ASSES & ELEPHANTS Playwright Suzanne Bressler’s sweet but unevenly executed romantic comedy offers an election-year twist on all themes Romeo and Juliet, in which politics makes for strange bedfellows — or, more accurately, it threatens to prevent the bedfellows from getting to bed. On Election Day 2004, likable young slacker Jake (Brian Kelly), a devoted liberal, decides to throw a house party to celebrate the Dems’ almost certain victory — and he invites Ruby (Kristen Pate), the cute former high school classmate he runs into at a local restaurant. Ruby shows up at the party — but Jake quickly discovers to his horror that she’s a proud Republican with conservative opinions on government bailouts, the Second Amendment, and the War in Iraq. This notwithstanding, Jake hopes to win the lovely girl by pretending to be right-wing, and thereby enraging his pals. Complications ensue when the presidential race takes its abrupt historical turn, forcing Jake to choose between love and politics. Bressler’s comedy boats a genuinely appealing premise for a breakneck romantic farce — and the work cleverly touches on the idea that our times are so politically polarized, it’s hard for love to flourish between people of dissenting opinion. However, the dialogue is top-heavy with uninspired gags and banal exchanges, and the play flounders through an inert midsection. Still, director Elina DeSantos assembles an attractive and energetic ensemble and crafts a production that boasts a variety of intriguing psychological insights. Kelly offers a cleverly nuanced turn as a character consumed by his own self-loathing, as he compromises his beliefs for romance, while Pate’s Republican beauty is believably sincere. The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; added perf election night, Nov. 3, 8 p.m.; through November 3. (323) 960-7711. Election Night Productions. (Paul Birchall)
GO FAITHFUL Tautly directed by Mikey Myers, Chazz Palminteri’s darkly comedic and suspenseful play opens with a pajama-clothed Margaret (Reamy Hall) tied to a chair, held at gunpoint by Tony (John Collela), a mafia hit man hired by her wealthy husband, Jack (Jim Roof). The phone becomes a character in the play, as Tony awaits a two-ring signal indicating that Jack has established his alibi. But the black-clad assassin is having an existential crisis concerning his sister’s recent death, and keeps calling his neurotic therapist, at whom Tony repeatedly yells, “Stop crying!” The downcast Margaret finally asks Tony to kill her — he owes her as much since he interrupted her suicide. The events unfold on Siegfried Ackermann and Ryan Wilson’s understated yet well-appointed set. Myers’ fast-paced direction is well-matched to Palminteri’s rapid-fire dialogue, which is expertly handled by the three-person cast. Roof is particularly hilarious as the once-cocky and now discombobulated husband. Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 16. (310) 397-3244 or www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. (Sandra Ross)
NIHIL OBSTAT Bill Sterritt’s spare three-character play, set in France in 1095 A.D., centers on the machinations within the papacy in the period just before the Crusades. Pope Urban II (Matt Haught) and the Cardinal (Aaron Preston Crothers) are discussing an impending papal dictum when the Cardinal suggests that the Pope’s speech be reviewed by the local Censor (Chris Pauley). The Pope, believing that he is “cloaked in infallibility,” is aghast at the suggestion, but concedes in order to win the support of the peasants he will send into battle. The Censor, despite his humble origins, defies the Pope when the Cardinal forces his hand, which results in a powerful theological debate on the justification for Holy War. As the Censor grows bolder, we see that this peasant is more honorable and true to his faith than either man of the cloth. While the play initially gets bogged down in its ecclesiastical verbiage, and the parallels to Bush and Cheney are a bit heavy-handed, once the Censor enters the picture, the words come to life and the drama unfolds. Sterritt’s direction paces the dialogue a bit too quickly at first, but the actors eventually slow down, ramping up the tension and the menace within a compact play that runs just under an hour. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 2. (323) 793-2153. A SPQR Stage Company production. (Mayank Keshaviah)
