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Theater Reviews

THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE “Steal lines,” playwright Charles Ludlam advised. “Orchestrate platitudes. Hang them on plots you found somewhere else.” Ludlam followed his own advice, relying constantly on parody, pastiche and occasional plagiarism, but since his scripts were only launching pads for his own brand of inspired lunacy, nobody minded. This piece centers on Chester Nurdiger (Eddie Pratt), a nebbishy pet-shop owner who lives with his doting mother (Diane Frank) and his randy wife, Roxanne (Stacy Marr). When he hires a studly shop assistant, Zach (Robert McCollum), Zach and Roxanne decide to murder Chester and feed his body to the piranhas. Though critics identified the play as a satire on movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it is, in fact, a scene-by-scene, often line-by-line homage to (and rip-off of) a Broadway thriller called Therese, adapted by Thomas Job from Zola’s Therese Racquin, though the final lines are lifted from Camus. Transformed by Ludlam’s fiendish erudition, comic acting and directorial genius, the play was a hit. Here, director William Arrigon gives it a flat-footed, literal production, which only underlines the script’s rickety nature. There are funny moments, however, and Marr often sounds the right note, but the demented Ludlam touch goes missing. LONNY CHAPMAN GROUP REPERTORY THEATER, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; indef. (Note: production is double cast.) (818) 700-4878. (Neal Weaver)

THE DEALER WAS SHOWING SIX William Norrett’s romantic comedy explores the fortunes of two couples who find themselves in Las Vegas during the same weekend. Dr. Douglas Wolanyk (Vaughn Mouton) and his wife Madeline’s (Mona King) relationship is steeped in mediocrity, spurring amusing conversation about hypothetical affairs and “cheat on your wife free” cards as they drive to Vegas. On the other hand, Hollis Templeton (Jason Stafford) and his girlfriend, Stephanie Gormley (Jaclyn Friedlander), are in the throes of young love, though their conversations and movements in the opening scene belie that, seeming forced and stiff. Once the couples arrive in Sin City, drinks are consumed, truths are revealed, and all sorts of hijinks ensue. A particular bright spot in the performance is Greg Kaczynski as the Drunk, who spouts an endless litany of chants, cheers and Run-DMC lyrics as he cleans up at the blackjack table. King also paints a hilarious portrait of a dissatisfied suburban housewife who slathers her issues with a patina of smiles, kisses and small talk. Norrett’s direction improves as the piece progresses, though his attempts to shuffle together highbrow comedy and lowbrow frat jokes don’t always beat the spread. ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru June 17. (818) 202-4120. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO THE HOTHOUSE Harold Pinter wrote this lacerating comedy in 1958, but held back for 22 years before allowing it to be staged — a reluctance difficult to fathom given the work’s scalding humor and scintillating take on the banality of evil. The action takes place in a dehumanizing state institution where the residents, whom we never see, are identified by number rather than name, and where an unexplained birth and an untoward death have both mysteriously transpired. The domineering head honcho, a man named Roote (Abner Genece), is an abusive bureaucrat whom we suspect to be implicated in these sinister events despite his selective amnesia. To shield him from culpability, his chief toady (Art Oden) pins the guilt on an innocuous staffer aptly named Lamb (David Kempen), conveniently rendered blank with shock therapy. Under Christopher Cappiello’s direction, the solid performances nevertheless fall short of rendering a truly Pinteresque universe, though David Permenter’s sound effects are appropriately both comic and creepy. Genece in particular, while eminently watchable, projects his manic-depressive character a bit too broadly. The outstanding exception is Oden, who, operating with masterly reserve, captures the playwright’s sensibility and, ironically, the spotlight. UNKNOWN THEATER, 1110 N. Seward St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru July 1. (323) 466-7781. (Deborah Klugman)

KEEPING FAITH Alex Peabody tells the story of how, as a gay man, he and his partner came to adopt the baby daughter of his partner’s sister, Rachel. A hunger for family underscores the monologue, combined with Peabody’s role as wife and mother — when Rachel was pregnant, Peabody underwent psychosomatic symptoms of pregnancy. The wedding dress of his mother, the onstage rocking chair and shawl of his grandmother, references to ginger snaps and “gentle, love-felt laughter that feels like falling snow” all wrap the piece in a blanket of nostalgia and longing. I’d have given a lot for some subtext or sarcasm or some less earnest variation on Peabody’s scrupulously scrubbed confessional. When Rachel has “second thoughts” about giving up her baby to a gay male couple, or when Peabody finds himself in a very compromised position outside a dance club, or when a woman in the clinic gives him her moralizing opinion, the tension ratchets up for a moment. But for all his candor, Peabody comes off as a sweet child who rarely questions himself in a story that’s more gentle than penetrating. He might check out Michael Kearns’ comparatively textured biographical sketches, and then get back to us. Elizabeth Hyer Rose directs. PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATER, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 25. (310) 822-8392. (Steven Leigh Morris)

