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Theater Reviews: The Limitations of Genetic Technology, Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein

Roccopella

CRIMES OF THE HEART is a play that's been widely performed ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981. But for only the second time in its history, it is presented with an Asian cast, and it's the first time in which the three Southern sisters are specifically hapa (of mixed Asian descent). While this may strike traditionalists as incongruous, a few minutes into the first scene, the ethnicity of the actresses falls away and their Southern personas take over. This melting away of ethnicity into the quirky ethos of playwright Beth Henley's Southern gothic humor is a testament to the talents of Elizabeth Liang (a perfectly put-upon Lenny), Kimiko Gelman (a fabulously flighty Meg) and Maya Erskine (a beautifully batty Babe), not to mention dialect coach Anne Schilling. But if the gold standard of interpreting a classic is an invitation to see the play through a new lens, director Leslie Ishii's production falls short. If the production's freshly minted Asian currency gets "whitewashed" into the regional idiosyncrasies of Mississippi, it says little new about the play, and even less about the assimilation of cultures. Rather, its reason for being would appear to be casting opportunities for these excellent actors, and this well-staged production becomes just an exercise for those who wish to be entertained once again by the tender absurdity of the McGrath sisters. For those who have deeper hungers, however, it's a missed opportunity to utilize this company's talent. East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 5. (213) 625-7000, eastwestplayers.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

LOL! LATINA ON THE LOOSE! If you don't know Brazilian actress Mina Olivera — "Best Looking Hooker" on several episodes of Reno 911! — it takes about five minutes of her solo show to realize she'd be a great caipirinha date. Bubbly, cute and grounded, she's as easy to spend 90 minutes with as a cold drink on a hot day. Set on a stage with lightbulbs that dangle low like fallen stars, Olivera's one-woman biography dances through the last 30 years of her life, and sambas back further still to when her grandmother, a huge force in her life, was a 16-year-old beauty queen in a village of 500. Grandma was a hobbyist psychic, respected and feared for prophesying the plane crash that killed the first fiancé of Olivera's mother. From the joy with which Olivera describes their dynamic, it's clear that grandma's big personality helped push her granddaughter to embrace her own inner diva. (When Olivera finds a bra in her boyfriend's apartment, she hears Grandma's advice to make this her operatic telenovela moment.) Grandma's big wish was to see Olivera act on Melrose Place, never mind that the show was canceled right after Olivera arrived in San Francisco for school. Olivera's quest to be an actress survives one bad boyfriend, one better one and several counselors and managers who advise her against betting her future on making it as a Latina actress. One cautions that the hurdle Latino actors face is their own delusion that they aren't typecast. But Olivera isn't here to make universal statements about prejudice, emotional abuse, culture shock or any other potholes on her road to Hollywood — she's here to crack jokes and make friends, and she does so with ease. Alberto Barboza directs. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 20. (866) 811-4111. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  THE LIMITATIONS OF GENETIC TECHNOLOGY Former L.A. Weekly critic and playwright Luis Arturo Reyes' darkly cerebral satire opens with a snazzy set of video mock-commercials touting the benefits of a megalithic corporation's genetic engineering program, and concluding with the ironic motto, "Our product is people!" Set in the near future, the play posits a world in which genetic technology has allowed almost every dream to come true. The population now has the ability to be beautiful and perhaps immortal. Yet even as people have their livers swapped out after a brisk night's boozing, and teenagers capriciously get themselves genetically implanted with elf ears and a tail to fit the fashion, more complicated issues are afoot. When, at a company party, a holographic image of eternally boyish corporate CEO York (Kyle Nudo) announces his suicide, the corporation is thrown into chaos. Reyes' drama is unabashed science-geek chic — intelligent, imaginative and full of wit — but the sometimes awkward technical jargon and dense, philosophy-filled exchanges take a long time to spark much emotional momentum. Midway through, though, comes the desire by the new company president (Jeffrey Wylie) and his marketing-executive wife (Harmony Goodman) to create a young baby android. With the couple's growing affection for a creature they at first consider a science experiment, the play reaches an incredibly moving tragedy. Director David Watkins Jr.'s intimate production occasionally suffers from energy lapses, but designer Steven Calcote's video-screen-and-chrome set quite effectively creates a futuristic mood. In his turn as the indefinably spooky, Peter Pan–like company CEO, Nudo engagingly balances scientific detachment with childlike innocence. Sarah Lilly, as his world-weary wife, offers a splendidly nuanced turn that's equally mischievous and sad. Wylie and Goodman, as the corporate parents "testing" the cloned baby, are appealing as their characters nicely evolve from cold businesspeople into a loving dad and mom. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. brownpapertickets.com/event/131828. (Paul Birchall)

