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Theater Reviews: The Unexpected Man, Influence, Old Glory, Dreamgirls

GO  BUG The set design in USVAA's production of Tracy Letts' play is uncredited, but whoever littered Agnes' (Maribeth Monroe) motel-room home with bottles of Boone's Farm and Maker's Mark (empty but likely kept as a memento of an "upscale" night), and decorated it with a dorm-room refrigerator and once-white lamp shades that emit a dingy bedside glow, deserves a big ol' country music round of applause. Letts knows how to orchestrate multicharacter vehicular collisions on emotionally desolate Okie roads (as in his 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning August: Osage County), but the crash in Bug is particularly spectacular. The hurtle toward that wreck clips right along, gathering the speed and intensity of a cranked-up trucker; then the abrupt change in tone after such a high-octane death race feels too calm, and the climax is, well, anticlimactic. Don't mind that too much, as the acting more than compensates. Monroe, with a wrong-side-of-the-tracks voice made more ragged by cheap cocaine drain, is a tightly wound ball of pent-up loneliness and fear; her descent eventually leaves her backed onto the corner of her bed like a feral cat. She's the star here, but as her newfound protector and lover, Christopher Sweeney matches her degeneration with tics that gradually become a manic flurry of paranoia. As Agnes' just-paroled ex-husband, Casey Sullivan's brute swagger is compounded by his gittin' religion. The play is a darkly comedic commentary on the murky role the government plays in wars both abroad and at home, and director Keith Jeffreys' subtle touches — whirring helicopters, a doctor who hits the crack pipe — are so effective at drawing the audience into this shifty world, you'll likely leave with a niggling urge to crush the bugs in Agnes' room. USVAA, 10858 Culver Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 20. (310) 559-2116. usvaa.org/bug. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

CLOUD NINE Distinguished by cross-gender casting, Caryl Churchill's 1979 play starts as a penetrating lampoon of gender and class stereotypes among upper-class Brits in 1880 colonialist Africa. (Evoking African wildlife, designer Christine Ownby's sound furnishes a droll prologue in an otherwise nondescript production design.) Stuffy and myopic, Clive (Joyanna Crouse) holds rigid ideas about the place of women and blacks, so he's oblivious to his son Edward's (Lindsay Evans) effeminacy, his servant's (Chad Evans) simmering rage, and his wife, Betty's (Thomas Colby) obsession with their libertine houseguest (Derek Long). In Act 2, the time frame shifts to the 1970s; social and sexual repression remain the themes, but the web of events ensnaring the contemporary characters, while still farcical, becomes more recognizably real. Carnal shenanigans — and the emotional chaos that accompanies them — proliferate. These involve Betty and her children, Edward and Victoria — held over from Act I. (Though 100 years have elapsed, the trio has only aged 25.) Directed by Colby and Lisa Coombs, the production's opening half is shrill, flat and lacking crispness, with only Colby comically consistent as the feather-brained Betty. But the show improves considerably when recalibrated to the present. The performers have switched roles. Though miscast as Clive, Crouse springs to life as a lesbian enamored of a married woman. Lindsay Evans delivers a nuanced portrayal of an unhappy wife at a crossroads. Chad Evans as the vulnerable grown-up Edward, and Dorrie Braun as his lonely mother, are also effective. Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 28. (323) 939-9220. ­lyrictheatrela.com. (Deborah Klugman)

CONTROL ME/PARENTS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH Playwright Michael Sargent (Hollywood Burning, The Projectionist) has an eye for oddballs. Merciless toward the delusional, and wary of the Man, he spins his suspicions into outlandish satire. These two world-premiere one-acts, loudly directed by Chris Covics, both scream "Beware!" The first, "Parents Who Love Too Much," starts quietly as the nine-person ensemble slips one by one into the theater lobby and sets up chairs for their eponymous support group. Their name is a misnomer, or really a self-mollifying feint — each of the parents is there (often ordered by the court) because the children they adore have met with bad ends. Says one, she'd rather let her kid live with the aborigines than visit her ex on the weekend — not that she knows where her disappeared daughter is, of course. The gang swaps stories, fights break out, their therapist, Cherokee (Tina Preston), fights to be heard, and it all feels aimlessly outré. "Control Me," the longer of the two, is set in a '90s-era battered Manhattan radio studio (Kovics' set design stretches asbestos panels across the stage, recalling the opening credits of Star Wars). Long John Silver (Bruce Katzman) and charm-school queen Cherry Rogers (Maria O'Brien) broadcast shows about Waco and Area 51 to the after-midnight conspirators and crackpots hovering for the inside scoop. The co-hosts agree with guests, who belt out, "The CIA, FBI and Mob are all the same!" Tonight, they have as guests two supposed CIA sex slaves (Jaqueline Wright and Andrew McReynolds), one hanger-on (Dan Oliverio) and an attention-seeking psychologist (Suzanne Elizabeth Fletcher), who would validate anyone except her offstage overweight daughter, who's locked herself in the studio bathroom. Again, Sargent dishes out bitter one-liners and a glimpse of the need to feel special for anything. Like his characters, Sargent is full of wild tales, but he needs a more compelling reason for us to hear them. There's a dark tide swelling beneath these two pieces, and on the surface, some very fine acting. The result, though, feels as shapeless as the surf crashing onto the rocks. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through March 27. (323) 466-7781. (Amy Nicholson)

