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Theater Reviews

(Photo by Shashin Desai)

{mosimage}PICK GO A NERVOUS SMILE John Belluso, confined to a wheelchair his entire life due to a bone disorder that restricted muscle strength, died earlier this year at the age of 36, while his career as a nationally prominent playwright was rising. For a glimpse at the kind of talent we lost, see Lynn Ann Bernatowicz’s potent staging of Belluso’s morality play about three parents, after years of physical and emotional exhaustion, choosing to abandon their cerebral palsy–inflicted children in order to offer themselves a reprieve from the life sentence that fate has inflicted upon them. Eileen (Francesca Casale) and Brian’s (Louis Lotorto) marriage is on the rocks. A Vicodin addict and alcoholic with a huge family fortune, Eileen doles out a monthly allowance to her adjunct professor of literature and would-be novelist husband. The couple returns home giggling and tipsy from the funeral of a child of somebody in their support group for parents of children with cerebral palsy. They’re accompanied by Eileen’s former best friend, Nicole (Rebecca Jordan) — herself the mother of a C.B. teenager, and their repartee, laced with repressed sexuality and muted hostility, contains echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s soon clear that the “secret” of an affair between Nicole and Brian is no secret at all; in fact, it’s in Eileen’s plans to allow them to run off to Argentina together, while she flees to a new life in London. They’ll simply dump their daughter on the steps of a nearby hospital, with access to money for whoever adopts her. The legality and morality of child abandonment notwithstanding, the play homes in on what, and whom, they’re abandoning — a child with literary gifts and harrowing sensitivity — so that the play, like all good plays, asks what it means to be human. The cast turn in chiseled performances, though the vodka-swilling, Dostoievsky-spouting Russian maid (Lee DeLong) is something of a cliché. International City Theater at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru July 9. (562) 436-4610. (Steven Leigh Morris)

ACME BETWEEN THE SHEETS Acme’s sketch-comedy ensemble earns the most laughs with its very funny straight men — particularly Brett Sheridan and Bill Kessler. In “Nick’s Name,” Sheridan grapples with a history of stupid decisions that have stuck him with the nickname “Shit Lips” when, in a perfect world, he’d be “Murder Killer.” Kessler holds court as a dude who thinks posing as Art Garfunkel is guaranteed to get him laid. See, chicks will think he’s so sensitive, they won’t even notice that his conversation is less “Scarborough Fair” and more “Git ’er done.” Both succeed by shying away from the overblown hysteria (even in the reaction shots) that overwhelms several of their cast mates and drowns their sketches in the sweat of too much effort. Another weak point is the vampirizing gags — the cooped up astronauts, a guy in a thong — that should have been nailed in their coffins long ago. Still, Kirk Diedrich has a smart bit playing a sellout and, on the whole, the evening zings more than it sags. Travis Oates directs. ACME COMEDY THEATER, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 12. (323) 525-0202. (Amy Nicholson)

GO LA BÊTE Does mediocrity always rise to the top? Is pleasing an audience a crime against art? David Hirson’s farcical portrait of a subsidized troupe of actors in 17th-century France examines these and other timeless questions confronting theater. Elomire (Joe Jordan), the company’s leader, watches as his patron, Prince Conti (Christopher Nieman), and his own colleagues embrace the egocentric histrionics of a street performer named Valere (Dan Mailley). Hirson’s play at first pokes fun at the seemingly pompous Elomire, but eventually an awful truth begins to dawn on us. Director Kiff Scholl’s production is both playful and intelligent. SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru July 23. (310) 281-8337. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Mikulan)

GO BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR Even though he didn’t really want to go, he ended World War I as Canada’s top flying ace with his downing of 72 enemy planes. In this rousing production of writer-composer John Gray’s play with music (piano accompaniment by Jeffrey Rockwell), Larry Cedar portrays our reluctant but eventually enthusiastic hero — and a plethora of supporting players who crossed his life — reliving Bishop’s colorful antics with amiable humor as well as darkness. Under director David Rose’s skilled staging, Cedar offers a meticulous distinctiveness to his characters: from the officious British grand dame who sponsors Bishop for his higher calling, to the French chanteuse sporting a feather boa, to the romantic, doomed fellow pilot. While the piece gives cursory acknowledgement of war’s horrors and its often imperialist nature, it is mainly a celebration of those who, despite — and sometimes because of — these knotty aspects, fight on, and are haunted by the past. COLONY THEATER, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; additional perfs June 24 & July 1, 3 p.m.; July 6 & 13, 8 p.m.; thru July 16. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15. (Martín Hernández)

A HATFUL OF RAIN Michael Vincent Gazzo’s 1955 play is the quintessential Broadway drama of the ’50s, and one of the first plays to deal with drug addiction. Developed out of improvisations at the Actors Studio, it’s set in the aftermath of the Korean War and based on stormy father-son relationships. Ex-G.I. Johnny Pope (John-Dylan Howard) became addicted to painkillers in the veterans hospital and now has a $40-per-day heroin habit, which he conceals from his pregnant wife, Celia (Stephanie Bergman). Feeling lost and neglected, she becomes susceptible to the advances of Johnny’s brother, Polo (Shawn G. Smith), who shares their apartment. The brothers’ lives are also plagued by their self-righteous father (Madden Page), who wields his disapproval like a blackjack. And Johnny is dangerously in hock to his mobster drug dealer (Josh T. Ryan). Director David Blanchard’s production proves more competent than exciting: Bergman seems pallid and passive, and Howard brings a strong sense of reality, but little charisma. Smith’s Polo is sometimes over the top, but, unlike some of his colleagues, he’s always audible. Danny Cistone’s realistic set is filled with authentic period detail, and Andrew Brown’s sound includes pop music of the era. Golden Circle Inc. at META THEATER, 7801 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; indef. (818) 509-7200. (Neal Weaver)

