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Theater Reviews: Liquid, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, The New Testament/Helter Skelter

Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins
Ty Donaldson

GO  ANITA BRYANT DIED FOR YOUR SINS The title of Brian Christopher Williams’ Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins suggests a slick, sassy gay comedy, and so it is — but it is much more than that, something far richer. Growing up during the Nixon era, deeply closeted 11-year-old gay boy Horace (a terrific Wyatt Fenner) develops a monstrous crush on his hunky gym teacher (Nick Ballard). Horace and his family weather the Vietnam War, and big brother Chaz (Nick Niven) flees to Canada to escape the draft. In the recession of the 1970s, Dad (Tony Pandolfo) has economic reverses, and Mom (Jan Sheldrick) loses her job. And when Anita Bryant (Madelynn Fattibene) launches her militant campaign against gay rights, Horace learns that there are people who will hate him for who he is. He must come out to his loving but irascible parents, and he’s overcome by jealousy when he realizes his adored teacher is having an affair with a neighbor (Sara J. Stuckey). He retaliates by betraying the teacher, in a way he knows is shameful. Williams’ play becomes a funny and touching family saga, as well as the tale of a bright gay kid striving to grow up. Richard Israel provides wonderfully nuanced direction, and the entire cast is splendid. West Coast Ensemble, El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through October 4. (323) 460-4443 or tix.com. (Neal Weaver)

BABES & BRIDES From the “what could they have been thinking?” department comes this mystifyingly erratic revival of satirist Eric Berlin’s tepid 1992 suite of one-act misfires on Clinton-era mating mores. In “The Line That’s Picked Up 1,000 Babes (And How It Can Work for You!),” Berlin parses the semantics of a suburban singles wilderness in which a successful pickup depends less on what is said than the raw desperation of his alienated sexual explorers to connect, however briefly, to another human being. If the play’s elliptical, quick-cut structure and shallow, sexual mentors (Asa Holley and Jennifer Flynn) paired with bitterly skeptical neophytes (Evan Olman and Heather Fox) seems familiar, it may have something to do with Berlin’s near-plagiaristic looting of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. For the bottom-billed “The Midnight Moonlight Wedding Chapel,” Berlin shifts the action to Las Vegas and the theme to marital commitment as a tourist (Holley) and a casino waitress (Flynn) drunkenly persuade a chapel owner (Julie Mann) to legitimize their one-night connubial lark. Without a suitable Mamet to mine this time around, however, Berlin’s anemic characterizations and feeble situational contrivances seem almost incidental to the didactic moralizing that passes for dialogue. Marc Morales’ every-actor-for-himself staging proves especially hard on Holley and Mann, who seem cut adrift rather than directed, while terrific, commanding turns by the obviously talented Flynn and Fox transform an otherwise forgettable evening into something approaching a gross injustice. NoHo Actor’s Studio, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through August 29. (303) 329-3683. (Bill Raden)

GO  GROUNDLINGS SPACE CAMP Just when you thought it was safe to swear off laughing forever, the Groundlings have unleashed another solid show. Under Mikey Day’s direction, the best bits are weighted toward the beginning: John Connor’s sidekick meets his own protective Terminator, an 18-inch dancing robot; two octogenarian ’70s sitcom stars radiate diva ’tude while fumbling through a commercial for the AARP; and, my favorite, a postchampionship rally for the Lakers, where a fan opens up to Kobe Bryant via the news, looking into the camera and vowing, “You could make me learn to trust again.” Director Day keeps things moving at a nice clip, staying on top of five funny improv exercises, despite loud insistence from a tipsy audience member (who wanted more of her suggestions used) that everyone else in the crowd was a plant. In a uniformly good cast, Jeremy Rowley’s Kobe obsessive stands out, as do both ladies, Stephanie Courtney and Charlotte Newhouse, the latter of whom braved an instantly embarrassed theatergoer’s improv prompt that she speak “Asian.” Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; through Oct. 3. (323) 934-9700. (Amy Nicholson)