DON JUAN DISPENSO A feminist revision of the Don Juan legend might have struck a resounding chord on the sexual front of 40 years ago. But in the age of Hillary Clinton and Lady Gaga, director-playwright Tony Tanner's earthy, anachronistic take on literature's most unregenerate rake seems like so much preaching to the choir. Don Juan (Ahmad Enani) is a sociopathic, silver-tongued beguiler of women, resorting to any ruse to sexually dominate and then callously dispose of any moment's object of desire. These include his stepsister, Constanza (Gina Manziello), his university professor, Dona Ana (Julie Evans), a pair of decadent Americans from Omaha (Debra "D.J." Harner and Scott Ryden) and their young daughter (Sarah Casolaro). Ignoring the protests of his horrified valet — and the play's conscience — Sam (Kevin Scott Allen), Juan continues his predations until his moral and physical dissipation bring ironic comeuppance in prison, where survival means submitting as the female in matters sexual. While the (uncredited) set's dominant four-poster bed becomes a de facto stage within the stage, the bedroom-as-theater metaphor only underscores the production's profoundly unerotic ambience. If the smoky-eyed Enani rarely stokes the Don's legendary libido with sufficient fire, blame Tanner; he transposes his characters to modern times (a period nicely suggested in designer Daniel Mahler's '20s gowns) without updating his antique, baroque archetypes with psychological nuances contemporary to his theme. The result is that the Don's rascally, seductive charms, along with the play's, simply go missing in action. Missing Piece Theatre, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 4. (800) 838-3006. (Bill Raden)

GO  DREAMGIRLS This landmark homage to Motown's heyday of the '60s and '70s has been around for almost three decades but hasn't lost any of its winning appeal. Robert Longbottom's touring revival doesn't boast the splashy, big-name resonance of the 2006 movie, or of the original 1981 Broadway production, which soared under the direction of Michael Bennett, but it still makes for a very entertaining evening. Dreamgirls (book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger) tells of the meteoric rise of a female singing group, a rags-to-riches tale inspired by the Supremes. It also chronicles some of the behind-the-scenes dirty dealings and compromises many black artists had to make in order to gain appeal to a more diverse audience. This show doesn't skimp on production values, headed by William Ivey Long's collage of Technicolor costumes and Paul Huntley's seemingly endless assemblage of stylish wigs. Robin Wagner's scenic design (a group of digital panels) creates a dazzling world of cityscapes, colors and imagery. Equally impressive is Longbottom's glitzy choreography and Ken Billington's lighting schema. In the key role of Effie, the outsized Dreamette who gets dumped for the prettier Deena Jones (the fine Syesha Mercado), Moya Angela is no Jennifer Holliday or Hudson. Chester Gregory channels Morris Day and James Brown and mesmerizes the audience with his turn as James "Thunder" Early. Chaz Lamar Shepherd is appropriately scurrilous as lowlife manager Curtis Taylor. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 pm. & 8 pm., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m., through April 4. (213) 972-4400. CenterTheatreGroup.org. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  THE EVENT/THE INTERVIEW John Clancy's one-person narrative The Event, and Lawrence Bridges' unscripted world premiere, The Interview. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Thurs.; The Event 8 p.m., The Interview 9:30 p.m.; through March 25, needtheater.org. See Theater feature.

