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Theater Reviews: Parasite Drag, Free Man of Color, Witch Ball

Groundlings River Adventure
PHOTO BY SHAWN BISHOP

BOYS' LIFE Watching director Dan Velez's uninspired production, it might seem hard to believe that Howard Korder's acerbic vignettes of slackers and their caddish sexcapades was a Pulitzer finalist in 1988. Which is not to denigrate either the judgment of the Pulitzer committee or the efforts of a clearly capable cast, but merely to question the vision behind a revival that steamrolls the pathos and ulterior probing of an astute script into a pancake-flat excuse for sketch-comedy laughs. Jack (Ben Rovner), Don (David Rispoli) and Phil (Jason Karasev) are a trio of 30-something buddies stuck on the pot-addled threshold between perennial adolescence and defining themselves as men. The group's enabler is the married, albeit savagely cynical Jack, who goads his bachelor comrades into misadventures with women who invariably prove more than their equal. Phil is the most plaintively romantic of the bunch and therefore the most tragically susceptible to Jack's self-serving manipulations. Only slightly more resilient is Don, who surmounts a potentially fatal infidelity to finally break free of Jack's corrupting influence, thanks mainly to the understanding and maturity of his fiancée (Tori Ayres Oman). Rovner gives a standout performance, but Jack's underlying strains of fear and despair — the comedy's critical dramatic ballast — are too often lost in the saucy surfaces of Velez's staging. Tanya Apuya's costumes lend occasional wit, but barely perfunctory (and uncredited) lighting and Sarah Kranin's impoverished set prove more hindrance than help. Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., N.Hlywd.; Thurs. & Sun., 8 p.m.; through Sept. 12. (818) 745-8527, brownpapertickets.com. (Bill Raden)

ENGAGEMENT In writer-director Allen Barton's unexpectedly sour romantic comedy, you can tell that the love match made in hell between smart, emotionally withholding, Republican commitment-phobe Mark (Everette Wallin) and warm, free-spirited, liberal Nicole (Audrey Moore) is careening off the rails when Mark tries to propose to her at a fancy restaurant but must instead run from the table to vomit. Mark is glib, funny and negative, while Nicole dreams of a soulmate with whom she has a deep connection. And, while each partner sees the other's flaws, each also thinks he or she will be able to change the other into the perfect mate — an operation that ends, predictably, in tears. Barton's play intends to skewer the notion of modern romance — e.g., the characters' dealings are interspersed with complaints about Facebook and Twitter, and the inevitable diminishment of the need for human contact that these devices bring. However, more than a commentary about the superficial technical devices that add clutter to our own emotional confusion, the piece's theme truly explores a more timeless concept: the emptiness of valuing being clever over feeling. That said, Barton's writing is not always up to the challenge: The dialogue is talky and repetitious while sometimes being so stridently mean, we can't understand why either of the two lovers would stay in the same room with the other. One problem may be that Barton's coolly ironic, snarky staging never builds any sense of a love that can so quickly change to hate — it's just hate that turns into more hate. The show is double-cast, but on the night reviewed, Wallin's snarky man-boy was strangely moving while still being thoroughly bilious, and Moore offered a nicely melancholic turn as the increasingly wearied Nicole. As her venomously embittered roomie who finds an unexpected lover herself, Ellie Schwartz delivers the show's most ferocious yet emotionally nuanced performance. Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 22. (310) 358-9936. Katselas Theatre Company (Paul Birchall)

THE EXERCISE Lewis John Carlino's 1968 play centers on a series of improvisations, conducted by the Actor (Daniel LaPratt, alternating with Keith Wyffels) and the Actress (Anadel Baughn, alternating with Susan Hanfield) in an attempt to solve some troubling acting problems. Initially it seems they're only casual acquaintances, but as they work, it becomes clear that they have had a traumatic personal relationship. Soon, they are at loggerheads in an age-old conflict: He's concerned with simulating emotion to show the audience, while she wants to use her acting to explore her own identity and achieve gut-level emotional truth. He regards her as a self-indulgent emotional masturbator, and she sees him as a coward who can never allow himself to lose control. Eventually, she challenges him to meet her on her terms. Though the premise is a fascinating one, the production doesn't always work. Baughn is constantly convincing, but it's not until Act 2 that LaPratt achieves the same emotional conviction. And there's something murky here, whether it's inherent in the script or due to a lack of clarity in director Kenn Schmidt's production. Nevertheless, the piece is always interesting to watch, and there's excellent work from both actors. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; indef. (323) 960-7724, plays411.com/theexercise. (Neal Weaver)

