In case you're wondering what Rob Kendt has been up to in New York City, since leaving his post as editor of Back Stage West, first look no further than his byline - now Rob Weinert-Kendt. That's what a wedding can do.
He's also been having bowls of matzoh ball soup at the Polish Tea Room with fellow blogger Isaac Butler. Together the pair have concocted the exhaustive, and exhausting, ratings system for New York critics in a new blog called Critic-O-Meter.
It's not as dynamic as Colin Mitchell's L.A.-based website about critics, Bitter Lemons, in which Mitchell not only surveys critical opinions on currently running shows in L.A., he throws in ponderings via occasional posts aptly named "ponderings," on matters germane to the causes and effects of people's opinions about people's opinions about theater productions.
Mitchell's site actually does what Butler and Weinert-Kendt's site claims to do, but doesn't - at least not yet. Both sites cull numerous reviews on a given production - in Critic-O-Meter, that would be every Broadway and off-Broadway production in New York -- giving them a score. I wish they were scoring the quality of the review itself, which would, for once, put the critics in the hot seat, but instead, all of the web-hosts settle for a score that reflects the web-hosts' Consumer Reports interpretation of the review on either a grade scale of A to F (in Critic-O-Meter) and "sweet" to "bitter" in Bitter Lemons. It not only validates the power of the consumer review, it reduces the scope of drama criticism from it's potential to be a conversation to its insistence of being an assessment; it's the logical extension of the San Francisco Chronicle's legendary Little Man hovering over a theater review with a thumbs up or thumbs down, in case you can't be bothered to actually read the review.
Mitchell, however, does engage his readers in a kind of dialogue that keeps calling into question the purpose of and crisis in drama criticism, so that the reviews themselves are nuggets of evidence about larger ideas. Well, sometimes he goes there, and I like it when he does.
Here's how Butler describes his blog's purpose, as theater's answer to the film review compilation site, Rotten Tomatoes:
"Our goal with this site is to give everyone with an interest in New York theatre a one-stop-shop to find out what the critical response has been across the board. Because of time limitations, we are currently only focusing on Broadway and Off-Broadway but hope, should revenue streams allow us to take on more readers and writers, to also cover Off-Off.
"Once all of the reviews are read, graded and excerpted, we assign a number score to each grade. An F- is worth 0, and it goes up one point per increment (F = 1, F+ = 2 etc.) until we get to A+, which equals 14. Then we average them together, and retranslate this new number back into a letter grade."
In addition to scoring each review with a grade, and then scoring the production with a cumulative grade, Butler and Weinert-Kendt provide salient excerpts from the review, with a link to the complete full-length versions of the reviews (as does Mitchell in L.A.) Butler says that this provides readers with both a superficial glimpse of the critical climate, if that's what they want, or the option of digging deeper for more of a comparative analysis. The net effect, Butler says, is to increase conversation about both the plays and their critics, not to diminish it, as his detractors have argued.
I discovered all this New York critic Garrett Eisler's blog, Playgoer, and his posting on Critic-O-Meter drew some of the most scintillating comments I can recall reading, at least recently, about the nature and purpose of theater criticism.
Wrote Silent Nic@Knight: "The Critic-O-Meter is evidence that the final stage in the devolution of the theatre review has arrived. I doubt any reviewer who seriously still attempts criticism appreciates his words being reduced to the equivalent of a grade school report card.
"At least the capsule reviews most of print now offers as their product consists of full sentences. And even pull quotes used in PR consist of complete words, if not full phrases. But Critic-O-Meter encourages the playgoer herd to only read a letter grade to evaluate the relative worth of any theatre experience."
Eisler weighed in that the crisis of criticism is a print phenomenon and he concurred with another respondent that the links to the full articles render the Internet a haven for instant, in-depth research, even more so than the print versions of reviews.
Silent Nic sparked back: "Garrett, I am not attacking Internet writing, unless you consider assigning a letter grade to a theatre review some new genre of writing. But I am attacking the devolution of the theatre review."
Countered Butler: ". . . You begin to realize that there are core issues being debated across the reviews. This is what's most interesting to me, and it's this cross-review discussion that is lacking if you don't read all of the reviews. For example, with A Man For All Seasons the reviews were discussing the following issues:
(1) Frank Langella... brilliant or hammy?
(2) Is the play worth reviving?
(3) Doug Hughes' decision to cut "The Common Man" from the play
Silent Nic returned for a parting shot that lingers blissfully in my mind: "Best of luck to Isaac and Rob on the consumer service they are trying to build, but I don't envy them. Reading and pondering over and over the dramaturgy and metaphysics of "Frank Langella... brilliant or hammy?" and such, sounds like a horrible day job to me."
I like Silent Nic. If pondering the dramaturgy and metaphysics of "Frank Langella . . . brilliant or hammy?" is the standard of comparative criticism that Critic-O-Meter strives for, I'd rather watch reruns of Mr. Ed, where at least there's some excitement. Butler and Weinert-Kendt's noble experiment is built from twigs. If you wish to build a house that will endure, you start with seasoned wood, something that will stand up through time. Silent Nic rightly points out that most print reviews, and the online reviews that emulate them, are primarily consumer reports - twigs - a far cry from the oak of criticism that aims to investigate a production rather than merely judge it. Perhaps, as Butler suggests, examining the way these twigs may or may not intersect in the grand architecture of our arts criticism will lead to some deeper insight about something or other. I don't believe it. But if I'm wrong, please, give me a shout. I'll be the guy watching the talking horse.
Don't be left out in the rain, check out this week's New Theater Reviews
This week's Stage Feature is on adapting the novels Oliver Twist and The Joy Luck Club to the stage.
For COMPLETE THEATER LISTINGS, embedded with the latest NEW THEATER REVIEWS, press the READ ON tab directly below
COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS for November 28-December 4, 2008
(The weekend's New Reviews are embedded in "Continuing Performances" below . You may also be able to search for them by title using your computer's search program.)
Our critics are Paul Birchall, Lovell Estell III, Martin Hernandez, Mayank Keshaviah, Deobrah Klugman, Steven Leigh Morris, Amy Nicholson, Tom Provenzano, Bill Raden, Luis Reyes, Sandra Ross and Neal Weaver. These listings were compiled by Derek Thomas
OPENING THIS WEEK
THE ARK BIG, FAT, FUNTIME HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR Music, dance and comedy sketches, created by Catherine Cronin, Jim Hanna and Helene McCardle. Ark Theater Company, 1647 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; opens Dec. 4; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 13. (323) 969-1707.
ARROZ CON POLLO Edward Hernandez's study of corporate greed. Ruby Theater at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; opens Dec. 4; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-7863.
BELOVED CLARA/ODYSSEY OF LOVE Reading of the letters of Robert and Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, recorded for radio series The Play's the Thing. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Brentwood; Dec. 3-5, 8 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 6, 2:30 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 7, 4 p.m.. (310) 827-0889.
A CHICAGO CHRISTMAS CAROL Charles Dickens' tale, set in 1908 Chicago. Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; opens Nov. 29; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (818) 377-4055.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL STORY Larry Davison reworks Dickens to include traditional holiday songs. Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; opens Nov. 28; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 21, 7 p.m.; Dec. 22-23, 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (626) 256-3809.
THE CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE TALE OF EBENEZER SCROOGE Musical take on the Dickens story, by the Relevant Stage Theatre Company. Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro; Dec. 4-Nov. 6, 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 7, 7 p.m.. (310) 929-8129.
THE EIGHT: REINDEER MONOLOGUES Santa's pack kvetches in Jeff Goode's play. Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., L.A.; opens Nov. 30; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 336-3582.
ELEPHANT THEATRE COMPANY SEASON LAUNCH GALA Includes live music and a silent auction., $30. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, L.A.; Wed., Dec. 3, 7 p.m.. (323) 960-4410.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO: CHRISTMAS EDITION ELATE's salute to old-time radio. Lincoln Stegman Theatre, 6020 Radford Ave., North Hollywood; Sat., Nov. 29, 8 p.m.. (818) 509-0882.
GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW Sketch and improv, directed by Deanna Oliver. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; opens Nov. 28; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; thru Jan. 31, (No perfs Dec. 26-28.). (323) 934-9700.
HOLIDAY FEVER! Yuletide comedy-variety show. Secret Rose Theater, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; opens Nov. 28; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 960-1052.
I LOVE MY WIFE Wife-swapping musical, book and lyrics by Michael Stewart, music by Cy Coleman. Brentwood Theater, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., on the grounds of the Veterans Administration, L.A.; opens Dec. 3; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (310) 825-2101.
IT'S A PRETTY GOOD LIFE A Christmas Carol is cast on opening night, book and lyrics by Kathleen Cramer, music by J. Raoul Brody. Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; opens Nov. 28; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 655-2410.
KEN ROHT'S 99C ONLY CALENDAR GIRL COMPETITION Beauty contest accessorized via the 99 Cent Only Store. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; opens Dec. 4; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (213) 389-3856.
LITTLE WOMEN Adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel, by John Ravold. (In the Studio Theater.). Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; opens Nov. 29; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 7, 2 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 4, 2 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 11, 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 17. (562) 494-1014.
MY TRIP DOWN THE PINK CARPET Life journey of gay actor Leslie Jordan. L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., L.A.; opens Dec. 4; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 860-7300.
