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Theater Reviews: Screwballs, Winter Wonderettes, Lessons

{mosimage} ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO “I stopped believing in things when Diana Ross started playing rodeos,” laments aging queen Terry (Sammy Williams), who along with his band of gay brothers has seen better days. Now all over 40 and officially “trolls,” they’ve assembled to honor the just-deceased Boomie (James Warnock). (Although it’s 1986, Boomie’s died not of AIDS, but a heart attack outside Williams-Sonoma.) Over the course of Dick DeBenedictis’ 10 breezy musical numbers, campy Terry, transsexual diva Jo (understudy Patricia Harrison), gym rat Phillip (understudy Daniel Guzman), ex-hustler Blane (Chase McCown), nurturing Michael (Steven Connor) and Carmen Miranda–channeling Juan (Charles Herrera) mourn the end of the disco era and wax nostalgic for the bathhouses of yore. If those character fixations sound simplistic, it’s because they are — right down to Juan’s habit of exclaiming “Aye carumba!” and the way the men clutch their backs in pain at the end of each dance routine. And though its heart is in the right place, Bill Dyer’s play seems as much a time capsule as Jo’s Studio 54 medley; it’s a comfort food buffet of soft shoe numbers and references to the Andrews Sisters that hasn’t felt vital since Madonna mainstreamed voguing. MACHA THEATRE, 1107 N. Kings Rd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 30. (323) 960-7776 or www.plays411.com/heaventoo. (Amy Nicholson)

{mosimage}THE DESK SET William Marchant’s 1956 comedy, set at the dawn of the computer age, centers on Bunny Watson (Michele Bernath), the bright, resourceful head of the research department at a major broadcasting company. On the personal front, however, she allows herself to be romantically strung along for years by commitment-shy company exec Abe Cutter (Klair Bybee). She’s also threatened by efficiency expert Sumner (Robert Gallo), who hints that her department might be replaced by the new “electronic brain” called Emmarac. The play climaxes with a clever face-off between Bunny and the humongous computer. Unfortunately, the rest of the play fails to live up to its climactic scene. The dated script, cast in three-act form, is slow moving and often devoid of action. Bunny’s off-again, on-again romance with Cutter is hard to take seriously or care about. (The movie version wisely made the efficiency expert, played by Spencer Tracy, into the romantic lead.) There are gallant efforts by Bernath and Gallo to keep this leaky vessel afloat, but director Doug Engalla’s lackluster, amateurish production offers little help, though designer Chris Winfield creates a large, detailed set in a relatively small space. LONNY CHAPMAN GROUP REPERTORY THEATRE, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (Dec. 7 perf at 7 p.m.); thru Dec. 29. (818) 700-4878. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage}GRAND DELUSION David Rock’s relentlessly childish burlesque imagines a series of meetings between Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II and some fictional and fictionalized plenipotentiaries on the eve of the First World War. Rock speculates how, with just a little more intelligence and less selfishness, the great powers may have avoided the catastrophe that befell Europe after Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. It’s clear Europe never had a chance, however — at least under the playwright’s heavy hand. The story’s Kaiser (Kurt Fuller) is a bullying brute obsessed with his withered left arm, while the Tsar (Xander Berkeley) is a kind of lisping vaudeville comic who just wants everyone to get along. He sends a footman, Podnov (Brad Raider) to a secret conference whose members include a French general (Eric Stonestreet), the Austrian foreign minister (Timothy Omundson) and British duchess (Amanda Detmer). The participants discuss heading off the coming war, but those who can remember reading a history book in school will know how this ends. With help from John Eckert (lighting) and Shannon Scrofano (scenic design), director Larry Biederman invests the show with a footlit, Ubu-meets-music-hall fervor. Fuller and Omundson seem to have the most fun, although perhaps the show’s real star is Colbert S. Davis IV’s explosive sound design. LOST STUDIO, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Dec. 15. (323) 960-4441. (Steven Mikulan)

LESSONS Wendy Graf’s drama shows a series of life-changing meetings between a young, derailed female rabbi (Larissa Laskin) and a retired shoe manufacturer (Hal Lindon) — a recently widowed nonpracticing Jew who, with time on his hands, first wishes to learn Hebrew and then, on a whim, chooses to prep for the bar mitzvah he never had as a child. However much Graf has expanded her play since its 2005 premiere at this same venue, one finds oneself screaming for some of these characters’ back stories to arrive between the lines rather than in them. Yet the play grapples with some of the most profound ideas about faith and optimism, mortality and grief, so it’s clear why Gordon Davidson chose to make this his first directing assignment since leaving CTG. West Coast Jewish Theatre and The Group at Strasberg, LEE STRASBERG CREATIVE CENTER, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (no perfs week of Dec. 10); thru Dec. 23. (323) 650-7777. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature next week.

{mosimage}NARNIA Perhaps this production lacked the resources to present a more elaborate staging of this 1986 Jules Tasca, Ted Drachman & Thomas Tierney musical based on C.S. Lewis’ 1950 fantasy novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But in presenting it as a re-creation of a live radio play broadcast from a blitz-plagued London circa Christmas, 1940, director Alison Kalmus has created a few dilemmas. First, Lewis’ tome, the first in his “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, was published after WWII’s end, but some may forgive Kalmus’ dramatic license. Second, it may be a stretch to expect a youth audience, accustomed to the visual stimuli of the recent movie version’s special effects, to thrill to a performance format lacking in dance, movement and fantasy costumes. Kalmus does better with her casting, such as Kenneth Woods’ lion king Aslan, with his formidable bass voice and stage presence; and Nina Silver’s sinister White Witch. James Shechet, Amy Lim, Megan Sanborn and Graeme Cranston-Cuebas are notable as our children protagonists, though at times the music drowns out their voices. Nonetheless, the rapturous harmonies sung by the entire ensemble almost compensate for the show’s hitches. (Most roles are multiple cast.) SIERRA MADRE PLAYHOUSE, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (call for added perfs); thru Dec. 23. (626) 256-3809. (Martín Hernández)

