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Theater Reviews: Sock & Shoe, Children of a Lesser God, Art, Savin’ Up for Saturday Night

Shoshannah Stern and Matthew Jaeger star in the Deaf West Theatre's 30th Anniversary Production of "CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD."
Michael Lamont

GO  ART Playwright Yasmina Reza’s scintillating 1994 comedy debates a variety of ideas, and you find yourself agreeing with the last comment a character makes — until the next guy says something that is just as clever. Nouveau riche Parisian dermatologist Serge (Francois Chau) purchases a 200,000 franc painting by a trendy, modern artist. The trouble is, it’s a blank, white canvas — and no amount of describing it as a masterpiece of “plain magnetic monochrome” will prevent Serge’s prissy, aesthete best pal, Marc (Bernard White), from questioning his friend’s intelligence and sanity. When Marc and Serge’s amiable buddy Yvan (Ryan Wu) attempts to make peace between the squabbling pair, it becomes clear that deep-seated hostilities undercut the various relationships — and you know there’s going to be trouble when one character starts fingering his Magic Marker. For a play with such philosophical subtext, director Alberto Isaac’s crisp and smart production gives touching attention to the characters, assisted by Christopher Hampton’s glib yet emotion-packed translation. Alan E. Muraoka’s chic, white set — minimalist except for a few Top Design–esque pieces of furniture — perfectly captures the pseudotrendy art world. White’s uptight and slightly smug Marc is hilariously passive-aggressive, while Chau’s cheerfully upbeat Serge keeps you guessing whether he’s a genius or an idiot. However, Yu’s Yvan is the showstopper — a good-natured nebbish battling both his Bridezilla fiancée and his pals’ eventually revealed low opinion of him. The play’s brilliance lies in the way it has you believing that nothing is more important than settling the question of which of the three is right in their definition of art. David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru October 11. (213) 625-7000. An East West Players Production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD Most productions of Mark Medoff’s pioneering 1979 drama about the romance between a deaf student and her hearing-abled teacher are directed and staged from the point of view of a hearing audience, introduced to the world of the hearing-challenged. Yet, director Jonathan Barlow Lee’s haunting production of the play, staged by Deaf West Theater to celebrate the piece’s 30th anniversary and the epochal role the drama played in the advent of Deaf Theater, is compellingly told from the point of view of the deaf, with those who can hear being subtly poised as outsiders. The play tells the story of beautiful, deaf student Sarah (Shoshannah Stern), a pupil at a school for the deaf, who steadfastly refuses to learn how to communicate — either verbally or through ASL. Although Sarah’s choice exiles her from any contact with the hearing world, the young communications instructor assigned to her, James (Matthew Jaeger), finds her fiery spirit irresistible — and they eventually fall in love. Their romance is ultimately threatened by the stresses of their two hugely different worlds. Though Act 2’s focus on 1970s earnest-revolutionary issues inevitably causes the dramatic momentum to sag, Medoff’s play has aged less in terms of its activist stance for the deaf and more in terms of the tightening of protocol in teacher-student relationships over the decades: The romance between a teacher and his student now actually seems somewhat creepy, and we can’t help but wonder whether James’ kind concerns for his student would be so intense if he didn’t find her so physically attractive. Still, Lee’s production — orchestrated for audiences at all level of hearing ability — dazzles, and the ensemble, encompassing hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, offers beautiful, subtle acting turns. Stern’s ferocious performance as Sarah is particularly powerful. With the exception of one elementally searing moment, the actress doesn’t utter a sound — yet we’re struck by how much passion and love can be communicated via ASL during her operatic but paradoxically silent performance. Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru October 11. (866) 811-4111. (Paul Birchall)

MATTHEW MODINE SAVES THE ALPACAS Oh, dear. How could Blair Singer’s comedy about a washed-out former celeb, Matthew Modine (played with tongue firmly in cheek by Matthew Modine), trying to crawl his way back onto the A-list by enlisting himself in a hip charity have gone so astray? Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 18. (800) 745-3000. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