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS Two thugs, a hooker and an elf discover the true meaning of Christmas, by Anthony Neilson. (In the Carrie Hamilton Theatre.). Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; opens Nov. 29; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (800) 595-4849.
A SUNDAY MORNING KIND OF GAL Christina Cottles' story of four black women., firstname.lastname@example.org. West Los Angeles College, 9000 Overland Ave., Culver City; Dec. 4-6, 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 7, 3 p.m....
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN LARGER THEATERS REGION-WIDE
BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON There's delicate poetical imagery in Robert Schenkkan's 2005 drama about the meeting of and fleeting romance between two exiles in an Austin suburb. That delicacy, however, is saturated by generic chat between the characters and a somewhat predictable romance. You know a play's in trouble when a gun has to be drawn in order to elicit some palpable drama. That's no slight against the actors -- Demian Bichir and Shannon Cochran -- whose sincere and layered interpretations of a Cuban gardener and his deeply troubled white, female employer keeps the action watchable. This is a play that unearths the past about how they got to where they are -- stories of their respective betrayals, as both victims and perpetrators, their guilt and their defenses as life's hardships have piled up against both of them. So the drama consists of them meeting, courting, spurning that courtship, her regretting their one-night stand, and the stories that spill out of both of them with far too much ease to be an entirely plausible reflection of the grief they've both suffered. Michael Ganio's ornate set consists of an outdoor jungle of pampas-grass for Act 1, which yields to the woman's bedroom in Act 2. It has a kind of cinematic realism that seems at odds with the metaphysics the play is driving at -- where freedom is the freedom to imagine. Neither the play nor the set ask for much imagination on our part. (SLM) Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Dec. 7. (310) 208-5454. http://www.geffenplayhouse.org
GO CHARLES DICKENS' OLIVER TWIST The austere beauty of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's staging (of Neil Barlett's excellent adaptation) comes from a haunting blend of musicality -- the 14 member ensemble sings the opening and closing recitations in a rousing, pitch-perfect a cappella, and much of the theatrical tension comes from the rhythmic clanging of sticks in unison, while Endre Balogh's violin accompaniment tilts the tone away from Dickens' sentimental world of orphans and villains, good and evil, and rich and poor; and into a pool filled with more contradictions and ambiguities. Soojin Lee's costumes capture not only the era, but also the grime and dereliction of Victorian London. Dickens' novel is a saga of human trafficking, and Brian Dare portrays the smudge-faced 10-year old victim, orphan Oliver Twist, with a subtly pained glint in his eye that reflects his punishing fate. Tom Fitzpatrick brings a marvelous gruffness to Fagin, the leader of the pick-pockets who adopts Oliver for a while; Goeff Elliott has delicate turn in drag as proprietress, Mrs. Sowerberry; while Robertson Dean also stands out for his clearly enunciated and richly tempered array of characters. Jill Hill is getting to be mistress of the femme-fatale for this troupe; her "no good deed goes unpunished" Nancy comes packed with understandable paranoia and glimpses of kindness. The director opened the show pleading for contributions as the theater has a campaign for a new theater in Pasadena. "I know it's a bad time," she told the audience, "But we didn't pick the time, the time picked us." She did, however, pick this play, and the time is perfect for it. (SLM) A Noise Within, 234 N. Grand Ave., Glendale; in rep, through Dec. 14; call for schedule. (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1.
GO THE JOY LUCK CLUB The quartet of mothers from Feudal China and their American daughters form the heart of Amy Tan's novel, and her screenplay for Wayne Wang's 1993 film. Susan Kim's stage adaptation, which premiered in New York in 1999, presents an inordinate challenge to any director: keeping the four story threads and their spiraling flashbacks, anchored in 1980s San Francisco, from fraying in the morass of Tan's epic landscape. Jon Lawrence Rivera's staging tackles that challenge head on with the use of John H. Binkley's elegant set and projections that have duel purposes: A kind of suspended parchment scroll unfurls to form the stage floor to unite the whirlwind stories; furthermore, projected titles offer clear chapter headings and the names of characters being "framed," in order to sustain some clarity of focus. The result of Rivera's noble effort is a kind of duel between dramatic unity and the sprawling essence of Kim's adaptation (and Tan's novel.) King Lear, which hangs on the sagas of three daughters and their hubristic father, has a similar theatrical swirl, but imagine adding a fourth daughter, and all their mothers. Rivera gets an array of lovely performances, with particularly striking turns from Celeste Den, Karen Huie and Emily Kuroda. Also Rivera's use of live music adds atmosphere that mostly enhances but occasionally suffocates the tender scenes being played out. (SLM) David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.com. An East West Players production.
LEAVING IOWA Tim Clue and Spike Manton's sentimental comedy about a journalist remembering his Midwestern childhood. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Sun., 2 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 7. (949) 497-2787.
LEND ME A TENOR Ken Ludwig's opera farce. West Valley Playhouse, 7242 Owensmouth Ave., Canoga Park; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 13. (818) 884-1907.
THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED Douglas Carter Beane's celebrity satire. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; Tues., Dec. 2, 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (213) 628-2772.
THE RAINMAKER N. Richard Nash's romance set in a drought-ridden rural town. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; Thurs., Dec. 4, 8 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 5, 8 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 6, 2 & 8 p.m.. (818) 240-0910.
THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT Peter Whelan's talky history drama, set between 1592 and 1593, cuts to the purpose of art. There's no doubt this purpose deserves some explanation in our economic crisis, with soaring debt and unemployment, a time when the arts descend even further on the scale of our national priorities and perceptions - as though they ever resided much beyond the bottom ring of sludge. Whelan's central character is atheist Christopher Marlowe (Gregory Wooddell), around whom Whelan casts an eventually suspenseful mystery leading to Marlowe's murder amidst camps of paranoid royalist Protestants and their Catholic detractors. While the play makes allusions to his Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the author himself is presented as something of a prankster, the kid in the back of the class hurling spitwads at anything and anybody that wields authority. God heads that list, and that's where Marlowe starts in mock poems and prayers, reversing his name by praying to "Dog." And that, ultimately, is art's highest purpose, Marlowe posits - to so upset the presumptions of our theology and even our existence, that new conversations and perceptions might emerge. Among Sir Walter Raleigh (Henri Lubatti) and other Elizabethan rock stars, Marlowe's young peer, Shakespeare (John Sloan), puts in the kind of appearance that calls into questions the authorship of his much of his canon. (Critic Robert Brustein posited similar questions about the originality of Shakespeare's ideas in his Pulitzer nominated comedy, The English Channel.) Marlowe has some great insights about the distinction between a the ideas of a playwright and the ideas of a play. But it's the dank blend of writers and thinkers talking about writing and thinking, and the arch grandeur of Bill Alexander's otherwise nicely sculpted staging, that renders the heart of Whelan's idea about the higher purpose of art as somehow quaint - giving perverse and obviously unintended support to Marlowe's opponents, and all opponents of art as dissent. Amidst the solid and stylish ensemble, Alicia Roper's Audry Walsingham, carrying a perpetual sneer and gravel-voiced articulation, is never less than hypnotic. (SLM) Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Dec. 17. (213) 680-2772.
GO SPRING AWAKENING What's a nice play like you doing in a barn like this? The spectacle here is bewitching and too large for Frank Wedekind's turn-of-last-century story of teenage angst, from which Steven Sater and Dunkan Sheik's touring Broadway-hit musical has been crafted. I found myself more dazzled than moved, but dazzle can be a good thing, and the production is too ornate an accomplishment to be ignored. There's never a dull moment in Michael Mayer's staging, but rarely is there a soulful moment. The story is about social and sexual repression in puritanical Germany, and it arrives here as bloated in style as a rock concert. Lighting designer Kevin Adams provides exactly that ambiance with a plot that flips from washes of lurid red to purple with the stomp of a ten boots, and lighting instruments that float down along the back wall from the rafters, creating the effect of some cosmic galaxy. Bill T. Jones' choreography looms just as large, with, in one song, the company stomping feet in unison as though they were performing Butoh dance in order to arouse the spirits of the dead. On stage, and in on-stage bleachers where members of the company are planted amidst the audience, heads gyrate to and fro as though possessed by demons, which is exactly how the Teutonic society depicted here is trying to make them feel. The paradox is that the sneering Expressionism mingles with the mechanical robotics to such an extent - clearly to reach a house considerably larger than in New York - that the story's underlying sensitivities are tempered, if not eviscerated. One powerful scene that gets short-shrift here is that between teen Melchior (Kyle Riabko) and his peer/lover Wendla (Christy Altomare), out in the country. She goads him to beat her, even playfully, with a switch - because she's sexually aroused by the brutal daily beatings inflicted on her friend, Martha (Sarah Hunt). The scene itself contains disturbing and deeply human revelations about suppressed sadism and masochism that's here treated as broadly and swiftly as in a burlesque, depriving the scene of its core sensuality. Still, the creators and designers are accomplishing exactly what they want as the cast is precision perfect. Moreover, the overinflated scale and hyperactive style of this touring production can't diminish the powerful beauty of Shiek's music and Sater's lyrics. There's scant melody but ample musical motifs that float on intricate, poetical phrases and sophisticated orchestral support, as though from the Suzanne Vega era. (SLM) Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m; Sat., 1 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (no perf Wed., Nov. 5 or Thurs., Nov. 27; no eve perf on Sun., Dec. 7; added perf Mon., Nov. 24, 8 p.m. and Thurs., Dec. 4, 2 p.m.); through Dec. 7. (213) 628-2772.
THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE Jon Van Druten's WWII romantic comedy. Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 30. (562) 494-1014.
GOM WICKED In this musical riff on the witches of Oz (by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Hollzman), Joe Mantello directs a marvelous spectacle that looks like a diversion but is actually quite the opposite. Eden Espinoza as the green-skinned, bespectacled girl-witch Elphaba has a contagiously smart appeal. After recognizing that Elphaba's not going to power-play along with the Wizard's (John Rubinstein) Stalinist shenanigans, Mrs. Morrible (the delightful Carol Kane), starts a witch hunt for the girl, and the whole thing starts to resemble some of the tawdrier chapters in American history. (SLM). Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 11. (213) 365-3500.
XANADU Roller-disco musical based on the 1980 film, book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 31. (858) 550-1010.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED IN HOLLYWOOD, WEST HOLLYWOOD AND THE DOWNTOWN AREAS
GO ALL ABOUT WALKEN So these eight Christopher Walken impersonators glide onstage, strutting and yowling and wearing bad wigs. Most are decent Walkens, and the best have mastered the piranha stare and elastic enunciation that snaps the ends of syllables like rubber bands. Walken's gleeful insanity is realized when director Patrick O'Sullivan challenges his band of Walkens to new Walken frontiers -- an all-Walken Wizard of Oz, a loopy feminine spray commercial, a Q&A called "Talking to Walken," and a threatening karaoke cover of "These Boots Were Made for..." (AN). Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 18. (310) 663-4050.
BABY IT'S YOU! Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's musical about the discovery of girl group the Shirelles. Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; Sun., 3 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (800) 595-4849.
GO BACKSEATS & BATHROOM STALLS It used to be said that comedy was about the restoration of the social order. But writer Rob Mersola seems intent on demonstrating that, at ground level, there is no social order. His extravagant farce extracts its laughs from its characters' miseries and sexual misadventures. Both Josie (Sadie Alexandru) and Elaine (Jeni Persons) are driven by self-loathing and murderous sexual competitiveness. Josie is having an affair with priapic film student Harlan (Michael Alperin) who just wants admiration and sexual servicing, and it doesn't much matter from whom. He's also engaging in anonymous erotic encounters with Josie's gay room-mate Calvin (Joshua Bitton). Elaine is engaged to a gay man (Daniel Ponickly) who's in deep denial of his homosexuality, despite his obsessive pursuit of anonymous men's room sex. Stirring the mix is Giuseppe (Anil Kumar), a relentless seducer who utilizes his claim of prophetic powers to win over both women. Mersola is a clever writer, who exploits the tried-and-true farce structure to engineer a funny final scene in which all the characters are brought together to have their lies, deceptions and shenanigans unmasked. A skillful cast meticulously mines the laughs in this crowd-pleasing date show. (NW) The Lyric Hyperion Theatre Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; call for schedule; thru Dec. 13. (323) 960-7829 or http://www.plays411.com/backseats An E. 4th Street Production.
BILL W. AND DR. BOB The story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey. Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-7827.
THE BUSY WORLD IS HUSHED Keith Bunin's drama about a Bible scholar, her son and a ghostwriter. Meta Theater, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (323) 960-5770.
GO CUTE WITH CHRIS: LIVE Aside from his TV career, Canadian actor Chris Leavins made his name creating one of the most popular series on the Internet - 100,000 hits per show by using a $300 videocam and uploading broadcasts of himself, in his apartment (somewhere between Silver Lake and Echo Park, to judge from the images he beams onto a screen in his one-man show), and showing photographs of people's cute pets that he's solicited. His one-hour live performance is a kind comic exegesis on the essence of "cute" -- and his larger purpose - residing somewhere between that of David Lettteman and Ira Glass, is trying to find the stories that bind us. In cream suit and sneakers, Leavins' humor derives partly from his slightly forlorn expression, which he beams out like a laser whenever the audience responds with "ooohs" and "aahs" to the broadcast picture of a baby kangaroo in a pouch, or a kitten with a bow. No sentimentalist, Leavins deadpans that "cute" last about six weeks; then you're in for 12 years of cat poop and matted fur. His broader cultural insight is on the fleeting value we place on superficial attraction - pet photos that have little purpose to anyone but ourselves and are relegated -- like worn out mementos, the detritus of our lives, perhaps like our lives themselves - to ashes or dust. He found one photo of a woman with a dog that he purchased simply because, he explains, he could not reconcile himself to an image that held so much meaning for somebody at some time being simply forgotten. And so he invented a story around the photo, imbuing it with a new meaning, which is exactly what we do to a photo, or a painting, or a story, that we call a classic. Leavin's droll act as a kind of muted beauty and profundity lurking beneath his otherwise snappy and amiable presentation. (SLM) Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd.; Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; though Dec. 14. (323) 960-7785.
THE DADDY MACHINE Family musical-comedy by Patricia Loughrey and Rayme Sciaroni. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 10:30 a.m. & 1 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 957-1884.
>NEW REVIEW DADDY'S DYIN' WHO'S GOT THE WILL More than 20 years after its Los Angeles debut, Del Shores' comedy about a dysfunctional family in 1986 Texas is still good for laughs. Director Jeff Murray has here substituted the "white trash" clan with an African-American cast. Family patriarch Buford Turnover (Sy Richardson) has one foot in the grave, and his children can't wait to get their hands on his will. Sara Lee (Regan Carrington) is a luckless-in-love spinster who dutifully tends to the old man. Her sister Lurlene (Michele Harrell) is a religious zealot, while Evalita (Taji Coleman), a trampy, six time divorcee, shows up with a pot smoking, long-haired "hippie" (Matt Skaja). Orville (Hardia Madden), is the sole male heir with a ton of emotional baggage, who constantly berates his overweight wife (Pam Trotter). Then there's the spirited elder Mama Willis (Baadja-Lynne), whose sharp tongue and iron will keeps the brood in line. For most of the evening, it's funny watching this caustic mix of vipers playing head games and sniping at each other. Shores dialogue is blisteringly caustic and funny, but sometimes these qualities don't emerge forcefully enough under Murray's understated direction. The production is double cast. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. LA.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 954-9795. (Lovell Estell III)
Daddy's Dyin' Who's Got the Will Photo by R.S. Bailey
DARK SIDE OF THE MOON Interpretive piece set to the music of Pink Floyd. Next Stage Theater, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., Second Floor, L.A.; Sun., 8 & 9:30 p.m.. (323) 850-7827.
GO EAT THE RUNT What a discomfiting feeling it is to be reviewing a play in a theater with only two other people behind me (this play deserves an audience) - a play about a theater critic (Peter Leake) named The Man (a name that serves up far more credit than is deserved) who is kidnapped and brutalized for his scathing review in The Fresno Bee of a new work by a blowhard playwright named Buck Lone (Robert Riechel, Jr., who did actually write this play). Mr. Lone may or may not have used a gun in the apprehension of the drama critic from his bed (he shows up in pajamas, blindfolded and gagged). We first see him dragged into Lone's grubby basement apartment (set by Adam Haas Hunter), punctuated by a poster of Samuel Beckett, who provides the scribe his dark inspiration. The Man is a smart, bitter fellow, an obit writer who takes occasional assignments as the paper's drama critic. (The night before seeing this play, I heard a local arts critic in a theater lobby seething that his paper was now asking him to write obits - so, beyond the obvious metaphor for critics penning last rites, this is art imitating something real that's going on.) Lone's over-sexed, sadistic girlfriend, Hammer (Victoria Engelmaer), provides the third link of a triangle that spins almost off the stage in Riechel's hostage drama, because both the rudely portrayed Hammer (a smart, willing "slut") and Lone's self-evident insanity give long-suffering drama critics a power that exists only in the long-suffering hearts of self-absorbed playwrights, who simply haven't caught on yet that critics don't make much difference. (That's among the reasons their ranks across the nation are diminishing so quickly.) But Riechel hasn't tried to write a play so much about the dire state of the arts as a comedy about the brooding imaginings of one deranged artist, and how any creation can be fairly assessed beyond the narcissism of the creator and the cruelty of the judge. (Leake brings an impassioned credibility to his deep conviction that the world would be a better place if only Lone would stops writing plays.) Riechel has pulled off the rare feat of directing and acting in his own play without running it off the rails. His performance is a terrifying portrait of the walking wounded, with little but vengeance for the critic, and visions in his head of his play starring John Malkovich and being performed by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. (SLM) Hudson Guild Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 13. (323) 960-7721. Living Edge Theaterworks and Red Bark Corp.
THE FACTS OF LIFE: THE LOST EPISODE The '80s sitcom re-imagined with dildos, prostitution and lesbian sex, by Jamie Morris. Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (323) 960-4424.
GO FREAK DANCE: THE FORBIDDEN DIRTY BOOGALOO Much of the propulsion in Matt Besser's dance confection comes from the great breakdance interludes by the Bad Newz Bearz crew. The rest derives from Besser's comic-book satire of self-righteous programs claiming to use the arts to get kids off drugs. Lindsay Hendrickson's staging is perfect. Brian Fountain and Jake Anthony wrote the music. (SLM). Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.. (323) 908-8702.