{mosimage}PARALLEL LIVES is not a play but an abridged version of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney’s standup comedy show. The 90-minute production runs hot and cold, and is mostly sustained by the comic talents of Gioia Marchese and Emily Schweitz, who mirthfully channel a collage of characters in a series of vignettes. It’s really a wild, comedic celebration of all things female: “Supreme Beings” finds the two perched atop the stage sporting angel’s wings engaged in a humorous dialogue describing their “arrangements” for the creation of the genders, among other things. In subsequent scenes, the pair garner some laughs as parochial schoolgirls puzzling over the complexities of theology, as adolescents coping with menstruation, as teenagers chatting about boys and just about everything else while preparing for a sleepover, and as a male and female in a humorous bar pickup scene. Act 2 offers more of the same (it even starts with the same angel scenario) except here the pall of tedium makes itself felt and the script runs flat. Elina de Santos directs. The Bridge West at THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Dec. 9. (323) 960-7745. (Lovell Estell III)

{mosimage}SCREWBALLS Writer-director Jonathan Edelman strives hard to capture the humor of a classic screwball comedy, but this belabored farce never gets past its own conceit. Events unfold at a resort motel in Arizona and revolve around the proprietress, Abby (Martha Gehman), whose engagement to a nerdy guy named Neil (Herb Mendelsohn) unravels when her ex-husband, Guy (Scott Weintraub), shows up. Abby’s other concerns include a meddling mom (unseen but on the phone); her teenage son, Dino (Daniel Farber), so desperate to avoid a camping trip with Neil that he prepares to chop off his own hand; and a kooky bartender named Frankie (Kyle T. Heffner), who mixes magic potions. One of Frankie’s concoctions propels Act 2 after Abby and Guy accidentally imbibe some of it, causing him to inhabit her body; and she, his. This identity switch supposedly engenders hilarious misapprehensions among friends and acquaintances. In fact one’s forced not merely to suspend disbelief but to relinquish it entirely. Theoretically, this madness might have played successfully had it been inspired by the foibles of character rather than imposed by heavy-handed artifice. Act 1 plods, while the marginally livelier Act 2 picks up spin from the semibare-chested Guy parading in front-plunging drag as he attempts to seduce (for reasons never made clear) a potential business associate of Abby’s. The gag is painfully long, but Weintraub handles it ably. Otherwise, only a focused Farber transcends the awkward material. A visiting production at the ODYSSEY THEATRE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 15. (310) 477-2055. (Deborah Klugman)

SERGEANT SIFFOLLIS To its enormous credit, Australian writer-performer David Newham’s autobiographical solo show has not an iota of perkiness or the kinds of one-liners that are sculpted for Comedy Central. His tales of woe fall somewhere between a confession and a catharsis, which he delivers on a bare stage (except for some blocks) with a serious intensity that commands respect. He tells of growing up in Sydney in a Catholic household, dominated by a brutal father who turned the family’s domestic life into a war zone of apprehension and terror. Newham’s show stems from the feelings of paralysis ensuing from those years; binge eating that led to the mockery by sadistic peers in a prisonlike boarding school of his being so fat; his hatred of his own body; his beloved sister’s death from spiked drugs. That such a series of laments should lead to Newham’s admittance into the local police force, eventually serving as an undercover cop and then as a local prosecutor (after his completing law school, naturally), is where things get really interesting, or could, if the show fleshed out the details of some of those cases. The linkages between how Newham behaved on the streets and in court (largely unshown here), juxtaposed against memories of his father yelling at him to “stay back!” while the older man throttled his mother, hold the keys to this show’s kingdom. At this point, Newham’s theatrical treatment of his life is perfunctory, tilting toward self-pity, as though he’s only begun to examine the deeper meanings of how one’s past provides a kind of tempest for the present, and where justice, in all its slippery incarnations, resides in this world. Adam Karlen elegantly directs the scenes like snapshots in pools of light that are eventually engulfed by darkness. HUDSON THEATER GUILD, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 1. (323) 960-7863. (Steven Leigh Morris)

{mosimage} GO WINTER WONDERETTES Creator-director Roger Bean’s entertaining revue is a holiday sequel to his long-running musical about the Marvelous Wonderettes, that mythical amateur female girl band from the late ’60s. This time, the Wonderettes have been mustered to entertain at the Harper Hardware Christmas party. At first, the holiday fest is merely cheerful fun, with the perky Wonderettes warbling a medley of Christmas favorites. Yet, complications ensue when the boss vanishes — and the envelopes supposedly containing the year’s Christmas bonuses unexpectedly turn out to hold an unpleasant surprise. One can’t help wishing that Bean’s frolic contained a stronger narrative spine, but the production is, in most other respects, the perfect Christmas revue. Bean’s book is froth itself, with the occasionally campy banter among the four Wonderettes bringing to mind what the Golden Girls might have been like 40 years ago. The musical numbers crackle with energy and joy, thanks to choreographer Janet Miller’s crisp blocking. The Wonderettes themselves are impeccable singers and hilarious performers. As daffy Wonderette Suzie, Bets Malone especially charms with a winsome tap-dancing number — as does Jill Van Velzer as sultry Wonderette Cindy Lou, with her unexpectedly touching rendition of “All Those Christmas Cliches.” EL PORTAL FORUM THEATRE, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 31. (888) 505-SHOW. (Paul Birchall)


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