GO  MOTHER Writer-performer Mary-Beth Manning’s mother, Joan, was a loving, mercurial and idiosyncratic woman, whose rapid mood changes sometimes bewildered her impressionable young daughters. The youngest of 15 children from a blue-collar Irish-American family, Joan — and her husband Ray, Mary-Beth’s father — grew up, married and reared their family in a small Massachusetts town. Lively and well-crafted, Manning’s show pays tribute to her mother’s expansive spirit, chronicling their complex relationship, from her own kindergarten years — when her parent loomed large and intimidating — through adulthood, when, as a struggling actress in New York and L.A., she still spoke regularly to her mom about her career and her love life (a habit for which she sought psychiatric intervention). The play takes a more somber turn after Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer. Emerging from the shadow of a strong-willed, colorful and/or influential parent is common, in literature and in life; under Diana Castle’s direction, Manning’s storytelling gifts, her timing and sense of irony for the most part create an entertaining and involving solo show that transcends the ordinary, though its 100-minute length, without intermission, is a strain. The preponderance of some anecdotes, especially in the production’s final third, dilutes what we already anticipate as the story’s poignant climax. Imagined Life Theatre, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru October 3. (866) 811-4111. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING “Welcome to Shakespeare on the Rocks,” says Vesper Theatre Company President Corey MacIntosh before this fledgling company begins to perform the Bard’s play inside the second bear cave from the left at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park. It’s an apt setting for this scrappy and strong production, fed by young energy and funded by donations stuffed afterward into a hat. As cross-temper’d lovers Benedick and Beatrice, MacIntosh and Courtnie Sauls have a combustible chemistry that fuels this comic romance about double-dealing and pride. Besides an early speech by villain Don John (John Dimitri), which sounds cheekily like a libertarian blowhard on AM radio, director Tim Landfield has no interest in shoehorning in modern relevance. This is simple Shakespeare, gamely and crisply performed outdoors as the sun cools off into early evening. Special kudos to Patrick Blakely, who plays the good Don Pedro with a plummy confidence that feathers into his hair, a winged, hair-sprayed froth last seen on a Hall and Oates album cover. The Old Zoo in Griffith Park, Crystal Springs Drive and Griffith Park Drive; Sat. & Sun., 3:30 p.m.; thru October 11. (323) 207-6365. A Vesper Theatre Company production.

PAINTING CHURCHES Playwright Tina Howe’s title is a pun: The only Churches here are people, Gardner and Fanny Church, and their portrait-painter daughter, Margaret. Gardner (Edgar Mastin) is a world-famous poet, now sinking into senility and perhaps Alzheimer’s. Narcissistic Fanny (Diane Frank) is frazzled and exhausted from taking care of her increasingly dependent husband. Margaret (Krisztina Koltai) has gone off to NYC to study art and is beginning to make a name for herself. Now Fanny is attempting to move Gardner out of the Boston home they can no longer afford or take care of, and into a much smaller cottage. Margaret has returned home to assist with the move, and to paint a portrait of her parents. She’s also seeking their respect. Gardner and Fanny are unable to recognize her career and achievements, and Margaret is equally incapable of perceiving their plight, refusing to acknowledge Gardner’s ever-diminishing powers, or Fanny’s increasing desperation. Howe’s script may be better than it appears here in director Kappy Kilburn’s slapdash, obvious and unfocused production. (It doesn’t help that Frank seemed uncertain of her lines.) The Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; in rep, call for schedule; thru November 7. (818) 700-4878. (Neal Weaver)