FLAT In a tween's world, having or not having breasts is usually the first experience of the grass being greener. For every generously gifted fifth grader covertly and desperately binding her rapidly blooming chest with an Ace bandage, there's a Judy Blume character begging God for "something" to fill her training bra. Ellen Clifford never received that something. Heavily influenced by Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, Clifford's autobiographical show recounts past and present episodes, most of which gleefully celebrate her breasts, or lack thereof. The problems arise less from the subject matter — several of the monologues could run as essays on the popular sort-of feminist Web site Jezebel — than with the adolescent-awkward construction and execution. She employs accents where none are needed (the "these my ho boots" bit, confusing in that it's supposed to introduce her struggle with anorexia, is especially cringe-inducing, bordering on offensive) and interacts with the audience by passing around the gel inserts from her push-up bra. Given that this is a show about, well, her, Clifford seems surprisingly uncomfortable throughout the performance, which is exacerbated by a clenched-teeth gaiety. Neither do the two unnecessary performers accompanying her — the precise, talented mime Mitchel Evans and director Lora Ivanova, who only serve to slow the already bumpy pace — benefit her. Though some refreshing confessionals ("I'm a terrible Dolly Parton impersonator," she says after lip-synching "9 to 5") provide a smile here and there, ultimately the show feels as artificial as a boob job. The Black Box Theater, 12420 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through August 28. (310) 622-4482. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

GO  FREE MAN OF COLOR A young, well-spoken and highly educated black man is tapped to become the leader of a nation. But it's not who you think. The year is 1828, the place is Athens, Ohio, and the man is John Newton Templeton (Kareem Ferguson), a freed slave whose education is facilitated by the Rev. Robert Wilson (Frank Ashmore). Wilson, a strictly principled man, enrolls John in Ohio University. Wilson's wife, Jane (Kathleen Mary Carthy), initially cold to Templeton when he comes to live with them, softens over time; however, she plants doubts in Templeton's head about Wilson's plan to make him the governor of Liberia. Charles Smith's spare three-character study unfolds through intimate moments and intellectual discourse, powerfully examining the issues of its day, as well as questions surrounding citizenship and belonging that continue to occupy us. The dialogue is especially refreshing for its crisp diction, for which the credit goes to both the cast and director Dan Bonnell. The show also appeals visually, as David Potts' set, consisting of stark silhouettes, brings to mind both popular 18th-century portraiture and African woodcuts. Similarly, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's authentically plain costumes avoid the dual pitfalls of theatrical period garb, which is often either too showy or simply looks fake. The cast is stellar all around, taking us on a journey that stresses the urgency of fulfilling the promises upon which our country was built. Colony Theater, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 12. (818) 558-7000, ext. 15; colonytheatre.org (Mayank Keshaviah)

THE GOOD NEGRO A black minister (Phrederic Semaj) stands at his pulpit, exhorting his congregation to fight racial injustice. A member of a "citizen's patrol" (Brian E. Smith) brutally beats a black woman (Theresa Deveaux) for taking her child into the whites-only restroom. These opening scenes in playwright Tracey Scott Wilson's fictionalized account of the early civil rights movement are among its most effective. Wilson strives to bring the pages of history into human focus by portraying the infighting among a group of activists struggling to organize nonviolent protest in Selma, Alabama, in 1963. At the center of the effort is the minister, James Lawrence, a committed and charismatic leader with a beautiful, devoted wife (Numa Perrier) — and an adulterous penchant for pretty women. Spied upon by the FBI, the organization also is hampered by contentiousness within its ranks, with Lawrence's fiery second-in-command (Damon Christopher) and a new tactical organizer from out of state (Austen Jaye) at each other's throats. While the play offers a compelling reminder of the vicious racism in our not-so-distant past, the script's docudrama flavor and uncomplicated characters require much finessing on the part of the ensemble. Under Sam Nickens' direction, that hasn't yet happened, with performances, on opening night, ranging from serviceable to over-the-top. The exceptions include Perrier, intense and authentic as Lawrence's betrayed wife; and Deveaux, whose character suffers great personal loss, and whose portrayal of sorrow ably brings home the tragedy of events. Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through Sept. 19. (323) 960-1054,plays411/com/good negro. Upward Bound Productions (Deborah Klugman)