ME TOO This new play by a former West Wing writer (Mark Goffman) and the producers of Thank You for Smoking proves that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Based on an actual event, the play deals with a hopeless romantic named Andrew (Jeremy Glazer) who has had a tough time finding love. During a routine visit to his doctor and friend Geoff (Greg Pitts), he connects with Lucy (Danica McKellar) through the Internet and falls hard for her. As Andrew and Lucy’s relationship warms up, Lucy discovers that she has cancer, and in a moment of well-intentioned deception, Andrew pretends to suffer from it as well, believing that his love will make Lucy better. While the play explores some honest emotional territory, its story of the all-too-familiar lovable loser reads more like television with its sitcom-y humor and cuteness. Director Zeke Rettman similarly makes some choices that would play better on the small screen. While McKellar palpably guides us through the emotional swings of a cancer patient, Glazer remains a bit vanilla throughout. Pitts (Mr. “Oh-face” from Office Space), however, shows his serious side and gives a nuanced portrayal of a man in a loveless marriage. Room 9 Entertainment and Garmar Ventures at the STELLA ADLER THEATER, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 25. (323) 960-7745. (Mayank Keshaviah)NAKED IN IDAHO Sean Michael Welch writes normality-with-a-twist tales that work better on paper than onstage. Each in this pair of middling one-acts has a single, outlandish absurdity that jars his average folks from routine, with overblown results. In Boise, Idaho, it’s a Rasputin-looking novelist (Scott Rognlien, with gusto) who narrates, loudly and portentously, the actions of the bored couple (Mark Schrier and Hara Finnegan) one table over; the man and wife (Jake Johnson and Maia Peters) of Try Not to Step on the Naked Man have just inherited from his ever-tasteful Great Aunt Gertrude a bare-assed behemoth named Frank (gentle Michael Cornacchia) who calls himself “Art,” as in “Living Work of.” Welch’s setups and unhinged denouements require directors Aaron Samson and Eric Normington to commit to either playing it straight or playing to the rafters. Frustratingly, they choose instead to play it safe with an unambitious blend of both that offers some laughs at the expense of tension and energy. An uncertain cast seems equally adrift, though the capable Rognlien and Cornacchia — one manic, the other calm — perform like they’re in two different, but quite fine, stagings. THE NEXT ARENA AT THE RAVEN PLAYHOUSE, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 9 p.m.; thru June 17. (818) 771-7202. (Amy Nicholson)

ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL Like the 1998 staged movie parody Reefer Madness, writer Drew Taylor and composer Robert Cioffi’s musical is a jocular sendup of a 1950s film that hyperbolizes on the degenerative effects of marijuana. Perhaps even campier than its ’90s predecessor, this musical staging of One Way Ticket to Hell missteps in featuring songs that, instead of moving the story forward, restate plot points and, in effect, grind the show to a standstill, which wouldn’t be as much a problem if the songs were at all memorable. The cast is great, Josh Prince’s choreography is impressive — especially given the small stage — and Richard Hochberg directs with aplomb. But Taylor’s cloyingly bad jokes, uninspired subject and clumsy attempts at narrative only serve to mock the genuine talent that has gone into mounting this production. The musical Reefer Madness was a wickedly funny parody with vicious subdermal ire for conservative social mores. One Way Ticket to Hell does little more than beg its audience to chuckle at obvious jokes. The 1930s movie Reefer Madness is an extreme example of a misguided and fear-mongering culture, worthy of satire. The movie One Way Ticket to Hell is just a bad film. LEE STRASBERG CREATIVE CENTER, Marilyn Monroe Theater, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 6. (866) 811-4111. (Luis Reyes)

21A Playwright Kevin Kling (Lloyd’s Prayer) seems to have ambiguous feelings about public transportation. 21A is a bus route in Minneapolis, and Kling’s 12 characters are all skillfully played by Eric Hailey. When driver Ron abandons his bus and passengers for a long, contentious coffee break, nobody seems to mind much, despite the presence of a gun-toting loose cannon who fancies himself a Robin Hood of Municipal Transport. The eccentric riders include a middle-aged woman whose husband and cat are both named Bob, two pushy street missionaries, a student, a man who insists desperately that he is “Not Dave!”, a mentally retarded boy and his sly alter ego, and a homeless man suffering from peculiar delusions. To crank up suspense, there’s a gun shot at the end of each monologue, but it’s only near the end that we discover who’s shooting and why. The production’s most ingenious touch involves the use of props to represent the characters, so that all of them can remain on the bus at once, even though Hailey can embody only one at a time. Hailey has a knack for juggling multiple characters and accents, and Ben Kusler’s discreet direction serves to tie up the slightly disjointed proceedings. MET THEATER, Great Scott Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; thru June 21. (323) 957-1152. (Neal Weaver)


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