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Theater Reviews: Bronzeville, Dead, Therefore I Am, The Seafarer

The Seafarer

Michael LamontThe Seafarer

AND THE WAR CAME As the global economic meltdown continues to cast its pall over the land, it’s easy to forget about those other Bush-Cheney contributions to human misery still raging in Afghanistan and Iraq. For this reason alone, director Joanne Gordon’s sentimental stage memorial to the sacrifices made by Iraq War veterans and their families deserves the sincerest of salutes. Through a collage of interwoven sketches and onscreen projections (supervised by J. Todd Baker), Gordon, nine writers and a fine ensemble attempt to convey a sense of the sometimes whimsical but usually tragic experiences of those touched by the war. The best of the pieces are predictably those that stray the least from their source material. These include writer David Vegh’s “Nicole,” in which a young, newlywed enlistee (Beth Froelich) matter-of-factly recounts how her marital bliss is cruelly cut short when her childhood-sweetheart husband ships out only to become a combat fatality; and Brian Addison’s “All Quiet,” in which an American Muslim serviceman (Arber Mehmeti) describes the conflict between family, faith and duty engendered by the war. All too often, however, the narratives simply get tangled in Gordon’s overly elliptical structure and taste for the maudlin. And would it really have been a disservice to veterans for Gordon to have included some antiwar voices or, God forbid, those of the Iraqis themselves? National Guard Armory, 854 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; May 8-9, 8 p.m.; through May 9. (562) 985-5526. A Cal Rep production. (Bill Raden)

APPLE Emotional bonfires crackle around the infidelity of an ordinary, married guy, Andy (Albie Selznick), with a beautiful woman, Samatha (Carmit Levité), who just happens to be a medical technician whom Andy’s wife, Evelyn (Ellyn Stern), sees frequently during her breast-cancer diagnoses and treatments. Evelyn is dying, there’s no question, and her philandering husband lies stretched on a rack of grief and self-loathing — careening between his physical passion for his healthy mistress and his torment as a caretaker for his fading wife. Does his expressed adoration of his spouse stem from something larger than guilt and self-recrimination? “I’m rotten,” he confesses to her. She knows what’s going on, and thank goodness, she’s no peach herself. Foul-mouthed and sometimes petulant, she reveals a mean streak, telling hubbie that she never loved him. That could be true, but it’s more likely to be the only kind of revenge she can inflict. The larger question explored in Canadian Vern Thiessen’s absorbing play hangs in the murky territory between lust and love, and Rachel Goldberg’s wisely abstracted and seductive production tries to clarify that distinction, despite stretches of gratuitous poetical narration that tilt the tone toward the mawkish. Jeff G. Rack’s park bench set and the projected images of Benjamin Goldman’s animation design contribute to the sense of a poem in motion. On opening night, the ensemble was just starting to find the play’s unspoken truths, and will doubtless unearth more through the production’s run. Levité’s smart, charming mistress finds herself smitten with Andy for reasons still vague, though in one scene at the clinic, her defiant defense of Evelyn’s wishes, overriding Andy’s will, could be a kind of punishment of him. Stern’s ill Evelyn is further along, handily negotiating cross currents of wisdom and peevishness, while Selznick nicely handles Andy’s sometimes cloying yet convincing earnestness as he tries to man up. The production invites no easy moralizing, though there is the suggestion that the vow “till death do us part” probably shouldn’t be rushed along — the parting or the dying. Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive (on the Beverly Hills High School Campus), Beverly Hills; in rep, call for schedule; through May 24. (310) 364-0535. (Steven Leigh Morris)