GEM OF THE OCEAN August Wilson's ten-play chronicle of the 20th century African-American experience is one of the great achievements in dramatic literature. Gem of the Ocean, the first play in the cycle, is probably the playwright's most symbolic and provocative. The setting is 1904, Pittsburgh, a time when many blacks were no better off than they were during chattel slavery. But the home of 287 year old Aunt Ester (alternate Carlease Burke), is a place of rest, refuge and mystery for a colorful group of residents and regulars. Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter) is a boarder/handyman with an angel's heart; Black Mary(Tené Carter Miller) is a long-suffering maid and washerwoman; and her brother Cesar (Rocky Gardiner), a badge-heavy cop with a Napoleon Complex whose primary function is to control the "colored" people of the city. Then there's the rabble-rousing, garrulous Solly Two Kings (a star turn by Adolphus Ward), a former Union scout who helped runaway slaves. When a troubled stranger, Citizen Barlow(Keith Arthur Bolden), steals into the house seeking Ester's magical soul-cleansing powers, it sets off a chain of events that forever alters the lives of all those involved. Gem is a play where grand themes like the connection between past and present, the nature of freedom and spiritual redemption are explored, but you don't get that sense here, at least not in a dynamic fashion. With the exception of Ward, the performances lack the necessary polish and emotional resonance Director Ben Bradley who did brilliant work in Fountain's production of Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is not at his best here, as the pacing at times is far from crisp - though I did see it late in the run. Rounding out the cast is Stephen Marshall. (LE3)The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 16. (323)-663-1525.
GO GOOD BOBBY Few families have commanded more public fascination or newsprint than the Kennedy clan. In his engaging character study, Brian Lee Franklin constructs a compelling portrait of the "other son," Robert Francis, and the historical milieu that shaped him. The play opens at a 1958 subcommittee hearing with "Bobbie" (Franklin) and Senator John McClellan (William Stone Mahoney) aggressively interrogating Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (R.D. Call in a convincing turn) about Joffa's mob connections. From the outset, Franklin creates a profoundly flawed and conflicted image of Kennedy, one that is steadily and skillfully nuanced throughout this production. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in his relationship with his father Joe, (Steve Mendillo), whose vaulting ambition contoured the lives of all of his sons, and whose approval of "good Bobby" was desperately sought by RFK but, according to Franklin's play, never fully realized. We follow RFK's rise to national prominence, his battles during the civil rights era as U.S. Attorney General, his involvement in his brother John's presidential campaign (and more than a few unsavory deeds during that time), the aftermath of JFK's assassination, and Bobby's gradual ascension into the Democratic party's nominee for president in 1968. The script is very well written, and Franklin can be forgiven for some questionable Oliver Stone moments involving a shadowy CIA agent (Jim Metzler). The performances are uniformly high caliber under Pierson Blaetz's fine direction. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Avenue, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m., through November, 23. (323) 655-7679 (Lovell Estell III)
NEW REVIEW GROUNDLINGS SPECIAL LADY FRIEND Although this new mainstage show from the comedy troupe long known as the feeder team for TV hits like Saturday Night Live and MadTV lacks some of the ferocious energy and imaginative edge of several of the company's previous endeavors, the genial collection of comic skits delivers what it promises - an evening of daffy, enjoyable fun. In "Special Delivery", a group of customers at the post office watch helplessly as a mailman (Damon Jones) cheerfully smashes and drop kicks their packages. And in "Hot For Teacher," a new substitute teacher (Lisa Schurga) is reduced to desperate means to fend off a junior high school student (Jim Cashman) who has a crush on her. Although a few sketches - such as the awkward and cringe-inducing audience-suggested improvs - get the better of the cast, director Mitch Silpa's production retains the crisp comic timing and assured ensemble work that maintains the group's sterling comic reputation. Of the cast, standouts include the brilliantly varied turns offered by Jim Rush, who deftly morphs from solemn straight man to gibbering loon, often within the same sketch, and also Jim Cashman, who plays hysterical anger with a comic fury that resembles a male Lucille Ball on crack. Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood; closed. (Paul Birchall)
Groundlings Special Lady Friend
HISTRIONICS This slate of one-acts, based on recorded events, is told through characters forgotten by history. The idea is intriguing, but the end results are far from satisfactory. The dazzling performance of Leigh Anne Goodoff is the only thing that stands out in Michael McKeever's "Laura Keene Goes On." She skillfully channels an egotistical, out-of-sorts thespian backstage on the night of Lincoln's assassination. Ken Brisbois directs his own, very funny "Sticks & Stones," in which a pair of convicts (Scott Rognlien and Rob Smith) share humorous reflections and much agony while hanging on their crosses, awaiting the arrival of J.C. Rognlien directs Sean Presant's "A D-day at the Beach." Here, as elsewhere on the bill, silliness and dull humor pervade: A pair of clueless Brits (Maia Peters and Jason Frost) holiday at Normandy during the historic invasion by Allied forces. Owen Hammer's peurile "Primitive Peoples" finds Ali Kahn as a Meso-American chief whose idyllic life is threatened by the arrival of Europeans and an alien. Pilgrims and Indians share a meal and vapid conversation in Maggie Bandur's "More White Meat," directed by Stuart Meltzer. Here, Khan is quite funny as a native with a surprising strain of sophistication. (LE3) The Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., (no perf. Thanksgiving) through Nov. 30. (323) 805-9355. Produced by The Next Arena.
>NEW REVIEW THE HOLY MOTHER OF HADLEY, NEW YORK What demons lurk among the populace of small town America? In Barbara Wiechmann's pretentious drama, it isn't evil spirits but the Virgin Mary who has the citizens of Hadley, New York (population 2020) aflutter. After an apparition alights in one woman's kitchen, the word spreads. Soon other people purport to have seen, felt or spoken with Mary, whose less than benign message is that the judgment is coming. Framed by a pompous pseudo-profound narration (Joel Scher, in the role of narrator, gets mired in the schlock) the script winds through a plethora of soap operatic plots involving dead or abandoned babies, sick and crotchety old people and troubled families or lovers. Conspicuously missing from the dialogue is any shred of irony or humor. Lots of good talent seems utterly wasted here, and it's a mystery why the producers from this usually savvy company opted to mount this. Under Jerry Kernion's direction, most members of the disciplined ensemble rise admirably above the material, in what for me unfolded as a series of very good, albeit unrelated, scene study showcases. The best work is from Michelle Gardner, who imparts an earthy down-to-earth vigor (and a touch of comedy as well) to her role as a troubled divorced mom and questioning Catholic. As with the performances, designer S. Wince Logan's set creates an artful autumnal ambience for what should have been a better play. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (323) 856-8611. (Deborah Klugman)
Holy Mother of Hadley, New York Photo by Peter Gref
INTO THE WOODS Brothers Grimm characters interact, in James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's musical. Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (323) 939-9220.
JANE AUSTEN UNSCRIPTED Austen-esque tales, improv'd anew each night. Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. (323) 960-7753.
> GO JOE'S GARAGE Joe (Jason Paige) wants to play music. But after a neighbor (Maia Madison) files a noise complaint with the cops on his garage band, Joe and his girl Mary (Becky Wahlstrom) fall prey to a domino chain of gang rape, venereal disease, wet t-shirt contests, prison time, cyborg threesomes, and madness. What's to blame? "Music," hisses the Central Scrutinizer (Michael Dunn), a robot narrator dangling from the rafters -- certainly not the religious and government figures who sure seem to be pulling the strings. Like novelist Terry Southern, Frank Zappa's weapon against hypocrisy was to confront audiences with a circus mirror of their culture's greed and lust. Some saw their reflection; others argued Zappa was warped. Pat Towne and Michael Franco's world premiere staging of Zappa's narrative album crackles with outrage and grief masked by a leer --- Jennifer Lettelleir choreographs plenty of sex, but like Robert Crumb's comics, it's more repellent than titillating. Musical director Ross Wright and the seven piece band help the snappy ensemble animize Zappa's eclectic sound which ranges from dissonant juggernauts to deceptively sweet ditties. Per Zappa's request, the song "Watermelon in Easter Hay" plays once his hapless everyman has succumbed to creative censorship; the band puts down their instruments, turns off the lights, and cues Zappa's original version. In that isolating darkness, Zappa's limber guitar feels like a lifeline -- we're struck by our need for music, and our need for today's apolitical musicians to break loose and write the next chorus. (AN) Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 20. (323) 882-6912,
>NEW REVIEW KIDNAPPED BY CRAIGSLIST Katie Goan and Nitra Gutierrez's romp of comedy sketches derived from Craigslist postings offers a facile glimpse at our cultural oddities. In New York, it was performed with four actors, but here, with the looser guidelines of the actors' union, Actors' Equity, director Lori Evans Taylor has hired 11 comedians for a what's designed as a kind of Victorian carnival with hints of the electronic age. Matt Maenpaa's opulent set features a velvet red curtain, a precariously dangling chandelier and wooden crates and closets, through which the actors appear and retreat, as though we're in something between an attic and the backstage area of Barnum and Bailey's tent. Marina Mouhibian's georgeous vaudevillian costumes bring vivid texture to this circus of inter-personal desperation, perversity, fury and embarrassment. One scene is dedicated to an apology by a woman (Shelby Kyle) for passing wind, loudly, during a date and, again, while having sex. Amy Motta is all flash and tinsel as the carny barker guiding us through the network of misunderstandings and missed connections, such as her sweetly rendered ballad requesting her new boyfriend to lay off the sodomy, and the faux-indignance of a gay man (Eric Bunton) having to endure the sight of a teenage man lolling around nude near his bedroom window in the stifling heat. These are highlights, but Taylor pushes the jokes too hard, beyond the range of their own humor, revealing the superficial essence of the project, like a less than enthralling episode of Saturday Night Live. Elephant Lab Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (added perfs Dec. 6 & 13, 10 p.m.; Dec. 18, 8 p.m.); through Dec. 20. (323) 860-8786. Produced by TheSpyAnts. (Steven Leigh Morris)
Kidnapped by Craigslist Photo by Jeff Ellingson
KILLING GAME Plague outbreak panics city, by Eugene Ionesco. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 466-7781.