IN ARABIA WE’D ALL BE KINGS Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is a poet laureate of the insulted and injured, exploring the dark underbelly of urban society. Here, he examines the suckers, wannabes, lowlifes and losers who inhabit a seedy bar in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, unaware that they’re about to be driven out by the forces of gentrification. His writing is compassionate yet objective, but it also offers a safe, vicarious walk-on-the-wild-side for theatregoers who lead more sheltered lives. Director Jeremy Aluma expertly puts his large cast through their paces, though the vastness of the performance space saps intensity and compromises audibility. Among the fine performances are Frank Stasio as an ex-con who craves more respect than he can earn, and Tracy Ali as his elegant former girlfriend. Andrew McReynolds plays a hapless, drug-addled junkie, Bri Price scores as a gun-toting Latina who tries to support her baby via prostitution, and Andrew Bloch is persuasive as an old boozer still mourning his late wife. Jessica Diz plays a flamboyant crack whore, and Sharif Nasr is a bartender who turns to petty theft when his job disappears. It’s all very well-done, but largely due to the problems of the venue, the play may be more fun for the actors than for the audience. Old Expo Furniture Warehouse, 4321 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Sept. 12. An Alive Theatre production. (562) 818-7364. (Neal Weaver)

 

INFLUENCES OF THE SPIRIT Doug Jewell delivers a crackerjack performance as a drug addict, Ambrose, in the grip of delusion. It’s in “Head Trip,” the first of two unevenly crafted one-acts by playwright/co-director Albert Cowart Jr. The play takes place in the dilapidated living room of what had once been Ambrose’s comfortable middle-class home. Formerly a successful engineer, the volatile Ambrose has long since lost everything, including his dignity, job and wife (co-director Fatima Cortez-Todd), who left him after he mixed it up with a streetwalking junkie. He now spends his miserable, beer-swilling days spewing venom at apparitions of his son and his wife’s lesbian lover, among others. Cowart’s writing strengths are his ear for dialogue and his believable characters; what’s problematic are the story’s fuzzy details — for example, Ambrose’s wife begs him to sign an important paper but we’re never told what it is. In “Crowded Room,” two lovers on the edge of a breakup — Wanda (Kiana Tavasti) and Marvin (Michael Anderson) — are torn between their inner voices (Shondalyn Harris and Otis A. Harris) pushing them to reconcile, and opposing ones (Tanisha Livingston and Tony Paul) urging them apart. It’s an amusing premise that spawns a fractious, sometimes noisy, emotional encounter, and while that’s sometimes funny — especially Paul as Martin’s indignant chauvinist self — it’s also too long and too generic. More details about the characters’ past relationship would have made the play more involving. Village Theater in Lucy Florence, 3351 W. 43rd St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. (no perfs Labor Day weekend); through Sept. 20. (323) 293-1356. (Deborah Klugman)

LIQUID Directed and designed by Chris Covics, Brenda Varda’s farce benefits from superb technical arrangements. From Susannah Mitchell’s original costumes to Paul Bertin’s sound design, this production’s artistry is clearly on display. Most particularly, Perry Hoberman’s video and visuals are creatively delightful — and downright scary in other places. Covics’ over-the-top direction is well-suited to the material, but not all the actors are up to the task at hand. A bigger problem is the writing: Varda’s winsome ecological fable is undercut by stilted dialogue. The plot concerns a scientist, Nevah (Daniella Dahmen) who is looking to save the planet from global warming through the creation of CO2-eating algae. Nevah is set to marry Odam (Kyle Ingleman), but the terrorist Chaet (Craig Johnson) interrupts the ceremony, intent on stealing the scientific formula. He’s thwarted when a tsunami hits the island. Nevah, Odam and Chaet survive the tsunami but wash up in different places. These vignettes take them from an island made of trash to an oil rig to a pirate ship to a floating retirement home filled with cannibals. Varda takes potshots at multinational corporations, oil companies and refuse disposal, but much of the writing seems off-the-cuff. Shirley Anderson puts in a nice turn as a designer healer for tourists, who then becomes a blind seer, and Bruce Adel shines in several different roles. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Oct. 4. (323) 466-7781. (Sandra Ross)