BACK TO BACHARACH AND DAVID This splashy production provides a timely reminder of just how much the songs of Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics) have imbedded themselves in our consciousness. With their 40 chart-topping hits, many written for Dionne Warwick, they created an astonishing body of work. This production, with musical arrangements by Steve Gunderson, direction by Kathy Najimy, and busy choreography by Javier Velasco, features some 30 of their songs, including “Close To You,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” and “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” The four performers, Diana De Garmo, Tom Lowe, Susan Mosher and Tressa Thomas, are expert, energetic and vocally adept (two of them are American Idol alums), but the production suggests a cabaret show masquerading as a rock concert. The vast venue works against intimacy and tends to homogenize the performers, while the flashing, moving, sometimes blinding colored lights, cinematic projections, and smoke machines can distract, particularly from the less familiar songs. One is grateful for the moments, like Lowe’s rendition of “Alfie,” when someone is allowed to just sing without being overloaded by production values or cutesy choreography. It’s a fun show, and it goes down smoothly, but a little less might have provided a little more. The Music Box @ Fonda, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 & 9 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 17. www.etix.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  BRONZEVILLE Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk’s drama centers around the Goodwins, a black family looking for a new life and respite from Southern racism in Los Angeles during the early years of World War II. After their move to a home (an artfully designed set piece by J.P. Luckenbach) formerly occupied by a Japanese family that was forced to relocate to an internment camp, all seems well. Mama Jane (CeCe Antoinette) is the sharp-tongued, devout matriarch who loves to garden and has vivid memories of life as a slave. Her young and angry son Felix (Larry Powell) has hopes of becoming a musician, while his brother Jodie (Dwain A. Perry) is a simple working man with a devoted wife (Adenrele Ojo) and teen daughter (Candice Afia). But the Goodwins soon discover that they have a “guest,” when Henry (Jeff Manabat) tumbles into their midst, forming a bond with his new family but also forcing Jodie to make a troubling, fateful decision that has consequences for everyone. Director Ben Guillory does a fine job directing this provocative piece. Woolfolk and Toyama’s script is well-written and subtly explores philosophical and moral issues that are as relevant today as they were then. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 17. (213) 489-0994. A Robey Theatre Company production. (Lovell Estell III)

DEAD, THEREFORE I AM Writer-director Max Leavitt’s furious passion project tracks a suicidal 30-year-old named John (Leavitt), who lives in his parents’ garage, where he’s haunted by the obsessive goth girl next door, Sophie (Karen Jean Olds), and the sniping Egyptian god Anubis (Nicholas Tucci). John’s depressed, and since he enters the play with his head severed by a guillotine, we know things aren’t going to end well, especially as his coping mechanisms are booze, pills, and screaming at Sophie and Anubis. Both have John in their bondage: Sophie, because she and John are furtively, allegedly in love (though tenderness is missing from all of their interactions), while Anubis has John on a physical and emotional choke chain to train him into thinking his miserable life is nothing more than a doorway to the underworld. With its subtleties overwhelmed in histrionics, and its comedy made glum by Leavitt’s sincere agony, this is still a work in progress — a play fumbling through the stressful business of discovering its strengths, just like its protagonist. East Theatre at the Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 24. (323) 960-7714. (Amy Nicholson)

DOOMSDAY KISS As you enter the Bootleg Theater’s lobby, you’re greeted by an art installation that reflects the theme of nuclear annihilation, complete with a performance from a live band featuring a USO-style chanteuse. The ambiance sets up an evening of four short plays centered on visions of postapocalyptic worlds. While three are standalone pieces, the fourth, “Who is Randall Maxit,” about the crisis of conscience faced by a retired nuclear scientist, is interwoven throughout, though a bit haphazardly. “You Might Be Waking Up,” the first of the trio, takes place in an office building–turned–Survivor set, where the workers scrounge for food, reveal their sexual fantasies, and riff on aging, bodily functions and relationships — among other things. In “Fun Days at Sea,” the most entertaining of the lot, a pair of newlyweds and a pair of swingers are lubricated by a steady stream of alcohol from the cruise ship’s bartender and try to enjoy themselves despite constant radio transmissions about the crumbling world outside the vessel. Finally, “The Class Room” features a teacher in a remote country schoolhouse, who is being interviewed by a strangely sexual reporter about her success in improving the temperament of young children. While the concept is interesting, and there are funny moments along the way (especially from Michael Dunn and Jessica Hanna, who play the swingers in “Fun Days”), most of the evening lacks the stakes that go along with doomsday scenarios, as well as the character development that would create audience engagement. Bootleg Theater, 2200 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 10. (213) 389-3856. A Repo Division Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

