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Theater Reviews: 9 to 5: The Musical, 43 Plays for 43 Presidents

Constance Ejuma in 43 Plays for 43 Presidents
Haven Hartman

GO  ASLEEP ON A BICYCLE  is Tony Foster’s humorous journey into a dreamscape world where nothing is as it seems. Linda (Gina Garrison) is lying asleep, but this doesn’t stop her unconscious from roaming wild. In her dream state, she encounters a ravishingly beautiful Italian film star (Maya Parish), an axe-wielding murderess (Alexandra Hoover), her emotionally fragile brother (Josh Breeding), her alcoholic mother (Cheryl Huggins), who finds herself attracted to a lesbian nun (Patricia Rae), and a cheating husband (Robert Foster). Initially, these characters appear happenstance, without apparent significance, but Foster gradually and skillfully constructs a delicate, meaningful web of emotional, spiritual and psychological connections between and among them, constantly shifting between past and present, reality and fantasy. The writing is razor sharp and at times quite funny, although context and meaning sometimes become frustratingly obscure. The finale is clearly a case of one twist too many. The play is engaging and intelligently directed by David Fofi, who draws fine performances from a cast that also includes Jade Dornfeld and Deanna Cordano. The bedroom set piece by designer Joel Daavid, with a towering tree, is beautifully imagined and realized. The Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., through Oct. 12. (323) 960-4410. (Lovell Estell III)

 
GO  43 PLAYS FOR 43 PRESIDENTS Often, it’s not just the who, what and why that make a history lesson viable but the how — as in how you tell it. That’s the premise behind 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, a witty, sardonic collection of miniplays about the American presidency. Studded with song and dance, these distinctive one- to five-minute segments — originally created by five writer-performers of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists theater ensemble — reveal some basic human truths about the 43 individuals who have inhabited the Oval Office (as well as some uncomfortable aspects of our nation’s political legacy). Each segment plucks facts from the textbook version of history and combines them with lesser-known, more subversive revelations. Among the famous, the infamous and the all-but-forgotten, only a few, including George Washington (Michael Holmes), emerge with their reputations untarnished. The ironic portraits include John Adams (Kelley Hazen) as a fretful neurotic, who signed legislation that shredded the Bill of Rights; Indian fighter William Henry Harrison (Tina Van Berckelaer), who enthusiastically exterminated thousands of Native Americans but on his deathbed sought treatment from a Native American healer; and Ulysses Grant (Rafael Clements), who, as a young man despised guns but was forced by his father to attend West Point. Of particular interest this election season is the sketch about the 1876 electoral-college shenanigans that put popular-vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House. Directed by Paul Plunkett, this production features an accomplished ensemble of six, adept at underscoring both the playful and the poignant. Sacred Fools Theater, 661 N. Heliotrope Ave., Hlywd; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 21 & Oct. 26, 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 26. (310) 281-3887. (Deborah Klugman)

 
GROUNDLINGS, YOUR BODY AND YOU  In unusual twist for The Groundlings sketch comedy/improv troupe, the title of their latest show actually relates to material in it. Featuring more improv than usual but a smaller cast, this company ventures into such varied topics as speed dating, old boys clubs, swim meets and peer-support groups; however, the sketches are somewhat uneven, with more missing the mark than hitting it. Highlights include “Playdate,” in which Mrs. Davis (Jill Matson-Sachoff), in her high-waisted ’80s jeans, seduces her son’s friend; “How To Have A Fun Dinner,” featuring two second-graders (Andrew Friedman and David Hoffman), who describe an evening out with their hard-drinking, womanizing uncle; “Some of That,” in which two dudes (Hoffman and Alex Staggs), who are looking to rent a Venice Beach apartment, play out sexual fantasies in front of their Realtor (Matson-Sachoff); and the musical finale, “A Real Man,” which features Our Lord and Savior in the flesh. Director Ted Michael does a nice job orchestrating the improvs, but he fails to push his actors to the extremes necessary to bring out the comedy’s underpinnings. Company member Melissa McCarthy, who has been the highlight of previous shows, was conspicuously absent and sorely missed. The Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; through Oct. 4. (323) 934-4747. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 

GO  9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL is based on the 1979 hit film, with a rollicking score by Dolly Parton, a clever and fast-paced script by the movie’s screenwriter, Patricia Resnick, and spectacular direction by Tony-winner Joe Mantello. The show tells the wild, wooly tale of three female office workers (Allison Janney, Megan Hilty and Stephanie J. Block) who kidnap their smug, sexist, bullying boss (a wonderfully caddish Mark Kudisch). While holding him captive in his own house, they reinvent the workplace according to their own values, banishing sexual harassment and gender discrimination. It’s a fairy tale — but a hip, hilarious one, with dynamite performances by the three leading women, and a fourth by Kathy Fitzgerald as Hart’s love-struck girl Friday. Janney, hitherto known as a dramatic actress, proves she can belt out a number and strut her stuff with style, and brings down the house with “One of the Boys.” Hilty shines as Doralee, the “Backwoods Barbie” (played by Parton in the film), and Block proves her versatility as a timid “newbie” driven back into the work force when her husband ditches her, and who must now learn to both smolder and fight back. All technical credits — sets, costumes, choreography, lighting and musical direction — are gorgeous. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand St., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Oct. 19. Extra mat. Thurs., Oct. 16, 2 p.m. (213) 628-2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org. (Neal Weaver)

