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Theater Reviews

The America Play (Photo by Ed Kreiger)

{mosimage}THE AMERICA PLAY Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks places Abraham Lincoln, a recurring figure in her plays, at the center of a surrealistic re-examination of American history that is at once whimsical, absurd and poetic. The Foundling Father (Harold Surratt) is a gravedigger who so resembles Lincoln that he becomes obsessed with him and leaves his family behind to become a vaudeville-style Lincoln impersonator who pretends to get shot night after night. In the second act, after his death, his wife, Lucy (J. Nicole Brooks), and son, Brazil (Darius Truly), find themselves in a great hole (a replica of the Great Hole of History), digging for artifacts from the patriarch’s life and simultaneously exhuming the ghosts of America’s racial and political history. Nancy Keystone’s direction does a good job of physicalizing the jazzlike rhythms of the piece’s language, and her scenic design embodies the metaphor of a space that is nowhere and everywhere using a black, dirtlike substance to blanket the stage and bury many of the Foundling Father’s artifacts. Truly gives an energetic performance, while Brooks and Surratt are competent in their roles. While engaging, the play may be frustrating for some as the story leaves the audience with more questions than answers. THE THEATRE @ BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Nov. 19. (626) 683-6883. (Mayank Keshaviah)

AUTOBAHN Those expecting a lacerating night of playwright Neil LaBute’s misanthropic wit might be somewhat disappointed after watching this bill of seven playlets, all of which take place in the front seat of a car. The jaundiced humor and worldview are both here but, unlike some other autocentric plays (Hellcab comes to mind), the setting’s conceit (the car as confessional booth, negotiating table or interrogation room) wears thin after a while. Perhaps the confining space magnifies the shortcomings of LaBute’s style, or perhaps the vignettes simply lack the intensity of his longer works. Still, director Amanda Weier gets some striking cast performances in a show that is an ideal acting showcase. Three stories stand out. “Funny” involves a young woman (Heather Fox) being driven home by her mother (Pam Heffler) from a private rehab treatment center. The girl is initially chirpy and grateful, but evolves into an angry figure berating the older woman who never speaks a word yet grimaces at her daughter’s accusations. In “Bench Seat,” both passenger and driver are very talky. Here the girl (Daryl Dickerson) is an ice-cream slinger fearful the grad student (Benjamin Burdick) she’s dating has taken her to a Lover’s Leap to dump her. At first we empathize with the woman, but as she sinks her fangs into the helpless student we realize who’s really the victim here. In “Merge,” a husband (Michael Franco) tenaciously picks away at his wife’s (Lisa Glass) disturbing account of blacking out and waking up naked in her hotel room during a business trip. Though parts of the piece play out like a lewd Playboy joke, Glass and Franco expertly stake out polar ends of the emotional spectrum — she wishes to crawl into a hole of amnesia while he methodically analyzes her grammar usage in an effort to learn an awful truth he is both repelled by and drawn to. OPEN FIST THEATER, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 25. (323) 882-6912. (Steven Mikulan)

DANCING WITH THE BAD MAN Sarah Bewley’s wobbly take on the “grieving process” starts, appropriately enough, with a dead car. Thanks to his lifeless wheels, Erik (Nick Ballard) — a Hollywood superstar on the lam for a little soul-searching after skipping his sister’s funeral — is marooned for the weekend on a small island off the coast of Georgia. After a stranger named Maggie (Bibi Tinsley), a salty widow 17 years his senior, offers her film crush her futon and a drink, the couple commiserate over how death has disengaged them from the world. Now, with the help of a bottle of tequila, it slowly draws the unlikely pair together. As we’ve seen this coming since Act 1, our only real dramatic question is whether we’re intended to see Maggie as an opportunistic seductress or romance-novel heroine. Gary Lee Reed’s earnest, yet unclear, direction mostly leaves Tinsley and Ballard to strut and glower as they hash out theories on love, guilt and art, until a thoroughly silly ending takes the intellectual wind out of the play’s sails. ALLIANCE REPERTORY COMPANY, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 28. (800) 595-4849. (Amy Nicholson)

MAN.GOV Shem Bitterman’s drama, set during the buildup to the second U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, studies the predicament of a senior-level government arms inspector, Dave G. (Christopher Curry), who finds himself in the precarious and demoralizing position of having to report on the possibility that Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction, though Dave’s found no evidence to support that conclusion. When, after decades of working quietly in the trenches, he speaks his mind to a Bob Woodward–like journalist (Robert Cicchini), the ensuing maelstrom crashes in on Dave and his family. Because the play has its mind so firmly made up about what’s true and what isn’t, its potential to seriously examine multiple realities yields to a somewhat schematic morality play. Steve Zuckerman’s spartan staging, however, plays to Bitterman’s strengths: the smart, lean writing and the perversely honest relationships among family and rivals. See Stage feature next week. Circus Theatricals at THE HAYWORTH, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 18. (323) 960-1054 or www.circustheatricals.com. (Steven Leigh Morris)