GO  THE NEW TESTAMENT/HELTER SKELTER In Neil LaBute’s two short, scathing one-acts, the overarching theme is the notion of extreme retaliation for wrongs committed. Both vignettes boast characters motivated by darker aspects of the human psyche and driven by spiteful passion. In brief, the venom gushes like oil from a Texas oil well. In LaBute’s world premiere “The New Testament,” directed by Bjorn Johnson, a pompous playwright (Tim Banning) and a spineless producer (Benjamin Burdick) take an actor (Peter James Smith) out to lunch as a preface for their dumping him from the writer’s play, in which the actor has been cast to play Jesus Christ. Although one can imagine the actor might accept the loss with grace if the firing had been handled with charm and finesse, these are qualities utterly lacking in the boorish, foul-mouthed writer, who launches into a bigoted tirade so offensive, the actor digs in his heels. The cavalier manner of the actor’s being fired is slightly contrived — we can’t accept that the writer would act like such a pig for fear of legal reprisals, if not for reasons of human decency (a quality rarely found in any play by LaBute). Yet, the interplay between the crisply defined characters is taut and gripping. We can’t wait to find out who will win — or, more precisely, whether the loathsome writer will get his just desserts. LaBute himself directs the bill’s other play, the ferocious “Helter Skelter,” in which a pregnant wife (Kate Beahan) joins her philandering husband (Ron Eldard) for a Christmas hotel lunch, which turns into a harrowing sequence of hateful revelations and tragedy. The play ends with a horrifying spectacle — but the piece’s actual point is the ultimately unbearable gulf of incomprehension between the suffering wife’s desperate need for meaning and the oleaginous husband’s total lack of moral compass. Eldard is bleakly funny as the scuzzball, while Beahan’s beautifully subtle turn as the wife gradually morphs from all-American sweetie to Greek tragic heroine. The Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. Call for schedule. (323) 882-6912. (Paul Birchall)

 

GO  OEDIPUS THE KING, MAMA! is a musical parody of Sophocles’ play, of musical shtick, of Elvis mania and of cheesy theatrical devices. In the tradition of the Troubies’ mashing of classic lit into pop music (Twelfth Dog Night, Alice in-One-Hit-Wonderland, Much Adoobie Brothers About Nothing), the event’s thrill hangs on the tautness of the theatrical wires that bind the classical source material, the music and free-wheeling improvisation. Falcon Theater, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through September 27. (818) 955-8101. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

THE SEAGULL In her staging of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, director Marjo-Riikka Makela has actress-diva Arkadina (Devin Mills), who visits the rustic Russian estate of her ailing brother, Sorin (Bobby Reed), attached to an entourage. A cluster of devotees follows her every step, as though attached by the chin to the back of her collar. It’s a slapstick device meant to tug Chekhov’s impressionistic study of artists and unrequited love into something more expressionistic, like one of the symbolist visions imagined by her callow playwright son, Konstantin (Matthew Anderson). The production (in Paul Schmidt’s colloquial translation and costumed in period by Jenny Lind Bryant) contains some lovely performances: Amelia Rose’s tragic Nina — the young actress with whom Konstantin is obsessed — has the winsome quality of a reed in a marsh. Villas’ Trigorin and Mills’ Arkadina, both initially too mannered, settle into a style that straddles the divide between emotional credibility and comedic remove Makela aims for. Yet that divide remains: Act 2 is far stronger, where the slapstick comes into focus as Konstantin’s comic nightmare. It’s a refreshingly bold attempt in a work by a playwright who’s almost defined by his impressionist view of life. While the production suffers from some lackluster performances, the second-act power suggests that I may have seen the first act on an off-night. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through September 12. (323) 871-1912. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater Feature.

THIS IS MY F-ING WEDDING Francisco Castro’s amusing but meandering paean to bridehood centers on the third set of wedding plans for Jessie (Adrian Bee Borden), whose first two broke down at the altar. A few minutes into the entrance of groom Tommy (Philip Asta), it is obvious to the audience what will doom this engagement. After this simple beginning, the play spins out of control, dropping in on life scenes of various, somewhat related folks, most of whom are unpleasant. Castro’s verbal and character styles are a cross between the early works of SoCal playwrights Del Shores, who specializes in Southern locales; and Justin Tanner, whose works dwell in suburbs and trailer parks. Castro’s comedy, however, lacks their discipline in storytelling. Fortunately director Tiffany Roberts has assembled a cast of talented, focused actors, who make even the most disconnected scenes enjoyable on their own. Still, Roberts is never quite settled as to whether this is a character-driven comedy or a gag-ridden farce, and this lack of cohesion begins to wear. Some of the best moments are monologues by a clown (Anthony Marquez), who philosophize about love, loss and marijuana. The production values are nil, but there is a certain high energy among the cast, which makes it easy to watch. Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Aug. 30. (818) 506-3903. (Tom Provenzano)

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