OPEN SECRETS This world premiere of two new one-acts by Dale Wasserman begins with The Stallion Howl, an intimate portrait of a marriage in crisis. Bud Corcoran (Cliff DeYoung), a newspaper editor for a tiny Wisconsin community, desperately misses the excitement of New York City — which he left at the request of Geneva (Gigi Bermingham), the wife he adores, because she desired a peaceful life for their young daughter. But a sudden announcement that she is the heir to the fortune of a deceased playboy throws him into a profound fit of jealousy and distrust. Bermingham’s performance as the wife who refuses to discuss the past is an extraordinary acting turn as she so delicately dances to the tune of Wasserman’s crisp language. Then there’s Boy on the Blacktop Road, the meandering tale of a mysterious boy that aims for psychological and spiritual depth but only succeeds in cryptic tedium. Only director James O’Neil’s creative direction keeps the play from being a total loss. RUBICON THEATER, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura; Wed., 2 & 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru July 9 (ASL perf July 7). (805) 667-2900. (Tom Provenzano)

P.O.P.: The Principles Of Perfection Journalist and author Anthony Mora’s latest offering, a deconstruction of America’s infatuation with pop culture and celebrity, tells the story of Sheri (Melissa Tan), a prissy suburban housewife whose obsessions with her cell phone and a perfect body create an ADD-flavored lifestyle that is falling apart. Surrounded by an inattentive husband, a son who wears red Speedos and constantly speaks in unintelligible British slang, and a best friend whose legs are open more often than 7-Eleven, Sheri is driven to weekly sessions with Dr. Meyers (Kevin T. McCarthy), her twisted therapist who subjects his patients to barrages of abusive epithets and psychological torture to alleviate his own insecurities. Mora clearly has an admirable agenda with this play; however, the piece often reads onstage as it might on the page — too much talk with too little action, leaving the most interesting characters to our offstage imagination, while Christian Kennedy’s direction suffers from a lack of subtlety and nuance. Tan is a lone bright spot in her portrayal of Sheri, but as the play goes along, her vivacity from the opening scene becomes as fleeting as the celebrity status she chases. SIDEWALK STUDIO THEATER, 4150 Riverside Dr., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 22. (818) 558-5702. (Mayank Keshaviah)

PRIME Luke Lehman and Deborah Kassner’s rock musical (music and lyrics by Lehman) follows a young musician named Tanya (Lisa Taylor) on her search for the American Dream. The story begins with Tanya’s romantic breakup and her subsequent decision to drive 3,000 miles west to Los Angeles. However, Tanya’s car breaks down when she hits Santa Cruz, so she never makes it to the City of Angels. She holes up there for a while, falling into romantic relationships with two fellow musicians: first, a sensual female massage therapist (Stephanie Torres) and then Tanya’s roommate, Mark (Lehman). Taylor has a mean set of pipes, and she struts around the stage with confidence and grace. Unfortunately, her lack of chemistry with both of the actors who play her lovers leaves the romantic scenes stilted and uncomfortable to watch. When Act 2 opens, it’s still unclear what Prime is really about. In a belated attempt to tack meaning onto the tale, Mark’s band buddy, Will (also Lehman), sings about the evils of binary code in a song titled “Circuit City” — a gripe about modern technology that comes out of the blue. In the end, the faults of the play itself mirror the missteps in Tanya’s own journey. It is needlessly long and it never quite reaches its destination. Kassner directs. EL PORTAL THEATER, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 1. (866) 811-4111. (Stephanie Lysaght)

GO SALSA SAVED THE GIRLS The title is deceptive — no one gets saved in Rose Martula’s dark comedy. Rough around the edges despite the Versace suit, divorced dad Louie (Mikey Bevoni) arrives at his former wife’s Long Island house to pick up his two precocious daughters in order to “spend some quality time with the little fuckers.” While 17-year-old Sabrina (Lindsay Seim) ignores him, 14-year-old Kai (Suzie Cobb) frantically pirouettes around the living room, desperate for Daddy’s approval. Ex-wife Cali (Sandra Purpuro) makes a flashy entrance — she’s a 30-something hottie who’s anticipating a wild night of clubbing with her date. Although Cali wants Louie and the girls to leave before her date, Bobby (Don Maloney), arrives, Louie won’t go. In fact, no one leaves, and the assembled trade comic barbs as the liquor flows. The improbable entrance of Cali’s ex-boyfriend, Simon (Leon Acord), escalates the tension, and the insults become increasingly cruel and ultimately vicious. Director Joshua Meltzer draws impressive performances from the cast, particularly Purpuro and Maloney, and avoids what easily could have been a static staging. Robinson Royce’s detailed set provides plenty of color. ECLECTIC COMPANY THEATER, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 8. (818) 508-3003. (Sandra Ross)

THE VALUE OF NAMES Actress Norma Silverman (Emily Button) is changing her name — not because it sounds “too Jewish” but to move from out of the shadow cast by her father Benny (George Wyner), a popular sitcom comedian still scarred by memories of the Red Scare blacklist. It’s bad enough for Benny that Norma is taking his divorced wife’s maiden name, but Norma is going to appear in a play topless and, worse, it’s a production directed by the man (Michael Durrell) who betrayed him to HUAC 30 years before. Jeffrey Sweet’s 1983 play dabbles in some interesting themes (cultural assimilation, forgiveness, political memory) and director Stan Roth gets some convincing scenes from his cast, but the story doesn’t seem to know when to get serious and when to lighten up. At times it sounds like one of Benny’s sitcoms, at others it comes across as a Lifetime Channel melodrama. FREMONT CENTER THEATER, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru July 23. (866) 811-4111. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Mikulan)

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