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Theater Reviews

FENCES The star power behind this revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama is bright but never blinds us to the story’s ferocious generational conflicts or its judgment of American racism. Big-talking, hard-drinking Troy Maxson (Laurence Fishburne) is a former Negro League baseball star now married to pious Rose (Angela Bassett) and to tossing garbage cans in 1957 Pittsburgh. His hostility to sports and life in general is focused on his son, Cory (Bryan Clark), a high-school football player with a shot at a college scholarship, whom he treats with furious scorn. The play has everything: A guilty family secret worthy of Arthur Miller (Troy’s home was paid for with medical payments intended for his disabled brother, Gabriel [Orlando Jones]), a red herring involving Troy’s being given a driver’s job even though he has no license, and a punishment for infidelity that comes with overtones of Greek tragedy. Although Troy and Rose remain vital middle-aged figures, fatigue has soaked into their very bones, and director Sheldon Epps has his actors articulate this in the way Bassett sinks into a chair or Fishburne seems to drag the weight of those trash cans whenever he strides onto the family porch. Epps directs this production with consummate finesse, and the actors make the most of their T-bone roles, but it is Fishburne’s Robeson-esque performance that dominates the evening. PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 & 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 1 (added perf. Sept. 20, 2 p.m.). (626) 356-PLAY or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. (Steven Mikulan)

GANGSTER AND THE CRADLE ROCKERS Twenty years ago, writer-director Louise Newmark lost her son, Donnie, a rocker and part-time coke dealer, to drug-related violence. In this earnest musical, she wrestles with the fate he couldn’t escape despite the love of several good women — herself, his daughters and his two wives, Starr and Pamela (Lisa Robert and Deborah Wood). Miscast as the doomed songwriter, Greg Magnuson has reworked Donnie’s material, and though his mother insists that the lyrics illuminate his struggle, like many other confounding elements in the play, they strike a false note. Packed with coos and tambourines and shouts of “rock and roll!” the band comes off like talented kids playing dress-up. Cartoonish stereotypes continue to undermine the piece, from the outdated slang that clutters up the dialogue to the uncomfortable, offensive choice to make all the baddest baddies minorities — Darin Nathan is double cast as not one but two wasted, gun-waving black men; as the villainous Mexican mafioso, Robert Factor must enter every scene with a hissed “Orale!” Newmark’s sincere intentions give the play its drama, even as the snowballing missteps that crescendo in Act 2 — with a slow-mo fight sequence and a balladeer duet between Electra and Orestes — force the audience into a battle between sympathy and the giggles. ART/WORKS THEATER, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 17. (626) 683-9094. (Amy Nicholson)

MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS Ron Hutchinson’s comedy unfolds during the week in 1939 when movie producer David O. Selznick (Ron Nagle) shut down production of Gone With the Wind, thenhired his friend, screenwriter Ben Hecht (Kip Gilman) to rewrite the screenplay from the ground up in seven days. There’s a bit of condemnation by the Zionist Hecht — a man of deep social principles, but, by his own admission, not deep enough to walk away from a studio paycheck — about the story’s patronizing treatment of blacks, while Selznick doesn’t give two hoots about social politics in his flicks. Rather, he speaks of wanting to prove himself to his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, and of wanting to make one great movie (after a string of flops) before Hollywood’s Golden Age eclipses. For all this, it’s hard to discern Selznick’s core drive, why he believes so strongly in this troubled project, why he would lock himself in a room with Hecht and director Victor Fleming (Greg Mullavey) to hash out a new script. Hutchinson’s play is a nostalgic frolic that traffics in truisms about Hollywood, then brings up issues of heritage and ethnicity, raising the foiled expectation that the comedy might actually penetrate an idea or two. It doesn’t. It’s just a valentine, sort of pointless, sort of fun. Snappy performances under Scott Cummins’ carefully modulated direction keep the show entertaining, and there’s a nice cameo by Lynda Lenet as Selznick’s secretary. See Stage feature next week. ODYSSEY THEATRE ENSEMBLE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (No Wed. perfs Sept. 13, Oct. 18, 25 & Nov. 1; Sun. perfs Oct. 29 & Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. replace 3 p.m. perfs); thru Nov. 5. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SEASON OF CHANGE For political progressives and liberals, singer-songwriter Ed Munter’s “musical of global awareness and positive change” may be inspiring. Through well-crafted rock and blues tunes accompanied by Rashid Lanie on keyboards, Munter implores folks to fight against war, global warming and other human-created devastation. Munter plays a mean guitar and harmonica, under Bryan Rasmussen’s direction, and his show is more of a concert than dramatic story, with the gravel-voiced Munter alternating between channeling Dylan and Springsteen. Munter’s flair for insightful lyrics and political pungency are evident on the stinging anti–Iraq war anthem “The Changing Wind” and “Heavy Weather,” which blasts global warming. But “God Bless Miss Liberty” is politically naive and performed in front of an exultant video of the Statue of Liberty and a waving U.S. flag, taking back images straight out of the radical right’s repertoire. Skirting the complexities of divisive issues such as racism, in songs such as “Simply Love” and “We Are One,” Munter posits — hippielike — that love is the answer to the world’s ills. Been there. Done that. Perhaps with some between-song banter or a dramatic arc describing his political development, Munter’s piece could be more of the “experiment” he’s dubbed it. THE WHITEFIRE THEATRE, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 30. (818) 990-2324. (Martín Hernández)

