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Theater Reviews: Groundlings Swimsuit Edition, A Good Smoke

<i>Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue</i>

Michael von RedlichVarla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue

AMERICA'S NEXT TOP BOTTOM Reality TV has introduced a competitive element into almost every realm of human endeavor, from top models, top chefs and top filmmakers to top idols, top singers and top dancers. It was inevitable that someone would introduce competitive sex. In this case, the title tells you all you need to know. If you find it amusing, you'll probably love the show. If not, not. Most of the audience seemed to find it hilarious. It follows the contest-show format, with a lanky, trailer-trash, drag-queen hostess, Trina Sugg (Drew Droege), and several contestants who must participate in talent competitions including belching, diva impersonation and arm wrestling. The only top in the crowd is Butch, played by an unidentified female with an ineptly bound chest. The humor is mostly anatomical, with references to Boy Butter and lines like "I started out as a tight end and then switched over to wide receiver." The contestants are listed only pseudonymously in the program, but audience members get to vote on which one should be eliminated. The show was created by Michael Matthews, Jason Moyer, Efrain Schunior and the cast. CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 p.m.; thru March 15. (323) 957-1884. (Neal Weaver)

Michael von Redlich

Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue

Ed Krieger

Crime and Punishment

Shawn Bishop

Groundlings Swimsuit Edition

 
GO  CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Fyodor Dostoyevsky's seminal profile of a killer with a superman complex and a moral imperative to dispose of a miserly old pawnbroker, whose death would ease the plight of others, gets boiled down to a lean and surprisingly effective 90-minute drama, in Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus' adaptation. It employs only three actors, portraying multiple roles. Set in 19th-century St. Petersburg, Russia, the play condenses Dostoyevsky's theology, philosophy and psychodrama into a kind of dream, with riveting performances by Ben Hunter, as the killer, Raskolnikov; Suzanne Friedline as the prostitute, Sonia, with no alternative means to feed her family; and Paul Witten's wry detective, Porfiry, whose interrogations form the drama's spine, fleshed out by other characters through flashbacks and meditations. Ken Sawyer's staging is at times gorgeous, with Jeremy Pivnick's backlighting of the ghostly figures, and Sawyer's own sound design, which amps up the melodrama. The main drawback is that Sawyer succumbs to the Hollywood blur of not knowing the difference between a work of theater and one of cinema. Music played against entire scenes (composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimer and Reinhold Heil, from the movie Perfume — The Story of a Murderer, used with permission) creates atmosphere with such moody imposition, it trivializes whatever theatricality the actors have worked hard to muster. The theater has an austere power of ideas and language, and Sawyer simply doesn't trust it. Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (added perfs Sat., March 8 and 15, 2:30 p.m.); thru April 13. (323) 462-8460. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
THE EULOGY Brynn Thayer stands before her father's flag-draped coffin. Skilled at sports, seduction and securities fraud, he had a big personality that sucked so much air from the room that her unhinged eulogy sounds like the first chance she ever had to speak. And she's reveling in it, pointing out her dear old dad's mistress Candy and the best friend/enemy she blames for his four-year incarceration. It's hard to tell how much of Thayer's sharp-tonged and playful monologue is truth; biographical facts (like their respective careers in the soap-opera and military industries) match up, but the slender and pert Thayer succeeds more in sketching the bold strokes of a father-daughter portrait than in filling in the details that would give it depth. When her meltdown passes through venom to acceptance, the effect is unaffecting cutesiness, and the hints that his indulgences might have been inherited aren't fully explored. Michael Learned's direction is crisply comedic. Camelot Artists at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 15. (310) 358-9936. (Amy Nicholson)

 
GO  A GOOD SMOKE Writer-director Don Cummings adeptly captures the chaos enveloping a collapsing family, in his dark one-act comedy. Eldest son Dave (Henry Gummer) has returned to his family's home in the hope of straightening out the latest mess. Coinciding with the birth of her first grandchild, Mom (Barbara Gruen) goes off her meds and lands in a psychiatric ward. She's now back at home, but Dave's attempts to get her to rehab are thwarted by his younger brother, Joe (Blake Anthony), who's become Mom's enabler. Mom may — or may not — have pancreatitis, or possibly fibromyalgia; what she does have is an endless supply of prescription pain pills, which Joe hides, doling them out one by one when she begs. Dad (Dennis Delsing) copes by drinking himself into a stupor. Despite pleas from both sons, Mom refuses to go to the hospital to see her daughter, Susan (Madelynn Fattibene), and the baby, nor will she visit Susan and her granddaughter at home. Cummings has a gift for the pointed barb, and some of the dialogue is hilarious, despite the situation's gravity. His direction is as fast-paced as the dialogue, and Gruen delivers a tremendous performance as a deceptive, manipulative drug addict. Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 29. (800) 838-3006. The Production Company. (Sandra Ross)