LATINOLOGUES TU Rick Najera's comedy showcase. Hayworth Theater, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 10 p.m.; thru Dec. 27. (213) 289-9860.
LONGSHOTS Dakota Aesquivel's four-part Hitchcockian anthology. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 14, (No perfs Nov. 27-30.). (323) 960-7846.
>NEW REVIEW LOST About to lose his job and seething-with rage in general, and road rage in particular, Man (Kevin Vavasseur) gets lost on a mountain road outside L.A., while seeking a shortcut home. The fantasy dramatized in playwright Bernardo Solano's ambitious, provocative yet ultimately pedestrian drama is so allegorical, Man may as well be Everyman, on a journey into the unknown. But Solano doesn't have that morality play in mind; rather, the Columbian legend of La Madremonte - a mythical goddess and punishing defender of the environment. Here she's named Woman (Marissa Garcia), a sensuous beauty whom Man picks up on the side of the road after noticing her stranded on the roadside with a car breakdown. Her erotic come-ons (want a bite of my nectarine? - as she slurps the juice while cradling the fruit in a napkin) render the drama a head-trip in which reality, Man's reality that is, slip-slides in and out of imaginings, including a car crash that may or may not be real, sort of like his passenger. This is a portrait of a lonely man with an ungrateful wife and a hole in his heart, bruised to the point of maddening defensiveness while barely clutching to some fragile code of loyalty, and being tested by this phantom-in-distress. The drama, directed by Tina Sanchez, played out in two adjacent car seats is too static to be cinematic, despite an impressive ride-film backdrop of a mountain road at dusk, perpetually slipping away, projected behind the car seats. Nor is the play particularly theatrical for exactly the same reason - two people sitting still and having a conversation. The dramatic motion is as illusory as the play's female phantom. The Genet-like psychological gamesmanship between the pair wears down after the metaphors have sunk in, which is by intermission, if not sooner. These dramatic potholes might not have been so evident were the chemistry between the actors more convincing. Garcia possesses a snappy, free-wheeling seductiveness and mystery that keeps bouncing off the steely facade of Vavasseur's resistance. He's a man-child, perpetually half a beat behind her, and its hard to discern if that's an issue with the character or the performance. Sanchez has cast four actors who rotate with different partners each performance, so there may yet be a sizzling combination that will lift the play into something transcendent. The Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., Third Floor; downtown; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (323) 883-1717. A Company of Angels production. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO LOUIS AND KEELY LIVE AT THE SAHARA You can find several clips of singer-partners Louis Prima and Keely Smith, with a small jazz combo behind them, on YouTube. The pair practically invented the genre of the lounge act, playing as they did during much of the 1950s at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, lingering on the margins of fame. Think of them as antecedents to Sonny and Cher, or a musical version of Abbott and Costello. Smith was the "straight-man" woman and long-suffering wife of the hyperactive, philandering Prima, whom you'll see hopping in front of the bandstand like a maniac, throwing his entire body into each beat, a grin plastered across his face, the biggest ham since Hamlet. Keep these tiny-screen presences in mind when you see Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder's sublime new musical about the duo and their tempestuous life on and off stage, Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara.Certainly not the first musical to chronicle a musical group -- other recent entries include Pump Boys and Dinettes and Jersey Boys -- this has to be the first one to take a lounge act seriously, rather than as a spittoon for gobs of ridicule. In a glorious world-premiere production directed by Jeremy Aldridge for Hollywood's Sacred Fools Theater Company, Prima and Smith are re-created with accuracy and richness -- perhaps because the writers are also the leading players. Vanessa Claire Smith's cropped brunette 'do apes that of Keely Smith's, a look that Liza Minnelli adopted later -- though the silky, tender singing style of both Smiths couldn't be more contrary to Minnelli's comparatively ostentatious, belting interpretations. Prima had a more gruff sound than that depicted by Broder, whose sculpted, jazzy tones more closely resemble Bobby Darin's. What Broder delivers in thunderbolts, though, is Prima's exuberant, maniacal self-choreography -- leaping, lurching, swaying and sashaying. Why this guy is jumping around so much becomes the musical's central question. The answer to that question could come with dismissing Prima as a narcissistic clown, The creators, however, treat their subject with far more compassion than that, as Prima's plight approaches tragedy. (Broder played Mozart in the Broadway production of Amadeus, which provides a small window onto the vainglorious hysteria that Broder depicts here so brilliantly.) He croons in musical styles from '20s Dixieland jazz through '30s swing, '40s big band and '50s scat -- and their accompanying lingo ("cats," "chicks" and "gigs"). Broder's song-and-dance routine, capturing Prima's cocky romantic domination over Smith, as well as his solipsistic devotion to his music, is a bravura performance not to be missed. And having an onstage, seven-piece backup band (doubling as supporting players) doubles the impact, particularly with sounds so carefully modulated by musical director Dennis Kaye. A piano, two saxophones, a string bass, drum set, a trumpet and trombone, all on the stage of this 99-seat theater, places us in the equivalent of a small recording studio. When the band hits its stride with enveloping riffs of Dixieland blues and Big Band stylings, hang on to your seat. The musical current is that strong. This journey through Prima's life comes on the eve of his death in 1978. (Smith is still alive and thriving.) Though it sweeps in biographical details from the '20s -- his "craziness," he says, captured hearts during the Great Depression -- the story kicks into gear during the late '40s with its AStar is Born plot featuring Smith as the ingenue who saves Prima's foundering big-band act and resurrects it with a '50s spin in Las Vegas. And though he's doing all the jumping and prancing, and giving all the orders, the newspaper reviews focus on her talents, not his. Prima's jealousy erupts, not so much in offstage screaming matches (he barely speaks to her) but in the tensions that escalate on the stage, which everyone can see, and which perversely renders their act more popular. He actually encourages the onstage hostility, for just that reason. And so, through 16 songs (ranging from "Basin Street Blues," "That Old Black Magic,"and "I've Got You Under My Skin" to the song that defined Prima's career, the medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody") one passionate love and cruel marriage is played out almost entirely between the lines. If the purpose of musical theater is to express in song what can't be expressed in mere words, this is about as perfect as a musical can get. It's simple without being simplistic, summing up 80 years of gender relations in 90 minutes. Yet this is not just a musical about men and women but about life, and art as an expression of it; the devastating costs of recklessly turning a private life into a public one; and that old, blinding obsession with fame. Smith's desperate words accompany her tortured decision to leave her husband, "Life is happening right in your face and you don't even notice. You don't hear anything unless it's in the key of B flat!" I walked out of the theater wrenched by a depth of emotion that seemed to make no sense, coming from a musical about the quaint saga of an almost forgotten lounge act. That's when I realized I'd been punched in the gut and didn't even know it. It was a delayed reaction to the blow landed in Broder's reprise of "I Ain't Got Nobody." He just kept on singing that refrain, as the band packed up and left him there, until his death bed slowly rolled in. What may first look like a musical comedy is actually a musical tragedy, ancient Greek style: the deluded protagonist who's undone by hubris and sent into exile.Exile was a bad end for Oedipus, but imagine if Oedipus' delusions included eternal celebrity from a Las Vegas lounge act. The program cover contains the slogan, "Nothing lasts forever." I hope this show does. (SLM) Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru December. (800) 838-3006, www.louiskeelyshow.com. Note: This production has changed venue since this review.
THE LOVE TALKER Suspense tale by Deborah Pryor about two sisters orphaned on a remote mountain. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Through Dec. 4, 8 p.m.. (818) 255-5330.