GROUNDLINGS RIVER ADVENTURE Despite evidence of comic timing, this Groundlings sketch comedy–improv show lacks the kind of comedic distinction that has made the troupe's reputation. Directed by Damon Jones, this outing is a tepid series of scripted sketches, broken up by four improvised sequences where an emcee calls on the crowd for cues. Early on, the audience seemed predisposed to have a good time, judging by the hysterical laughter that seemed disproportionate to the comic stylings onstage. Half-baked routines included a sketch depicting a daffy Stephenie Meyers in drag, which poked fun at the popular author and her fans, and a familiar bit involving couples playing a guessing game called "Taboo." A three-piece band kept the mood vibrant by playing during the interludes, while the cast slipped into yet another fright wig or costume. But as the evening wore on, the long musical breaks between routines provided useful opportunities for people to check their devices. By the third improv sequence, the emcee was fielding facetious suggestions from the audience. That, disassembling improvs, plus some lazy writing, made for a disappointing night. Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 p.m.; through Oct. 2. (323) 934-4747. groundlings.com (Pauline Adamek)

GO  PARASITE DRAG As screwed-up families go, the one on exhibit in Mark Roberts' ultra-dark comedy makes a serious run for the top prize. The first glimpse of Gene (Robert Foster) reveals a sullen man hunched over a kitchen table, with an ice pad on his eye, as he nurses a shiner he got from his wife, Joellen (Mim Drew); she sits, staring out of the door, wryly commenting on the impending tornado about to strike their tiny Midwestern town. Eight years without sex, and trapped in a loveless marriage, they are bonded only by the conventions of small-town propriety, shallow pretense and Gene's fanatical Christian beliefs. The real twister, however, comes in the form of Gene's boorish, foul-mouthed brother, Ronnie (the outstanding Boyd Kestner), and his countrified wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), who drop in unexpectedly. Apparent from the outset is the seething resentment between Gene and Ronnie, which Roberts' fine script slowly heats to critical mass, uncovering a dark undercurrent of shared emotional and psychological mutilation. Sordid revelations emerge about the family's troubled past, their mother's bloody suicide and the sexual molestation of a drug-abusing sister, who is now dying of AIDS in a hospital. The final plot turn is raw and dirty. Notwithstanding the play's bleak tapestry, Roberts instills plenty of comic relief into his writing. The characters are well sketched and without a trace or urbanity. David Fofi delivers spot-on direction and draws very good performances from his cast, particularly Nowicki, who artfully blends Southern charm and simplicity with trailer-trash attitude. Elephant Theatre Company, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat, 8 p.m.; through Sept. 18. (213) 614-0556. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  WITCH BALL Centuries ago, a Romanian craftsman blew a glass ball for a widow pestered by a horny, tickling ghost. The blue orb was the size of a large onion and had 10 times as many layers. If a human happened on it, they'd lose themselves in its dense levels. So, too, would passing spirits who were literally sucked into the witch ball and trapped. Glass, unless shattered, is destined to outlive its owner. And so Zombie Joe's efficient, energetic ensemble of eight — Jonica Patella, Ashton Reese, Alexandra Ozeri, Christopher Goodwin, Andrew Graves, Nicole Fabbri, Jenny Dylana and Kyle Clare — takes us on the ball's adventure, from the Carpathian hills to the Inland Empire with owners who include a wolf pack, a Salem housewife, a serial murderer and a white raccoon. Zombie Joe's episodic script has sharply drawn characters and savage humor, and he frames it as a story about storytelling, about how every tale (and every life) has a beginning, a climax and a denouement. (Though some endings linger on after death, the ball watches a corpse slowly decompose.) Directed by Alison Cardoso with ZJU's unique joie de goofing, it's a tribute to yarn-spinning, with puppets on sticks and simple silver masks asking audiences to imagine with them a saga populated by gorillas and lions and demons. Pauline Noriega and Jeri Batzdorff's playful makeup and costuming round out the fleet and fantastical show. ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through Sept. 11. (818) 202-4120. (Amy Nicholson)