 
GO  GROUNDLINGS SWIMSUIT EDITION Drawing on a variety of current themes and issues, the Groundlings shine in their newest show, which, following a Groundlings tradition, has nothing to do with the title. Featuring strong comedic writing, the sketches also incorporate music, including "Womanisms," a song about (f)e-mails women forward to each other; "Rockstar," in which a man is trying to write a jingle for an energy drink; and "Trade School Musical," a parody of trade-school commercials set to familiar pop tunes. While there is nary a flop in the bunch, the highlights of the show, "Love" and "Taste Test," both feature Melissa McCarthy, who leaves the audience roaring with laughter. McCarthy is never afraid to make a fool of herself, and her uproarious style, reminiscent of the late Chris Farley, makes it impossible for us to keep a straight face. Jeremy Rowley, Alex Staggs, Annie Sertich and Kevin Kirkpatrick also give memorable performances. Director Karen Maruyama, who orchestrates a couple of improv sketches during the show, keeps the evening moving at a brisk pace, never letting the audience settle into apathy. She is aided by the always-lively Groundlings band, which makes transitions entertaining with musical selections that match the themes of the sketches. Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; thru April 19. (323) 934-4747. (Mayank Keshaviah)

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GO  THE LONDON CUCKOLDS In Edward Ravenscroft's Restoration comedy (adapted and directed by Richard Tatum), sex, infidelity and outrageous calamities are given free rein. The plot spins around three married couples. Aldermans Doodle, Wiseacres and Dashwell (Quincy Miller, Herb Mendelsohn and Charles Pacello) are first seen having a discourse over whether a wife who is virtuous, foolish or witty would be more faithful. In short order, the spouses of these clueless gentlemen, the ditsy, teenage Peggy (Jessica Mills), "witty" Arabella (Julie Granata) and the "godly" Eugenia (Catherine Cronin) provide the answer, with the help of the honey-tongued Ned Ramble (a fine Darin Toonder), who eventually tries to sate the lusty desires of all three, while avoiding discovery. In the process, Ramble's manic mishaps and outlandish entrances and exits provide hilarious moments. Fanning the comic flames are the amorous pursuits of Messrs. Frank (Zack Foulkes) and Loveday (Matt Saxe). This bawdy romp runs almost three hours but never wears thin. The cast turn in excellent performances, and Tatum keeps the physical comedy and shtick at a perfectly modulated level. Tera Struck's period costumes are impressive. Ark Theatre, 1647 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru April 12. (323) 969-1707. (Lovell Estell III)

Ed Krieger

Orange Lemon Egg Canary

Roar of the Tiger

 
ON AN AVERAGE DAY John Kolvenbach's 2000 play about two brothers in a hovel crunching through the wreckage of their lives, and the memory of their father, who abandoned them, is part Sam Shepard, part Lyle Kessler. This means that there's an opportunity for two actors (Johnny Clark and Stef Tovar) to Steppenwolf it up with gritty, emotive portrayals of the bro (Clark) who's lost a couple of brain cells on his way to prison — he threw some guy out of a moving car for no good reason — and the family man (Tovar), who's come home, neither to help nor to hurt his sibling, but to reconcile himself to lingering issues of abandonment. The rhythms of conflict and reconciliation play themselves out in a somewhat redundant cycle of crescendo and decrescendo, under Ron Klier's carefully wrought direction, and both actors are terrific. Though the taut dialogue flashes through shards of mystery, the play is so derivative, pro forma and pro formula, I found myself hoping that what I predicted would unfold, wouldn't. But it did anyway. And naming the brothers Jack and Bobby after the Kennedys is a gratuitous reach to layer the drama with American mythology. Danny Cistone's great set captures the clutter of a home maintained by somebody plunging into derangement, with so many layers of filth, the audience — like brother Jack — is tempted to plug its nose whenever that greasy fridge door is opened. Elephant Theatre Lab, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 22. A VS. Theatre Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
ORANGE LEMON EGG CANARY Playwright Rinne Groff's poignant and often beguiling drama depicts the complex parallels between love and magic, equating the irrationality of romantic love with the trickery and misdirection of a magician. Handsome professional magician Great (Brett Schneider) dazzles crowds with his amazing card tricks, but in his private life, he's a faithless manipulator with a history of breaking the hearts of his various stage assistants, who happen to be his lovers as well. When Great has a one-night stand with the beautiful waitress Trilby (Elizabeth V. Newman), she wants to become his new assistant and permanent lover. Complications ensue when Great's former lover (and former onstage assistant) Egypt (Martina Lotun) shows up again in Great's life, bent on revenge and trying to learn the secret to a legendary hypnosis-levitation trick. Although director Talya Klein's production is hampered by some pacing problems and patches of inert dialogue, the show teems liberally with magic tricks, which are nicely integrated within the story — keep an eye out for an amazing bit of throwaway shtick involving a floating water glass. Schneider is a charismatic and appealing performer, impressive as both an actor and a magician; he perfectly captures the surface warmth of a man whose inner self is vacant and needy. Newman's scruffy, but innocent, Trilby is touchingly contrasted with Lotun's glamorous, but soulless, Egypt. The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru April 5. EVN Productions and Village Muse Productions. (Paul Birchall)