 

GO  PUGILIST SPECIALIST “Victory forgives dishonesty” is the telling slogan that punctuates Adriano Shaplin’s military comedy, wherein a quartet of U.S. Marines with varying specialties is recruited for a “black” operation, i.e., to assassinate a “target” in some Middle-Eastern country. We observe their initial meetings and some gender tension among them — one officer, Lt. Emma Stein (Kimberly Rose-Wolter) is female and the actor bears a striking resemblance to Lynndie England, though Stein’s “secret” past is quite different from the Abu Ghraib inmate-brutality scandal that tarnished England’s reputation. Some verbal sniping over a generation gap also emerges between young Lt. Travis Freud (Linc Hand) and 50-year-old Colonel Johns (Donald Agnelli, looking robust with a buzzcut silver pate). Finally, there’s the issue of “objectivity,” raised by Lt. Stoddard (Max Williams), a piercingly smart officer whose absence of almost any passion becomes a kind of comic motif. The humor in Shaplin’s play comes from the precocious intelligence of the quartet, and from the tart eloquence with which they articulate philosophies of life and survival that have been shaped by life and death in the military. When the mission finally gets under way, the play becomes cinematic — a style that betrays the hypertheatricality of its setup. And its final twist, which delights in mocking the order we try to carve from the chaos of our own emotions, is both amusing and schematic at the same time. Allison Sie’s crisply stylized direction of the fine ensemble comes with a choreographic precision on which the comedy depends. Imagine watching a military parade: This is a production that crawls inside the tiny missteps that would go unnoticed by anybody but those wearing the marching boots. And Shaplin’s mastery of military terminology adds credence, and horror, to the troubles we’re creating all over the world, often in secret. Elephant Theatre Company, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 19. (323) 860-3283. A VS. Theatre Company Production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL “Every race or nation that has ever got upon its feet has done so through struggle and trial and persecution,” declaims Booker T. Washington (David Edward Perry) in Terrance McNally’s musical, based on the sprawling novel by E.L. Doctorow. His words ring with optimism whenever America is laid low, and Zeke Rettman’s staging — despite being messy and overcrowded (the cast plus live band would take up half the seats in the theater) — taps in to the angst and hope at the heart of this play about the America we’ve wanted but rarely grasped, and which now feels out of reach. When a conservative businessman (Joe Montgomery) leaves his comfortable home for a year to explore the Arctic with Admiral Peary, he assures his wife (Megan Johnson Briones) that “the world will not spin off its axis in a year.” But this being the 1910s, it does, and upon his return, he’s a frozen caveman to his now radicalized family, which has doubled to include an unmarried black mother (Rachae Thomas), her baby, and her temperamental lover (Kevin Yarbrough). Meanwhile, his brother-in-law (Aaron Jacobs), who once worshipped pop ephemera like siren songbird Evelyn Nesbit (Josie Yount), has taken up labor rights and bomb manufacturing, and a Latvian immigrant (Jon Jon Briones) and his daughter (Danielle Soibelman) confront the obstacles of the American Dream. More passionate than pretty, the dancing and acting rank below the politics, strong singing, and musical director Kelly L. Dodson’s rousing ragtime, a new swinging sound representing the change each character believes in despite getting knocked around more than Jack Johnson. Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 5. (323) 960-1055. (Amy Nicholson)

 

GO  SPEECH & DEBATE Playwright Stephen Karam’s quirky high school comedy imaginatively (and sometimes disturbingly) reinvents the witch-hunt of The Crucible through the teenage frame of The Breakfast Club, mixing in a touch of Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” In a small, claustrophobic Oregon town, sexually precocious teenager Howie (Michael Welch) engages in come-hither provocative cyberchat with a much older man, who turns out to be none other than his own drama teacher. Fiendishly ambitious high school newspaper reporter Solomon (Aaron Himelstein), driven by his own repressed sexuality, learns of Howie’s interactions and wants to make his story public in a huge exposé. Along with Diwata (Mae Whitman), a vengeful theater brat who has been passed up by the drama teacher for one too many acting roles, Solomon and Howie form an organization that to the rest of the world appears to be the school’s Speech and Debate club, but which, in fact, has a darker and more confrontational purpose. Although Karam’s writing occasionally slips on its own soap opera suds, the combination of artistry and a brash, youthful energy is unsettling enough to elicit a few squirms — exactly the kind you’d hope for in the theater. Director Daniel Henning’s psychologically shrewd direction drives the action while being engagingly intimate. Himselstein’s sweetly neurotic Solomon; Whitman’s shrill, driven Diwata; and Welch’s technologically sophisticated but emotionally naive gay boy are hilarious, touching and disturbing by turns. 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct 26. (323) 661-9827. A Blank Theatre Company production. (Paul Birchall)