THE LITTLE FLOWER OF EAST ORANGE Midway through the first act of Stephen Adly Guirgis' dysfunctional family drama, a seven-hours-sober Danny (Michael Friedman) stands on the side of the road, determined to hitch a ride. Smoking black-tar heroin and sucking on a gin-infused Slurpee, his stray-cat girlfriend, Nadine (Kate Huffman), states the obvious: "There are no cars." Finally, he concedes. Guirgis' script is as full of promise and as weighted down as lead character Danny, a rising star of a writer who's been derailed by drugs, alcohol, conflicted love for his co-dependent mother (Melanie Jones) and debilitating anger toward her deaf father (Timothy McNeil). In rehab for just a week, Danny learns his mother's gone missing in New York City. His bitter sister, Justina (Marisa O'Brien), sick of being the grown-up in the family, greets his arrival with a subtle guilt trip. Subplots are introduced and then forgotten like old toys; hallucinations that appeared during the first act end up being so irrelevant you wonder if they were figments of your imagination. Still, you're rooting for Danny, played by Friedman with a sweetly open acknowledgment of his own wobbly existence, and for the action to stop turning onto streets with no outlets. Near the end, however, Danny shrugs, "I spent my whole life standing on the precipice, waiting for someone to knock me off so I could start living," and Guirgis succinctly sums up the problem with his play. David Fofi directs. Elephant Theatre Company at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (877) 369-9112. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

GO  MAESTRO: THE ART OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN From the first piano notes and hauntingly beautiful singing in his one-man bio show, writer-performer Hershey Felder grips the audience in the palm of his hand and never lets go. Beginning by analyzing one of the most famous melodies of West Side Story, "Somewhere," Felder points out the tritone and minor sevenths in a brief, fascinating tutorial on how that composition was created. He then crawls inside Bernstein's skin, as well as adopting various other personae, taking us through the legendary conductor-composer's eventful life. At 100 minutes without intermission, this musically infused evening, directed and austerely staged by Joel Zwick, rolls through Bernstein's fascination with music from early childhood, his quest for accomplished teachers and mentors, and touches on his creative struggles, his successes and career disappointments as well as his private family life. Felder glosses over certain details (merely hinting at an early seduction by an older mentor), but later gives some heartbreaking insight into Bernstein's homosexuality and how that exploration destroyed his marriage and, more profoundly, crushed his conflicted spirit. This is a captivating performance of a fascinating life, vividly and emotionally related. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. $65-$85. (310) 208-5454. (Pauline Adamek)

GO  ROCCOPELLA Embellished with funky MTV-inspired videos, writer/solo performer George Spielvogel's goofy, good-natured comedy sports an array of ditzy characters who share a zest for musical performance. Not that any of these would-be songsters actually sing well or play an instrument. Teenage Rocco, alone in his bedroom, dreams of being a musical mastermind without, he admits, possessing any musical talent. His sister Sylvia likes to picture herself as a rock & roll diva. His grandpa recollects songs he once crooned to his dead wife. An interloper — a boorish Texas cowboy — stumbles into Rocco's bedroom on his way to a karaoke bar; his dance instructor, Mr. Russle, displays a distinctive mincing style, counseling the absent Rocco (he's in the yard cleaning up dog poop) to develop his own. Co-directed by Spielvogel and Thomas Blake, the show, which runs less than an hour, features minimal set and lighting, a minor note given Spielvogel's suitably daffy wigs and costumes and his amiable comic manner. The entertaining and invariably salacious videos (by Michael Regalbuto) serve as extensions of each sketch. Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (323) 466-6111. (Deborah Klugman)