 
ROAR OF THE TIGER: THE LEGEND OF TOKYO ROSE Glenn Conner Johnson's reconstruction of the life and persecution of Iva Toguri (Momo Yashima) has the makings of epic-style political theater but falls flat in this production, directed by Johnson. Toguri was the Los Angeles Nisei woman who, in her mid-20s, traveled to Japan just months before Pearl Harbor. Refusing to renounce her American citizenship once hostilities began, she found clerical work at Radio Tokyo, eventually becoming one of 20 English-language announcers who were collectively dubbed Tokyo Rose by American troops. Johnson employs taiko drumming, a Kabuki tiger headdress and an ensemble-driven presentation to explain Toguri's actions and fate. Yet nearly every other scene is explained by a narrator (Ralph Brannen) before it unfolds — making the 70-minute Act 1 cry out for trims. There's also the confusing appearance of a malevolent spirit-character named Tokyo Rose the Legend (Yashima), who vampishly slinks onstage to create trouble for Toguri. Worse, Yashima is easily twice as old as Toguri was when she began her broadcasts, which removes the character's aura of youthful naivete, which Johnson's script relies upon. (The age difference might have worked had the play opened in modern times, with Toguri reflecting on the past.) The play finds its focus during Toguri's 1949 treason trial, which was stoked by Hearst yellow journalism and Walter Winchell's (Johnson) xenophobic rants, against an ever-present background of American racism. Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 Las Palmas Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 23. (323) 222-1728. A World University Theatre Workshop Production. (Steven Mikulan)

 
THEATER PICK  VARLA JEAN MERMAN LOVES A FOREIGN TONGUE! Drag star Jeffery Roberson's alter ego Varla Jean Merman (spawn of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman) regales us with her insanely banal reflections on traveling abroad — opinions weighted toward the joys of finding easy sex and a McDonald's in the middle of Rome. This new show, which includes appearances by opera tenor Mark Cortale, features about 70 minutes of stereotypical "international" costumes (red taffeta, lederhosen and a particularly obscene banana skirt), sleazy double-entendre songs, bawdy videos and a running commentary that reveals Varla's presumption to be the center of the universe. Her observations are blithely condescending ("Foreign people aren't like us"), while Varla's conversations with audience members prove to be exquisitely crass. ("How do you say, 'This sore is not contagious'?") After she draws a shrug from an audience member when asked how to say "bacon" in Spanish, Varla helpfully prompts, "Well, what's the word for 'dog'?" The familiar Varla Jean personality traits are all here: jaw-dropping shallowness, abject professional failure and incurable nymphomania. But Roberson's character also turns a neat trick that makes the evening slightly political, in the moments when Varla Jean's lack of curiosity about other cultures equates gay self-absorption with Heartland cluelessness about the world beyond America's borders. It's a hilarious performance that you never want to end and that reminds us again of its auteur's wicked imagination. Ultra Suede, 661 N. Robertson Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; two-drink minimum; thru March 27. www.groovetickets.com. (Steven Mikulan)

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THE WORLD'S LARGEST RODENT The title of Don Zolidis' comedy refers to the capybara, a kind of guinea-pig colossus found in South America. This tailless beast is the subject of a junior high school PowerPoint presentation that lands nerdy Billy (Andy Gobienko) in trouble from the start. PowerPoint title slides also introduce us to various low points of Billy's existence, including a family that consists of a porn-model sister, Meg (Kim McKean), and a mother (Mary Carrig) whose failed suicide attempt has left her comatose. "Zany" is writ large for this world premiere, as Billy meets a series of wacky characters: a moon-faced Christian teen named Chastity (Aria Noelle Curzon), Latin Lothario Reynaldo (Vincent Giovanni) and an alky priest (Kelly Van Kirk). The play's episodic structure, though, leaves us with the feeling of watching an overly long evening of unconnected sketches. Billy has some definite wants, including getting to first base with Chastity, reviving his vegetative mom, and coming to terms with his runaway dad (Van Kirk), who appears before Billy as a man-size capybara (startling fur suit by costume designer Lauren Tyler). Mere desires don't translate into a plot, however, and so when a certain denouement occurs, such as one character declaring she's a lesbian, it doesn't mean anything — it's just a line blurted out in an evening full of them. On the bright side, the ensemble, under Tom Ormeny's direction, has fun with the material, and Gobienko is likable in the lead role. Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru April 13. (818) 841-5421. (Steven Mikulan)