{mosimage} PICK MODJESKA THEATRE COMPANY  While we Americans can never seem to agree on what to do with our decommissioned military bases (airport? low-income housing? prison?), the Poles have no hesitancy in turning their old Soviet installations into site-specific theater happenings. At least that’s what the Modjeska Theatre Co. did with one sprawling base after the Russians abandoned it in 1993, helping to transform the ghost city of Legnica into a revitalized civilian community and a venue for provocative art. The MTC will be in L.A. to perform its version of Shakespeare’s Othello, a show built around a large ship raft constructed from wooden pallets, as part of a 10th-birthday celebration for Arden2, a Costa Mesa arts group. Founded by Eastern European emigres, Arden2 is dedicated to fostering international collaborations that take on big social issues as well as defining the language of art in an artless world. Arden2’s artistic director, Joanna Klass, is responsible for bringing to Los Angeles acclaimed productions of Ferdyduke and Chronicles: A Lamentation, as well as creating a cultural-exchange program called City Acts Without Borders. This weekend’s exchange at the Geffen promises to be explosive. Othello, Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo; Sat., Oct. 21, 8 p.m. & Sun., Oct. 22, 7 p.m.; $35, $15 students, seniors and actors. (949) 548-8570. (Steven Mikulan)

NIGHTINGALE On a trip back to her London home, Lynne Redgrave once stopped at the cemetery where her maternal grandmother is buried and found to her dismay that acid rain had erased the headstone’s inscriptions. Redgrave’s delightful solo show begins in this graveyard, where she masterfully creates a tragic-comical story by reconstructing, from family tales and her imagination, the life of this Edwardian matriarch whom she calls Mildred. “She was not a good granny,” Redgrave states matter-of-factly, and in the following scenes we learn of a terminally insecure girl-child who prayed to God that menses would go away, who feared spinsterhood at 17, who was teased by her sisters, and who finally got a husband. But like many of the women of the age, Mildred’s married life was more like a prison of meaningless rituals, emotional vacuousness, sexual repression and petty bourgeois concerns, all of which, toward play’s end, have taken their toll on this engaging woman. (“[Marriage] seemed like a good idea until it happened.”) Though some of the material is a tad banal, it’s vastly outweighed by Redgrave’s formidable prowess as a performer and storyteller who skillfully plumbs the emotional and psychological depths of her character under Joe Hardy’s smart direction. Tobin Ost’s attractive fairy tale–inspired panels provide an ideal visual complement. MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; mats Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Nov. 19. (213) 628-2772. (Lovell Estell III)

SWEET CHARITY This 1966 Cy Coleman–Dorothy Fields musical, adapted by Neil Simon from the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, tells the tale of Charity Hope Valentine, a hapless dance-hall hostess who longs to find a good man and settle down — but always gets left in the lurch. Originally created as a vehicle for dancer Gwen Verdon, it has been reconceived for nondancer Molly Ringwald. This works better than one might expect: Ringwald is not a great dancer, but she handles her songs with brio, and choreographer Wayne Cilento wisely leaves the trickier footwork to the spectacular ensemble, which jacks up the excitement every time it cuts loose. Most notable is the frenetic, jaggedly eccentric number “Rich Man’s Frug,” headed by Nova Bergeron. Simon’s book is obvious but funny, and the appealing score includes the one-time hit “Hey, Big Spender,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” Guy Adkins scores as Oscar, Charity’s timid, claustrophobic suitor, and Amanda Watkins and Kisha Howard lend fine support as her sidekicks. Scott Faris’ tight direction, Scott Pask’s clever, colorful sets and William Ivey Long’s witty costumes combine to make this a crowd pleaser. NETworks Presentations LLC at PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m.; thru Nov. 4 (added perf Oct. 22, 6 p.m.). (213) 365-3500. (Neal Weaver)

THIRST Elements of Greek drama resonate in Lilly Thomassian’s disquieting new play set in the mystical desert kingdom of Sabzaar in the land of Ur. The drama begins in the arid region with the chorus singing the praises of the spirit of the well. Despite words of caution from his wife, Madara (Helen Duffy), General Orad (Jonaton Wyne) plots a pre-emptive war against those who’ve attacked the city in the past. Unbeknownst to the general, daughter Assia (Anais Thomassian) slips out of the house to say goodbye to her lover, Malek (Matthew Dorio), who leaves to search for more water. The two are caught by the Djinns, an unseen supernatural force (represented by Henrik Mansourian’s lighting design and Mark Anthony Goebel’s sound design), who call for the young woman’s death. Thomassian’s play brings up age-old questions of loyalty to family and country, underscored by the threat of war. Although some of the line readings are stilted, director–costume designer Maro Parian elicits strong work from most of the cast members, particularly Thomassian and Mauricio Quintana as Bedouin. Also first rate are Parian’s layered, desert-hued costumes and gruesome masks representing dehydration. LUNA PLAYHOUSE, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 4. (818) 500-7200. (Sandra Ross)


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