GO LOVELACE: A ROCK OPERA Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, wrote four autobiographies that muddled, not clarified, her unusual life. In the first two, she was a nympho; the second two, a victim. In all, however, her husband Chuck Traynor (here, played biliously by Jimmy Swan) is clearly a sleaze who lured her into prostitution. Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey's dark and haunting musical is anti-pimp, not anti-porn, even though the two are inextricably linked. Ken Sawyer's well-staged production is fated to descend into hellish reds and writhing bodies, yet it's shot through with beauty and sometimes even hope. As Linda, Katrina Lenk is sensational -- she has a dozen nuanced smiles that range from innocent to shattered to grateful, in order to express whatever passes as kindness when, say, a male co-star (Josh Greene) promises to make their scene fun. Waronker and Caffey were members of two major girl bands, That Dog and The Go-Go's respectively, and their music -- with its keyboards, cellos, and thrumming guitars -- has a pop catchiness that works even with the bleakest lyrics, some originally written by Jeffery Leonard Bowman. Though the facts of Linda's past went with her and Chuck to the grave (both died within months of each other in 2002), there's strong evidence that her life was even worse than the musical's ending suggests, but it's cathartic to watch her stand strong and sing of her hard-fought independence before flashing lights that, in ironic defiance of the play's title, beam out her real name: Linda Boreman. (AN) Hayworth Theater, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-4442, www.plays411.com.
THE MAGIC STRING Egomaniacal would-be writer Cody is more inclined to harangues than normal conversation. His therapist tells him his blockage is due to selfishness, and urges him to live for others. He obediently complies by adopting an obsessive-compulsive carpet-sweeper salesman addicted to marathon apologies. After too many jumpy scenes about Cody's literary constipation, playwright/director Nicole Hoelle engineers an arbitrary happy ending. (NW). Mount Hollywood Congregational Church, 4607 Prospect Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.. (323) 663-6577.
GO MISS WITHERSPOON Set against the firmament of Stephen Gifford's minimalist set, this West Coast premiere of Christopher Durang's exploration of the afterlife begins with chunks of NASA's Skylab falling from the sky and Chicken Little scurrying across the stage to sound the alarm. After the dust has settled, Veronica (Kelly Lloyd) finds herself dead and in a liminal place called bardo, where she is greeted by Maryamma (Pia Ambardar), a loose representation of Hindu spirituality who expounds on the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation -- and insists on calling her Miss Witherspoon. Much against her will, Miss Witherspoon is reincarnated a number of times, coming back as a baby to two radically different families, as well as a dog. During each reincarnation, Miss Witherspoon commits suicide because she "wants to be unplugged" and can't believe that "this [life] goes on forever." Nonetheless, Maryamma patiently guides Witherspoon towards true wisdom, receiving assistance from a black, female Jesus (LeShay Tomlinson) as well as a Wise Man (Andrew Morris) who resembles Gandalf. Lloyd navigates her character transitions brilliantly and is utterly convincing in each. Ambardar, despite slipping in and out of her Indian accent, has great energy and provides much of the comedy in the piece. Joel Swetow's direction sets the appropriately outrageous tone for a Durang play, and EB Brooks' costumes and Suzy Starling's props bring its absurdity to life. (MK) El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 14. (323) 460-4443. A West Coast Ensemble Production.
A MULHOLLAND CHRISTMAS CAROL Bill Robens' musical Dickens satire. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 19, 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (310) 281-8337.
GO NORTH PHILLY Ralph Harris' one-man show is the latest in a slew of recently performed, compelling solo performances (including Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill's Common Air, Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale, and Jay Sefton's The Most Mediocre Story Never Told) that offer a portrait of a community, or of a family, with one performer crawling inside and impersonating a gallery of characters floating around a central idea, replicating the motion of moths around a light. In North Philly, the centerpiece is the 94th birthday party for his grandfather. Yet Harris goes beyond imitating his eccentric family members who gather for the occasion. In a snappy tan vest and matching trousers, he drapes himself over a barstool and spins himself back to his childhood, where every dollar was counted and coveted - imitating himself as a child, precocious and fearful. The musculature of the piece, as in most shows of this ilk, derives from the cadences and colloquialisms of dialect, accentuated by Don Reed's studied direction. Depicting himself as a child, Harris reenacts having to play "retarded" on the street in order to protect himself from being beaten up and robbed by the local gang. The performance is as rich as the writing: from details of the "wet money" he would always carry, from having to stuff dollar bills into his mouth as a protection from being robbed; to catching ringworm in a local swimming pool; to his grandfather's "sliding" dentures. In one scene, Harris conjures his estranged father's wedding day. This does raise the question of how Harris, Jr. would have obtained that insight, a quibble in a haunting show that also needs an editor and possibly a dramaturg. The play's final portrait of Harris' 94-year-old grandfather, facing down a gunman in the post office, is brilliant for its physical and vocal detail, as well as its blend of drama and wisdom. It's the light around which the other stories flutter, yet it's still a random source of the piece's chaotic unity - perhaps because the grandfather has no interaction with the other characters whom Harris has introduced us to. North Philly is nonetheless a compassionate and often enchanting work in development. (SLM) Stella Adler Theater, 6773, Hollywood Boulevard, Second Floor; Wed., 8 p.m.; through December 17. (323) 960-7612.
... OF ALL PLACES The 2008 "Freeway Series" of original one-acts. Write Act Theater, 6128 Yucca St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 469-3113.
GO POINT BREAK LIVE! Jaime Keeling's merciless skewering of the 1991 hyper-action flick starring Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey is loaded with laughs as well as surprises, like picking an audience member to play Reeve's role of Special Agent Johnny Utah. It's damn good fun, cleverly staged by directors Eve Hars, Thomas Blake and George Spielvogel. (LE3). Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.. (866) 811-4111.
SEE HOW WE ARE Short plays by Michelle Kholos Brooks. Hollywood Court Theatre, Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., L.A.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 30. (323) 664-9752.
SERIAL KILLERS Late-night serialized stories, voted on by the audience to determine which ones continue. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Sat., 11 p.m.. (310) 281-8337.
>NEW REVIEW SHOCK THERAPY Psychiatrist Colin (Scott Paulin) and his painter wife, Becca (Lisa Robbins), are throwing a Labor Day bash. But Colin specializes in treating neurotic celebrities, who are so needy and demanding that they keep him glued to his cell-phone. He's too preoccupied to notice that his daughter (Sophie Ullett) is planning to run away from home, or that his wife is involved in a love-affair with his boorishly obnoxious colleague Branch (Gregg Henry), who specializes in dubious drug therapies. Also on the premises are April, a famous woman psychiatrist (Cece Antoinette, in a shamefully under-developed role), and mysterious stranger Jack (Matthew Glave), an ex-con who takes them all hostage. He's hell-bent on extracting financial restitution for the death of his cell-mate, who supposedly died as a result of Branch's drug experiments. Playwright Tom Baum seems to have intended to write a satire on our "therapized world," and there is some amusing psychobabble, but any ideas the playwright harbored get lost in the trappings of a lame, old-fashioned farce. Director Jenny O'Hara has gathered an able cast and mounted an expert and expensive production, but they can't conceal the play's meager purpose. Matt Maenpaa and Adam Hunter provide the airily handsome set, with detailed sound design by Matthew Richter. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Dec.7. (323) 960-4420 or www.plays411.com/shocktherapy. (Neal Weaver)
Shock Therapy Photo by Jenny O'Hara
GO SONG OF EXTINCTION E.M. Lewis' haunting drama unfolds on a set bracketed by shadowboxes filled with butterflies, bells, maps, plants, and pictures of Cambodian refugees, presumably dead. Three biologists have three different views on extinction: One, a monomaniac named Ellery (Michael Shutt) is committed to preserving a Bolivian beetle; the second, Ellery's terminally-ill wife, Lily (Lori Yeghiayan), has resigned herself to her impending death that nobody else seem to care about. death; and the third, Khim Phan (a brilliant perforance of understated strength by Darrell Kunitomi), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, tries to teach Ellery's and Lily's bitter son, Max (Will Faught), and the rest of his high school students that the eradication of a species demands reverence, regret, and resignation. (As the last in his family, his own genetic tree is slated to die. ) The interplay of the three in Lewis' smart and honest script is one small push away from collective transcendence, as we're asked to tie the threads together ourselves. Lewis avoids easy sentimentality. Ellery and Lily aren't shedding tears over the future they've lost; their estranged relationship is not just hollow, but hostile, and we're not sure of the root. Aided by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's fine set, director Heidi Helen Davis finds beauty in death, staging it as a boat ride into the jungle with showers of butterflies -- a gorgeous counterpoint to Phan's pronouncement that "extinction is a very messy business." (AN) [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (323) 461-3673. A Moving Arts production.
SUPER SEXY SHOW Every first and third Thursday, the Hollywood Pin-up Girls provide spiced-up cabaret fare. El Cid, 4212 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Third Thursday of every month; First Thursday of every month.; thru Dec. 24. (323) 668-0318.
TAMALES DE PUERCO Trilingual play about a tamale vendor, by Mercedes Floresislas. Casa 0101, 2009 E. First St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 7. (323) 263-7684.
TILTED FRAME Multimedia improv comedy, directed by Patrick Bristow and Matthew Quinn. Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., 8:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (323) 960-7753.
THE TOMORROW SHOW Late-night variety show created by Craig Anton, Ron Lynch and Brendon Small. Steve Allen Theater, at the Center for Inquiry-West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Sat., midnight. (323) 960-7785.
VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SUNDAY All-new sketch and improv by the Sunday Company. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.. (323) 934-9700.
WEST SIDE STORY Gang-bang musical, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-7712.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED IN THE VALLEYS
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN Former political prisoner confronts her torturer, by Ariel Dorfman. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 791-2320.