GO  SAVIN’ UP FOR SATURDAY NIGHT A thunder ’n’ lightnin’ romance between ex-spouses crackling around a restraining order lies in the vain heart of Savin’ Up for Saturday Night, Jeff Goode (book) and Richard Levinson’s (songs) new musical set in an undisclosed locale that sounds a whole lot like West Texas. And though this is a countrified variation on Erin Kamler’s urban and urbane Divorce! The Musical, which played at the Coast Playhouse earlier this year, director Jeremy Aldridge does double duty to seduce us into an environment, as he did with last year’s hit at this same theater, Louis & Keely, Live at the Sahara. David Knutson’s set transforms the theater into small-town canteen/gas station, with plastic L.P. records and American flags pinned to the wall. Jaimie Froemming’s Texas costumes can make you feel a tad out of place for leaving that shirt with the fringe and the cowboy boots in the closet. And there are other striking similarities between Savin’ Up and Louis & Keely: a marriage on the rocks, an onstage band (honky-tonk rather than jazz, consisting of musical director/guitarist John Groover McDuffie, who’s also on pedal steel; Peter Freiberger on bass; Dave Fraser on piano; John Palmer on drums; and Al Bonhomme, alternating on guitar). Levinson’s songs are a throwback to early Elton John, when he was working with Bernie Taupin, with a twist of Randy Newman’s harmonic grandeur. Each of the two acts opens with a ballad accompanied only by piano (“Dr. Bartender” and “Small Town”), which have simple yet haunting harmonic progressions from John’s earliest albums, and the shit-kicking Act 2 “Gotta Lotta Rockin’ To Do” is a musical nod to John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” Also echoing Louis & Keely is a dimension that makes this show just right for L.A. — a prevalent tension between narcissism and the capacity to give of oneself, which is perfectly embodied in the delusions of Eldridge Jr. (Brendan Hunt), a local homophobe who believes he possesses the charisma and style of Elvis Presley. In fact, he has a slight speech impediment and a deranged glint in his eye. His singing act dominates the bar, with his name in lights as a backdrop. (A number of the bulbs tellingly need replacing, like in his own emotional circuitry.) Can he win back his ex, Lucinda (the vivacious Natascha Corrigan) — a woman of machine-gun wit and fury, who works double time to penetrate the impenetrable veneer of Eldridge’s ego? Things get touchy when Eldridge’s longtime friend, bartender Doc (the bearlike Bryan Krasner) finally has the guts to make a move on Lucinda, while sweet Patsy (Courtney DeCosky) cares for Eldridge — but not that much. Savin’ Up is a thin entertainment, enhanced by Allison Bibicoff’s sashaying choreography, but an entertainment nonetheless. Its tone of sentimentality sprinkled with metaphysics is embodied in the song “Here,” beautifully rendered by Rachel Howe as Sissy, a daffy waitress. The place and people can make you so insane, you want to flee, she croons: “And I know someboday/We’re all just gonna disappear/So I want to take the time right now to say/I really love it here.” Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 4 & 11, 7 p.m.; through October 24. (310) 281-8337. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SOCK & SHOE The “Sock” portion of this pair of clown-and-puppet acts features former Cirque du Soleil maestro Daisuke Tsuji in the latest incarnation of the nouveau pantomimist’s quest to take clowning out of the circus and place it on the performance-art stage. Call it clowning for those who hate clowns. “Death and Giggles” (co-created by Tsuji and puppeteer Cristina Bercovitz) eschews the Cirque’s more egregious audience pandering and slapstick grotesquerie for an often lyrical and richly metaphoric exploration into the metaphysics of dying. Framed by an ocean-surf drowning, the narrative has Tsuji, who is made up in simple whiteface and dressed in a sports coat and tie, on a balloon-strewn stage, improvising and miming his way through a series of life memories, ranging from a petulant, hyperactive child being called to dinner; a school cafeteria food fight; the sexual awakening of adolescence; and the adult experiences of love, marriage and loss. Each scene is punctuated by the wit and vivid atmospherics of composer Jonathan Snipes’ striking sound design, which, in what may be the show’s cleverest conceit, is cued by Tsuji’s bursting of successive balloons as each, drowning breath is released. The evening’s curtain-raiser, “Sole Mate,” an ingratiatingly cute exercise in close foot puppetry, has Bercovitz’s sneaker sing the titular, romantic ballad (music by Snipes, lyrics by Snipes, Bercovitz & Jessica Erskine) as it searches through Erskine’s mismatching footwear for its missing mate. Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Fri., 9 p.m.; thru October 23. (310) 838-4264. (Bill Raden)

THREE SISTERS As with much of Anton Chekhov’s work, this play about the Prozorov family deals with the decay of the pre–Soviet Russian aristocracy at the end of the 19th century and the uncertain future that lies ahead for the country. Set in a provincial town, the story centers on the lives of the titular femmes, Olga (Vanessa Waters), Maria (Susan Ziegler) and Irina (Murielle Zuker), who have lost their father and live in the family home with their older brother, Andrey (Scott Sheldon), and his wife, Natalia (Cameron Meyer), while they long to return to the glamour and excitement of Moscow. The challenge with Chekhov, of course, is striking the fine balance between the almost slapstick comedy and heartbreaking tragedy that alternately define the lives of his characters. Company co-founder and director Jack Stehlin does a laudable job with the text’s humor, and his balletic transition between Acts III and IV is innovative; however, he never fully draws out the piece’s emotional weight of loss, leaving it to ubiquitous Russian “philosophizing.” Kitty Rose’s layered set facilitates the numerous entrances and exits, and Zale Morris’ finely detailed costumes have the appropriate period feel. The cast, too, is solid, but Meyer stands out in completing her emotional journey onstage and making us feel something, even if hatred, for the vicious figure she becomes. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Wed., 8 p.m. (Wed. perfs until Oct. 14 only); Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru November 8. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. A Circus Theatricals Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)