L.A. VIEWS II: TALES OF PRESENT PAST A hundred years ago the Alexandria Hotel in downtown L.A. played glamorous host to presidents and movie stars; now faded, it’s home to the Equity-waiver Company of Angels. Their current offering — 15 short plays and/or monologues written and directed by company members — takes the hotel as a common thread, claiming inspiration from the silent screen luminaries who once graced its corridors. In fact, the link between the material and the concept is mostly tangential. Crisply introduced by bellhops Juanita Chase and Joshua Lamont, the show opens with a promise that unfortunately wanes. The pieces, a hodgepodge of lightweight segments set in both past and present, offer some biographical information but don’t provide much revelation or insight. (The dead celebs are talked about but not depicted.) Closeted homosexuality is a recurring, though not exclusive, theme. In “Weekend Getaway,” by S. Vasanti Saxena, directed by Tony Gatto, two married celebrities (Brian Rohan and Onyay Pheori) bicker incessantly between photo ops; we soon learn they’re both gay. In Kyle T. Wilson’s “El Conquistador,” directed by Lui Sanchez, the spirit of Ramon Navarro hovers over an encounter in a contemporary gay bar between two friends (Eric Martig and Maurice Compte), climaxing in a proposal of marriage (indignantly rejected). In “Fresh Cream Pie,” by Damon Chua, directed by Gatto, two heterosexual security guards (Mel Rodriguez and Xavi Moreno) share their sexual fantasies, one of which involves a cream pie. Overall, this showcase fare is mildly entertaining, with some performers, including Chase, Lamont and Rodriguez, displaying assurance. Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; through May 10. (323) 883-1717. A Company of Angels Production. (Deborah Klugman)

THE LAST HIPPIE: A WESTERN NOVEL Performer-designer Vincent Mann’s claims that his solo show (directed by Rachel Rebecca Roy) “began as an (almost) finished novel.” Those origins are clear in his epic, autobiographical performance, which runs more than two hours, with intermission. Mann’s saga starts during his youth, in mid-’70s San Antonio, Texas, centering on his and his high school pals’ magnetic attraction to mind-altering drugs and the personal-metaphysical explorations that were part and parcel of the hippie movement, which was fading even then, in the wake of the subsequent pre-Reagan, greed-is-good generation. Among the performance’s many virtues is its ability to take a personal story and attach it to the sensibility of an era — and Mann accomplishes this with erudition and literacy. Eventually, as his friends fall by the wayside, Mann flees his town on a kind of spiritual quest, from Texas to Colorado Springs, working as a janitor for minimum wage. Here, the quixotic essence of the hippies’ scrambled ideals, and Mann’s stake in those ideals — including enlightenment through hallucinagenic drugs — unravels into mere autobiography, a stream of events that represent little beyond themselves. Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Tues., 8 p.m.; through May 12. (818) 783-6784. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE SEAFARER If you’re seeking innovation in the theater, look elsewhere. Conor McPherson’s Irish yarn is a chip off the stock-block of Celtic-folklore — story-telling, bullshitting, scatological jokes, card playing and a visit by somebody from the metaphysical realm, which raises the not-trivial question: What on Earth are we doing with our time? Thanks to a quintet of sharp-as-they-come performances, under Randall Arney’s carefully calibrated production, the event holds up. McPherson’s drama isn’t as menacing as in New York; Arney gives it a lighter touch, which reveals some of its holes but also skirts around both melodrama and glibness. This is a starkly moral universe, filled with causes and consequences, where somebody named Mr. Lockhart (Tom Irwin, and a spit-and-polished suit) determined to collect an old debt visits the North Dublin home-tavern of Sharky (Andrew Connolly) and his disabled brother, Richard (John Mahoney) — who blinded himself while scavenging in a trash canister. The drama slowly pivots on a poker game, with life-and-death stakes as the men, including denizens Ivan (Paul Vincent O’Connor) and Nickly Giblin (Matt Roth) — who’s the new husband of Sharky’s ex-wife — try to bluff their way through the night, which is really the larger allegory for existence. Imagine Harold Pinter having rewritten Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in an Irish brogue. Arney’s gentle production can’t mask or provide irony for the sentimental resolution, but the strength of his interpretation derives from the silent, brooding power of Connolly’s victimized Sharky, and the perverse indulgences of Sharky’s blind brother, played by Mahoney with a gleeful grittiness that renders him a weird blend of whining matron and the power broker of the house. The marvelous, tawdry details of Takeshi Kata’s set have little congruence with the actors’ perfect teeth — one tiny reminder of how difficult it is to leave Hollywood on our stages, despite theater’s magic. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through May 24. (310) 208-54545. (Steven Leigh Morris)