THEATER PICK THE SEQUENCE For over 80 years, theater artists have been trying to make peace with technology and science, fields that would seem to defy the arts — from Elmer Rice’s disturbing 1923 The Adding Machine to Heinar Kipphardt’s 1964 drama, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, to Tom Stoppard’s impenetrable Arcadia in 1993, through David Auburn’s emotionally wrought 2001 psychological exercise, Proof. Generally, though, real science is employed to move the plot along and involve characters without boring the audience with technical details. In Paul Mullin’s new play, The Sequence, however, the protagonist is the scientific inquiry at the heart of the play: the mapping of the human genome. In a very pleasing twist of expectations, some fiercely human, comic moments make for breathtaking dramatic tension — stemming from questions of whether the ultimate credit for unraveling DNA should go to scientist Craig Venter (Hugo Armstrong) or Francis Collins (William Salyers), and whether reporter Kellie Silverstein (Karri Kraus) should get a Pulitzer Prize for writing a story about the two-man race. Mullin’s often outlandish explanations of the subject make for fascinating rapid-fire entertainment that moves from childlike storytelling to music hall and beyond. Director John Langs and his bright (and often overarticulate) actors maneuver with assurance through Mullin’s slippery slopes between reality and fantasy. Gary Smoot’s simple but sharp scenery, Jason H. Thompson’s projections and Jose Lopez’s lighting design present a beautifully crafted visual production. Adding Robbin E. Broad and Joseph M. Wilbur’s pounding sound design creates an even more profound environment. Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Main Stage, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 9. (626) 683-6883. (Tom Provenzano)
GO TWO TRAINS RUNNING The seventh of 10 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles 100 years of African-American history, this production, which runs well over three hours, is one of August Wilson’s talkiest plays. Yet the success of director Israel Hicks’ revival can be attributed to the consistency and quality of the cast. The setting is a Pittsburgh diner, circa 1969, that conveniently serves as a neighborhood hangout. Its owner, Memphis (Glynn Turman), is a shrewd businessman with a soft edge who has some lively patrons: mentally disturbed Hambone (Ellis E. Williams); Wolf (Felton Perry), a numbers man; Holloway (Roger Robinson), a street-corner prophet and believer in magic; and Sterling (Russell Hornsby), an ex-con with more ambition than job prospects. The only woman, Risa (Michole Briana White), is a waitress at the diner who bears horrible, self-inflicted scars on her legs. Not much goes on here. Most of the buzz is generated by the gilded funeral of a slick ghetto preacher named Prophet Samuel, and the pending demolition of the diner. Yet Wilson is a master storyteller, and this play is filled with humorous, engaging dialogue and earthly sagacity. In one hilarious segment, Holloway talks of a grandfather who loved being a slave so much, he wanted to die and pick cotton in heaven for a “white god.” And then there is West (Earl Billings), an undertaker who has grown rich on the misfortunes of the neighborhood. These characters form a curious gestalt that eerily mirrors the tumult of those times and the harsh realities of inner-city life. Edward E. Haynes’ expansive diner set piece works perfectly for the production. Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 Washington Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; through Nov. 9. (323) 964-9766. An Ebony Repertory Theatre production. (Lovell Estell III)
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THE WOMEN Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women is thought of first as an exposé of female competition among a pack of well-groomed wildcats who claw until they draw blood, then outdo each other commiserating. Less remembered is the production’s embodiment of Luce’s curious stance against emotional feminism, as betrayed wife and mother Mary (Vanessa Waters) comes to believe that the cause of her divorce wasn’t that cheap tramp, Crystal Allen (Stephanie O’Neill), but her own pride: Fempowerment, not femme fatales, wrecks homes. “Love has pride in nothing but its own humility,” writes Luce, invoking Kahlil Gibran, and so the challenge of mounting her play is in scaling its icy peaks and humble lows. Director Elise Robertson’s staging stays in the middle ranges. The 15-woman ensemble is fine; the costumes by O’Neill and Rachel Kanouse are great, as are Robertson’s sets. But both the cruelty and the heartbreak are mannered, not meaty. And unlike George Cukor’s triumphant film version, the maids, manicurists and career girls nearly steal the show from under the society dames, though Emma Messenger, as the fatuous breeder Edith Potter, is a vicious riot as she flicks her cigarette ashes over her newborn son. Hayworth Theater, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 1. (323) 960-1054 or www.circustheatricals.com. (Amy Nicholson)