ROCK 'N' ROLL In his virtuoso stage collages of literary erudition and clever, philosophical legerdemain, Tom Stoppard has long established himself as the idol of hip literature majors and student playwrights eager to flex their fledgling intellects. Part of that attraction undoubtedly can be attributed to the fact that Stoppard's plays typically are drawn from the library rather than life experience, opting for intellectual ingenuity over psychological depth. So it is a pleasant surprise to find his 2006 meditation on the personal costs of the '60s cultural and political upheavals reaching beyond inspired pedantry for something decidedly more autobiographical, poignant and personal. Spanning the period between the Soviet Union's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the collapse of Eastern European Communism 20 years later, "Rock 'n' Roll" follows Jan (Benjamin Burdick), a Czech graduate student studying at Cambridge and immersed in the rock-fueled social movements that were roiling British society. When he finds himself trapped in Prague by the Soviet occupation, Jan is reluctantly drawn out of his apathy into the role of political dissident. Back in England, a similar metamorphosis affects Jan's hard-line Stalinist mentor, Cambridge don Max (Will Kepper), whose pro-materialist dogma keeps him at odds with upheavals in his personal life. Whatever pathos might be offered by Stoppard's text, however, never materializes in Barbara Schofield's indifferent and unfocused staging. Though Beth Robbins is magnificent as Max's cancer-riddled wife, and projections by Liam Carl Design provide a colorful accent to James Spencer's and Kis Knekt's otherwise undistinguished set, little else in the production musters the cathartic energy of its titular music. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 18. (323) 882-6912, openfist.org. (Bill Raden)

SUGAR DADDY There's a disconcerting disconnect between the advance information for Fielding Edlow's one-woman show and the show itself. It's described as "one woman's battle with frosty cupcakes." But cupcakes are mentioned only once, in passing. Edlow seems highly uncertain about what she hopes to achieve, and which issues to explore. She plays a scatty, unstable Jewish-American princess with an overattentive father. She collects mental therapists and self-help workshops the way hoarders collect junk, then wonders why she hasn't had a boyfriend in nine years. Meanwhile, she's supposedly trying to get her life under control. Her mind skitters from subject to subject so often that no issue is really explored, and her frequent scene shifts suggest attention deficit disorder. Individual scenes paint a brilliant portrait of a fragmented personality, and they're often funny, even if they fail to cohere. A last scene at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting finally connects up with the issues hinted at in the press release, and ends with her defiantly announcing she's going home to gorge herself. One wishes director Paul Stein had pinned her down and encouraged her to confront her real issues. Lounge 2 Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 20. (323) 960-7792, plays411.com/sugardaddy. (Neal Weaver)

YES SVETLANA, THERE IS A GRANDFATHER FROST Without a single pedantic word, Jeff Goode's comedy rebuts the commonplace impression that Soviet times are ancient history. His thoughtful play about the essence of truth is set in the newspaper office of a large Soviet city, where a plan is afoot by the authorities to raid an "unauthorized" Christmas-tree lighting ceremony. The newspaper gets a prefab story, describing specific injuries that haven't yet occurred but are being carefully plotted. Journalist Tserkov (Morry Schoor) wants the story to run early, to warn the protesters. But his editor, Madame Editrix (Erika Godwin), will have no part of such faux heroics. If you're so concerned about the truth, she chides him, why does it have to come with your byline? Truth quietly whispered is just as true as truth that's printed or broadcast. Despite a cumbersome stretch in Act 2, the play's delightful plot twists spin out a view of bureaucracy and complicity in the hoaxes of an era that point directly to us, which is the point. I don't know why director Gideon Potter chose to have the actors speak in English in a Russian accent, which only suggests that the play is about them and not us. And they couldn't find any Russian speakers in Glendale or Hollywood to give the company the correct pronunciation of devushka? Devushka (Lisa Younger) is the seemingly naïve yet sly secretary. The wistfully wry ensemble also includes Tyler Rhoades, as a cad journalist, and thugs well-played by Ken Lyle and Bub Rusch. There were some technical difficulties at the performance reviewed. That aside, the comedy really deserves a more taut staging to match its scintillating ironies. Skypilot Theatre at the Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (800) 838-3006. (Steven Leigh Morris)


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