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New Reviews: Clay, Black Watch

CLAY This 80-minute solo show by writer Matt Sax starts off as the story of a white hip-hop performer’s rise to fame, but before the flashbacks dig very far into the background of that artist, Clay, we realize his artistic ascent is only incidental to the telling of his life. Clifford/Clay is a teenage New York suburbanite who experiences the divorce of his parents, the suicide of his mother and his eventual romance with his stepmother. Perhaps more important is the Oedipal showdown he has with his salesman father and Clay’s identification with a new father figure, Sir John. Sir John is a black Brooklyn rapper who teaches shy, nerdy Clifford not only how to bust a rhyme and freestyle, but also to look inward to find artistic authenticity. And this is where Clay inevitably runs smack into clichés. Not only does the story’s feel-good message sound like after-school-special stuff, but it shamelessly relies on a Magical Negro — a wise, genielike figure placed on this earth simply to await the arrival of a confused young white man in need of self-esteem, a few street smarts and some insight into life’s mysteries. Sax, who owns a rubbery face and can mimic a formidable range of sound effects, is a personable performer minted in the Danny Hoch mold, except that he lacks Hoch’s innate toughness — directed by Eric Rosen, Sax always gives you the feeling that he needs you to like him. The show’s spare set (Walt Spangler), stark lighting (Howell Binkley) and percussive sound (Joshua Horvath) are suitably brutal. Center Theatre Group at the KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 14 (no perfs Oct. 2-5). (213) 628-2772. (Steven Mikulan)

GO BLACK WATCH Part docudrama and part ballet, Gregory Burke’s play is an homage to the 300-year-old Scottish Black Watch army regiment, originally clan warriors. Its final phase of amalgamation into other Scottish regiments occurred during its second tour of duty in Iraq (outside Fallujah), scenes of which are played out besides flashbacks/flashforwards to a bar in Fife, where a playwright (Paul Higgins, who doubles as the company sergeant), is trying to gather interviews for a play — this play. Black Watch shares some traits of war dramas we’ve become familiar with and possibly inured to — with the kind of hyperrealistic macho-cursing-aggression-bonding scenes found in, say, John DiFusco’s Tracers. In John Tiffany’s staging of Black Watch, however, the realistic keeps turning surreal and theatrical. This is partly due to Laura Hopkins’ set design, a football-field-shaped stage with audience risers along both lengths, and Tiffany’s staging of some scenes with exaggerated distances between characters in order to amplify the gulfs between them. Letters home are read in sign language — a hauntingly beautiful evocation of lament without a trace of sentimentality. In one scene, what’s essentially a narrated history lesson about the regiment could have been a drab recitation. Instead, throughout the exposition, one soldier gets flipped over the shoulders of his mates, who strip his kilt and calf-protectors, replacing them with a tightly choreographed series of costume changes as locales and wars roll by. (Costumes by Jessica Brettle.) Colin Grenfell’s lighting ranges from shafts of sidelight to hues of night-light green, supported by the visual poetry of Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer’s video design. Right after a joke coming from a nervous patrol in the field, a jolting bomb blast suddenly reveals three bloodied soldiers dangling and twisting, slowly falling like feathers. We’re all too familiar with the mentally unbalanced war vet (Ali Craig) in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, as with grunts’ growing disillusion with a disastrous foreign policy. But it’s intriguing to witness an American war through a Scottish lens — and not just from the sidelines. This is an eerie and moving history of war itself, of its evolving codes of conduct, and honor, told in both a wash of obscenities conjoined with majestical dance, and the kind of swagger that says so much more than words. Scottish National Theatre at UCLA, FREUD PLAYHOUSE; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 14. (310) 206-1144. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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