lost 2003 text being staged in an unspecified future. The device’s perspective allows the play’s dubiously redemptive coda — Clark’s romantic reconciliation with Sally and his transformation into a messiah of world peace — but at a cost of trivializing the convulsive horrors of the more recent past. Chandler Studio, 12443 Chandler Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 7. (800) 838-3006. Presented by The Production Company. (Bill Raden)