SISTER CITIES Writer Colette Freedman’s dark comedy about four sisters wrestling with their mom’s suicide features choice dialogue and five interesting female characters — an all-too-rare occurrence in the theater that only fractionally compensates for the play’s loose threads and raw edges. As a lover of life brought low by illness, Mom (Jill Gascoine) has birthed, from four different fathers, a chic and frosty attorney named Carolina (Susan Ziegler); Dallas (Nickella Moschetti), a conservative housewife; Baltimore (Jade Sealey), an unsettled student; and Austin (Freedman), a plain-spoken jeans-clad writer fleeing from her own celebrity. The play’s problems begin with its setup: While their mother’s corpse lies unattended in the bathtub, the gals squabble with such consuming narcissistic heat that the significance — even the very fact — of their mother’s death becomes elusive. Gascoine is persuasive as a dying woman pondering life’s whys and wherefores, but it’s hard to connect this existential self with the person her daughters variously — and inconsistently — describe. As the pivotal manipulator of events, Freedman’s portrayal demands more complexity. Among the siblings, only Moschetti’s color-coordinated housefrau registers on target; under Elise Robertson’s direction, the other performances come across as under-rehearsed and, like the material, highly promising but prematurely staged. CIRCUS THEATRICALS STUDIO THEATRE at THE HAYWORTH, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Tues., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 17. (323) 960-1054. (Deborah Klugman)

THIS IS OUR YOUTH Kenneth Lonergan’s first play begins with a sloppy guy named Dennis Ziegler (Jason Ciok) sitting in his sloppy New York apartment, hypnotized by a small television set. Enter Warren Straub (David Huynh), later described as a “rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel.” Warren has just stolen $15,000 from his abusive lingerie-tycoon father and flown the coop, landing at Dennis’ house. Act 1 is largely devoted to Dennis and Warren’s debate over how to spend their newfound riches, their two most appealing options being girls and drugs. Lonergan’s dialogue is peppered with cruel jabs, but these two actors play up the hate in their relationship to such a degree that it’s difficult to fathom how they became friends in the first place. Ciok’s Dennis is one-note, yelling through every line, and Huynh’s Warren is so tail-between-the-legs nervous that their interactions are painful to watch. The play itself is funny, but this production lacks any semblance of humor. When Jessica Goldman (Kim Kutner) breaks onto the scene, her entry provides some salvation. Kutner’s whip-smart yet inexperienced Jessica is refreshingly layered, and she manages to draw some depth out of Huynh as well. Sadly, however, Jessica leaves toward the middle of Act 2, and the final scene is interminable. THE ACTOR’S PLAYPEN, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 7. (323) 848-2184. (Stephanie Lysaght)

TWENTIETH CENTURY Farceur Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) has streamlined Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s 1932 comedy — which itself was a rewrite of Bruce Millholland’s Napoleon of Broadway. Millholland was a publicist for Morris Gest, a ’20s Broadway producer, and Millholland spun his comedy from observations of Gest on a train from Chicago to New York. Through these two revisions across a century’s divide (not to mention the 1978 musical, On the Twentieth Century, and a pair of film versions), the essence of Millholland’s satire of theater folk, their vanities and solipsistic bluster in Hollywood’s long shadow still resonates — somewhat. Ludwig’s “fix” of MacArthur and Hecht’s rambling structure comes at the cost of some of the original’s charm, and stage producer Oscar Jaffee’s (Jeff Griggs) cavalier dismissal of the value of the Academy Award won by the former showgirl cum actress (Libby West) — whom he’s trying to woo back to the New York stage — is a joke from another century. But the play’s depictions of its characters’ desperation and fraud show qualities as universal in the theater as they are in most professions. Director Jules Aaron nudges the comic types with composer/sound designer’s Max Kinberg’s musical underscoring, like so many pokes in the ribs. Both leading players are fine actors who sustain a base level of mugging that handcuffs them as the lunacy escalates, though Griggs’ faked death scene has moments of comedic mastery. INTERNATIONAL CITY THEATRE at the CENTER THEATER, LONG BEACH PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 1. (562) 436-4610. (Steven Leigh Morris)