ELOVE - A MUSICAL.COM/EDY This world premiere musical by Wayland Pickard explores an online romance between an older man and woman who are newly single. After a website called "eLove" matches Frank (Lloyd Pedersen) and Carol (Bobbi Stamm), love seems to blossom as they begin chatting online. The opening number "I'm Single" has a catchy tune with some clever lyrics; unfortunately the highlight of the show comes five minutes in. The rest devolves into repetitive and unimaginative quips punctuated by musical numbers that plunge from the pedestrian to something akin to theme songs from '80s sitcoms. Pickard does everything in this production but act; his staging lends it a one-dimensional quality that might have been avoided with greater collaboration. He is so focused on trying to milk puns for laughs that his direction employs hackneyed devices such as talking to pets and monologues delivered out to the audience. Stamm stumbles over one too many lines, though she and Pederson have pleasant voices, but Chris Winfield's cramped set allows them little freedom to physically explore their characters. The piece, in effect, becomes an Ed Sullivan-style stand-up routine with dialogue so trite, it makes George Lucas look like Edward Albee. (MK) NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m. (Dec. 5-21 only); Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 21. (323) 822-7898. An Angry Amish Production.
FAHRENHEIT 451 Ray Bradbury's book burner. Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 960-4451.
INSIDE PRIVATE LIVES provides a platform for audience members to interact with infamous or celebrated personages from the 20th century, as recreated by the ensemble in a series of monologues. The show's efforts to dismantle the fourth wall yield tame results at best. One problem involves timeliness. The night I attended, the lineup (which varies from night to night) included Christine Jorgenson, Billy Carter, David Koresh, Julia Phillips, Elia Kazan and Marge Schott. None of these people are in the limelight today and - with the exception of Kazan -- their public lives, once deemed provocative, no longer seem controversial or even relevant. (How much more volcanic the show might have been had we been able to challenge Karl Rove or Eliot Spitzer, or the current media queen bee, Sarah Palin.). Another drawback is relying on the audience for conflict: Even primed with pre-show champagne, my fellow theater-goers' questions, though earnestly exhorted, induced only scant dramatic dustup. And the monologues themselves , developed collaboratively by creator-producer Kristin Stone, director Michael Cohn and the individual performers, were uneven in quality. Three performances succeeded: Adam LeBow's intense Kazan, Mary McDonald's bitingly comic Schott, and Leonora Gershman, on target as Hollywood bad girl, Julia Phillips. But Stone's flirty Jorgenson, Bryan Safi's sloppily inebriated Carter and David Shofner's non-compelling Koresh all lacked persuasiveness, and some of the too-familiar liberties taken with audience members were just embarrassing. (DK) Fremont Center Theatre, 1000 Fremont Avenue, South Pasadena; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru November. (866) 811-4111.
INSPECTING CAROL Community theater attempts to mount A Christmas Carol, by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 28. (818) 700-4878.
IT'S JUST SEX Jeff Gould's comedy about "marriage, fidelity, lust and trust.". Two Roads Theater, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 28. (818) 762-2282.
MAGIC? MAYBE ... Jennifer Emily McLean's fantasy about a young woman who denounces magic. Two Roads Theater, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; Sun., 11 a.m.; thru Dec. 7. (323) 636-9661.
O JERUSALEM A.R. Gurney's tragicomedy about an oil executive turned Mideast diplomat. Chandler Studio, 12443 Chandler Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 7, (No perf Nov. 28). (800) 838-3006.
SHANGHAI MOON Charles Busch's film noir satire. Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (818) 500-7200.
THYESTES' FEAST In the very good monologue that opens writer-director Peter Wing Healey's uneven tragedy, the Sun (Bridgette Trahan) argues the primacy of the Greek classics, plays that "rise above the evening news." Contridictorily, the play's contemporary resonance isn't dug out of the myth but spackled over it. Here, the vengeful House of Atreus is here a tale of economics, not of blood guilt or cursed inheritance. King Thystes (Robert Long) is a social democrat ruling over ingrates: the communist peasants are restless and the capitalist gentry is transferring allegiance to his cutthroat brother Atreus (Clint Steinhauser). In another dig to the ribs, Atreus' cabinet occasionally adopts a Crawford, Texas twang and the actor cast as Thystes is slim, young, even-tempered, and black. When Atreus tricks his brother into eating his own sons, instead of recalling their grandfather Tantalus' forays into cannibalism, we're meant to think of Karl Rove trying to stick mud to his rivals. Much of this distracts from, not enriches the myth, as does the direction which jumps from burlesque to Expressionist to Shakespearean within a single scene, and casting that also favors eclecticism over ability. A monologue recited in a sheep's bray only distracts the audience from paying attention to its crucial content. Costume designer Karolyn Küsel's costumes, however, are fabulous, particularly in her frocks for Healey who plays the two-timing Queen Aerope in larger-than-life drag. (AN) Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 30. (323) 960-7745.
WITTE'S END Evan Keliher's comedy about a suicidal screenwriter. Riprap Studio Theatre, 5755 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 10, (No perfs Nov. 27-30 & Dec. 26-28.). (818) 990-7498.
>NEW REVIEW THEATER PICK WOYZECK 19th Century German playwright Georg Büchner's an unfinished horror story of the common man crushed by military and medical machines, has been fodder for myriad adaptations throughout the last century, and there's no sign of its relevance or resonance abating. Woyzeck (Christian Levatino) is a troubled soldier, barely able to support his unhappy and unfaithful lover, Marie (Sierra Fisk), and their infant son. To make ends meet he volunteers to perform petty tasks for his Captain (Allen Andrews) and submits to abasing medical tests, predicated on a diet of only dried peas. The more his body and mind deteriorate from his treatment, the more he is targeted by for abuse from everyone around him. Director Bob McDonald places the action in a nebulous world of contemporary western politics and military confusion. Despite his rapid pacing, he mines every powerful emotion and moments of ugliness and cruelty in stark detail. Areta Mackelvie's outstanding light design is the more impressive in this small, spartan space and its obviously limited supply of lighting instruments. Married to the fine lighting is a sharp and sometimes shocking sound design by Adam Phalen that magnifies McDonald's intensity. My only quibble comes with several comic interludes that seem a bit forced in the style of a British music hall, taking it out of the present-day hell so vividly imagined by the creators. Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (818) 841-5422. A Gangbusters Theatre Company production. (Tom Provenzano)
YO HO HO! A PIRATE'S CHRISTMAS Pirates kidnap Santa Claus, book by James J. Mellon, music and lyrics by Mellon and Scott DeTurk. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 28. (818) 508-7101.
THE YEAR OF THE HIKER John B. Keane's play about the return of a man who, 20 years before, left his family to hike through Ireland. The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 7. (818) 846-5323.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS LOCATED ON THE WESTSIDE AND BEACH TOWNS
GO THE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME You'd think, from reading the world press, that racism and, by extension, classism, had suddenly been vanquished from the nation - overnight, by a stunning national election. Such is the power of symbolism and hope. Sooner or later, we will settle into a more realistic view of who we are, and were, and how we have evolved in ways perhaps more subtle than the current "we are the world" emotional gush would lead one to believe. It's in this more self-critical (rather than celebratory) frame of mind that Molière's 1670 comedy - a satire of snobbery and social climbing - will find its relevance renewed. For now, however, Frederique Michel (who directed the play) and Charles Duncombe's fresh and bawdy translation-adaptation serves up a bouquet of comedic delights that offer the caution that -- though celebrating a milestone on the path of social opportunity is worthy of many tears of joy -- perhaps we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves with self-congratulation. The Bourgeois Gentleman was first presented the year after Tartuffe, and it contains many of the hallmarks of its more famous cousin: a deluded and pompous protagonist (Jeff Atik); a con man (Troy Dunn) aiming for social advancement by speculating on the blind arrogance of his patron; and the imposition of an arranged marriage, by the insane master of the house, for his crest-fallen daughter (Alisha Nichols). The play was originally written as a ballet-farce, for which composer Jean-Baptiste Lully performed in the production before the court of Louis XIV. Michel's visually opulent staging features scenery (designed by Duncombe) that includes a pair of chandeliers, and costumes (by Josephine Poinsot) in shades of red, maroon and black. Michel employs Lully's music in a nod to the original. (The singing is far too thin even to support the jokes about its competence.) Michel also includes a lovely ballet by performers in mesmerizing "tears of a clown" masks, a choreographed prance of the fops, and she has characters bounding and spinning during otherwise realistic conversations, in order to mock style over substance. Comedy has a maximum refrigeration temperature of 75 degrees, and when that temperature was exceeded during Act 1 on the performance I attended, the humor ran off the tracks - despite the broad style being sustained with conviction by the performers. By Act 2, the heat problem had been remedied and the comedy started playing again as it should. In fact, I haven't seen a comic tour de force the likes of Atik's Monseiur Jordain since Alan Bomenfeld's King Ubu at A Noise Within. As Jourdain is trying to woo a countess (the striking Deborah Knox), Atik plays him attired in silks and bows of Ottoman extravagance, with a blissfully stupid expression - every dart of his eyes reveals Jordain's smug self-satisfaction that's embedded with delirious ignorance. (SLM) City Garage, 1340½ (alley) Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 319-9939.
DESPERATE WRITERS Joshua Grenrock and Catherine Schreiber's showbiz satire. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (800) 595-4849.
GO FATA MORGANA Hungarian playwright Ernest Vajda is perhaps best known for the screenplays he wrote for director Ernst Lubitsch (including that for The Merry Widow) but this forgotten gem of a romantic comedy, written in 1915, with a tempestuous young man-meets-older woman love affair at its core, is an engrossing, emotionally nuanced oddity. Innocent teenager George (Michael Hanson), a provincial boy living in his family's isolated chateau in the Hungarian countryside, finds his life turned upside down when his distant cousin's wife, Mathilde (Ursula Brooks), a sultry vixen ten years his senior, arrives from the city for a vacation. In a twist of fate that would not seem out of place in the Hungarian 1915 issue of Penthouse Forum, Mathilde shows up on the doorstep while George's parents just happen to be out for the evening -- and she almost instantly beds the virginal, horny young man, who afterwards falls in love with her. Complications ensue when Mathilde's pompous lawyer husband (Scott Conte) arrives at the house the next morning. Although Vajda's three act comedy occasionally falls pray to patches of inert dialogue, director Marilyn Fox's psychologically assured production, blessed by Audrey Eisner's gorgeous period costumes, possesses a delicate, melancholy emotional truth. In this fragile relationship. Mathilde, who knows the boy better than he knows himself, adores the idea of living forever in the young man's memory. Performances are deft and multidimensional, particularly Brooks' inscrutable older beauty. (PB) Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 822-8392.
NEW REVIEW THE KENTUCKY CYCLE: PART I When the late Manny Farber criticized formally sterile, self-aggrandizing movies with his coinage, "white elephant art," he might well have had Robert Schenkkan's overblown, nine-play historical saga in mind. Schenkkan's ambition is certainly mammoth -- a politically corrected recasting of American history as an unbroken chain of avarice, violence and victimization all told through the fatefully intertwined lives of three, eastern Kentucky mountain clans. Part I, which follows the Biggs, Rowen and Talbert family feud from the Revolution through the Civil War, is high in both melodramatic incident and body count. Miscreant patriarch Michael Rowen (David Vegh) commits enough murders in the first hour to give Ted Bundy a run for his money. But what makes the play a stuffed pachyderm rather than the unique work of personal vision worthy of Farber's praise is Shenkkan's stubbornly pedestrian language and preference for the big theme over carefully observed characterization. There's much dialogue about the patch of bottom land that sparks the epic bloodbath, but little of the nuance or poetry that might bring the antebellum landscape to dramatic life. Director Trevor Biship contributes little more than the odd (and sometimes strangely ghoulish) stage flourish. When it comes to suggesting some deeper, inner life to the characters, therefore, the onus falls squarely on the ensemble. To that end, the craggy faced Vegh is a double delight both as the villainous Michael and his scripture-quoting, sociopath grandson, Ezekiel. And Kyle Hall brings a fine sense of flawed nobility to the Civil War-era Rowen, Jed. National Guard Armory, 854 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Fri., 8 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; through Dec. 13. (562) 985-5526. (Bill Raden)
LIONS Vince Melocchi's new play features nine men and a woman decaying slowing in a private watering hole during an major economic slump -- this major economic slump. Set during the 2007/2008 football season, Melocchi's story centers on John Waite (Matt McKenzie), an unemployed metalworker whose desire to see the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl supplants all other priorities in his life. As his immutable pride keeps him from opportunity, he grows sour and angry, a textured and nuanced transformation that McKenzie performs poetically, even at explosive heights of cursing and fighting. The rest of the denizens seem to spiral around him, perhaps sinking into his black hole of self worth. Director Guillermo Cienfuegos allows us to spend time with each of the hopeless, revealing the play's pith and brutality with a sensitive hand. But this tends to expose the play's relatively minor weaknesses: the conveniently contrived exits and entrances, the shapelessness of some of the relationships -- especially considering the large cast, clumsy dialogue that sometimes spills awkwardly into scenes. The strong ensemble, though, piles through these uneven aspects to deliver an all around touching portrait of middle America, a reminder that "real Americans" need not be so reductively characterized as simply Joe the Plumber. (LR) Pacific Resident Theater, 705 ½ Venice Blvd., Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; no perf. Thanksgiving weekend; thru Dec. 7. (310) 822-8392.
MADE ME NUCLEAR On March 1, 2006, singer-songwriter Charlie Lustman was informed by his doctor that he had a rare OsteoSarcoma (bone cancer) of the upper jaw. What followed was a grueling and painful siege of therapies, involving radiation injected into his body, surgery removing three quarters of his jawbone, surgical reconstruction, and extensive chemotherapy. When, after two years of treatment, he was declared cancer free, he created this touching 12-song cycle about his experiences. He sings about the bone-numbing shock and terror of being told he had cancer, his fear of death and sense of helplessness, the solace provided him by his loyal wife, his children and his doctors, memory problems caused by his chemo (mercifully temporary), and so on. But the tone is more celebratory than grim: he's determinedly life-affirming, full of hope and gratitude, and his songs are pitched in an intimate, jazzy, bluesy style. He's an engaging and personable performer (thanks in part to his skillful doctors), who brings rueful humor and mischief to a tale that might have been unrelievedly grim. If anything, tries a bit too hard to keep things light. We need a bit of scarifying detail if we're to appreciate his remarkable resilience and optimism. (NW) Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Dec. 27. (866) 468-3399 or http://www.MadeMeNuclear.com Produced by the Sarcoma Alliance.
A MAJORITY OF ONE In the late 1950s the era of the "well-made-play" was clearly waning. Still, playwrights like Leonard Spigelgass stuck to this form of tightly structured drama, in which societal problems trumped characterization. This chestnut follows the story of Brooklyn Jewish widow Mrs. Jacoby (Paula Prentiss), who carries with her the grief of losing her son to the Japanese in WWII. When her daughter, Alice (Anya Profumo), and son-in-law, Jerome (Ross Benjamin), inform her that they are bound to Japan for the foreign service and wish to take her along, she is dismayed, but ultimately agrees. On the sea crossing she reluctantly befriends Mr. Asano (Sab Shimono), Jerome's diplomatic adversary. Issues of family ties, race and culture are pieced precisely together leading to the appropriate climax and immediate denouement. While the play leans towards the tedious, director Salome Gens nonetheless brings out more characterization than the author offers. Prentiss and Shimono share delightful senses of stage presence - though he tends to be verbally halting and she is often grasping for lines. In an amusing turn, Edison Park play as ne'er-do-well Japanese servant who brings in welcome comic moments. The production is not helped by an oppressive brick wall set (presumable to keep Brooklyn in mind at all times), in which small windows are opened with little bits of evocative visuals for each new scene. This is a failed attempt at scenic Schenectady. (TP) Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 14. (800) 838-3006.
A MAN'S A MAN In an army brigade, three machine-gunners are in immediate need of replacing their fourth, who was recently kidanpped. And so, in Bertolt Brecht's furious early play, they lure a docile man named Galy Gay (Beth Hogan) with whiskey, cigars, and women -- and when he dares to refuse to adopt the missing soldier's name and identity, they give him good reason to by stringing up Galy on nonsensical criminal charges. Meanwhile, opportunistic barkeeper Widow Begbick (Diana Cignoni) -- an early vestige of Mother Courage -- and her troupe of traveling prostitutes scheme to undermine a despotic Sergeant (Will Kepper) while packing up their saloon to follow the army from India into Tibet. (Brecht has slyly populated his India with pagodas and Chinese hucksters in yellowface). Director Ron Sossi has an inconsistent approach to Brecht's stylistics, a flaw most visible in the miscast and misdirected Hogan, who starts off blank and guileless, only to blubber like the heroine of a five-hankie weepie during Galy's tribunal. (Such aggressive emotional manipulation would have been parodied by Brecht.) Already smaller and more fragile than the rest of the pert and heartless ensemble, Hogan's stunt casting works best when Galy, now calling himself Jip, ascends to control the destruction of Tibet like a pint-sized General Patton barking out orders. This Brecht piece is given the over-simplified interpretation of exploring how the trauma of war warps soldiers, but with Hogan so clearly at the reins in the battle scenes, what's indicted here is a callow culture that exploits everyone.(AN) Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 21, (Call for added perfs; no perf Nov. 27.) (310) 477-2055.
NITE CLUB: BUBI'S HIDEAWAY Kenneth Bernard's 1970 avant-garde play. Mandrake Bar, 2692 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Mon., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 1...
ZOMBIE ATTACK! Justin Tanner's tale of the undead. 2nd Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 6. (310) 374-9767.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES OF SPECIAL THEATER EVENTS
BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER The holiday classic, told through the magic of marionettes. (Resv. required.). Bob Baker Marionette Theater, 1345 W. First St., L.A.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 10:30 a.m.; thru Dec. 31. (213) 250-9995.
FACE OF THE WORLD FESTIVAL '08 Solo performance, music and dance. (Call for schedule.). Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.; Fri.-Sun..; thru Dec. 14. (213) 489-0994.
MYSTERIES EN BROCHETTE The beachside hotel dishes out dinner and mystery delights in its Saturday shows with four different performances that alternate., $75, includes dinner. Marina del Rey Hotel, 13534 Bali Way, Marina del Rey; Sat., 7 p.m.. (310) 301-1000.