A GIANT ARC IN THE SKYSPACE OF DIRECTIONS (OR THE STORY OF MIRACLES) Is playwright Michael Vukadinovich's sprawling (and occasionally impenetrable) comedy a Bible spoof? Or is it a deeply philosophical, absurdist meditation on the notion that a life of scientific reason offers as little comfort as a life of religious faith? Of course, the two themes are not mutually exclusive — even though we wish that Vukadinovich's text didn't lurch from extreme idea to idea in such a baffling and scattershot fashion. In a dark time of humanity — you know it's wicked because women are giving birth to turkey dinners and one-legged men are raping dogs — scientist Abe (Kevin Broberg) is surprised when his beloved wife, Sarah (Coco Kleppinger), becomes pregnant in a seemingly immaculate conception. Sarah is loved from afar by defrocked priest Eamon (Ryan Bergmann) but seeks comfort from kindly blind lady, Rachel (Dee Amerio Sudik), who is awaiting the return of her long-lost son Esau (Eric Martig), a young man who is either a prophet or a killer. The waters rise, the family dogs get raped, and Abe commences a mysterious sea voyage. Sometimes Vukadinovich's writing crackles with cleverness and wit — but, honestly, the plot's disjointed concepts and random incidents undercut attempts to draw the audience into the situations: It's part parable, part babble. Still, director Efrain Schunior's attempts to marry the unwieldy text with a character-driven production bear fruit with poignant performances in acting that's both taut and nuanced. This includes Sudik's beautifully feisty Rachel, Bergmann's sweetly twisted priest Eamon and Kleppinger's gently maternal Sarah. Powerhouse Theater, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through March 27. latensemble.com for tickets. (213) 674-6682. A Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble production (Paul Birchall)

GO  INFLUENCE The brief, scandal-ridden tenure of Paul Wolfowitz as the director of the World Bank inspired this, Shem Bitterman's third play in his Iraq War trilogy, now having its premiere production. Bitterman turns a sharp, savvy, ferociously satirical eye on the subject of political corruption and lethal infighting in Washington. Young, liberal, idealistic Midwesterner Branden (Ian Lockhart) warily accepts a position at the World Bank, despite the fact that its Director (Alan Rosenberg) is regarded as the architect of the Iraq War. Branden's girlfriend Sally (Kate Siegel), a fanatical liberal, regards the Director as the devil incarnate, but she's co-opted when the Director finds funding for a project dear to her heart: providing micro-funding for economic development in poor countries. Branden soon finds himself caught in a no-win situation between the charming but ruthless Director, and the equally ruthless reformer, Rolf (Christopher Curry), who's seeking to depose him. Heads roll. Director Steve Zuckerman provides an elegant, funny dissection of the dangerous political currents. An original score by Roger Bellon coolly defuses the melodrama, and the accomplished cast deftly underlines the proliferating ironies. Rosenberg shines as the wily but charming Director, and Jeff McLaughlin's handsome set features familiar Washington landmarks. Skylight Theatre, 1816 Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through April 4. (310) 358-9936. Produced by The Katselas Theatre Company. (Neal Weaver)

GO  OLD GLORY When last we saw a production by Chicago expat scribe, Brett Neveau, it was American Dead at Rogue Machine/Theatre Theater — a tenderly written study of a murder investigation in a small Midwest town. Lo and behold, Neveau's latest is a murder investigation, similarly filled with subterranean currents of subtext beneath vividly colloquial dialogues whose main purpose is often to avoid the harsher truths that these very good actors' body language and facial tics can expose, as though with a spotlight. (Scenes between the soldiers are often lighted by each holding a flashlight.) The murder in Old Glory occurs in Fallujah where — never mind the War — two American GIs (Jarrett Sleeper and James Messenger) who share a barracks drive each other to paroxysms of mutual loathing. (So no, Gertrude, this is not really a play about the War but about the homefront.) After one of the soldiers ends up splayed in his barracks with a hole in his chest, his father (Pete Gardner) takes a sojourn to a Berlin bar, seeking out the CO (Tom Ormeny), who might know what really happened. Meanwhile, back in New Mexico, the victim's best friend (Chris Allen) struggles to tell what he knows to the victim's mother (Kathy Baily). And so, Brett Snodgrass' set trifurcates the stage into the three realistic settings — New Mexico, Fallujah and Berlin — so that the action's mosaic unfolds within these compartments. The ensuing stasis is almost belligerently anti-theatrical, compounded by Allen's lugubrious interpretation of the best friend in his scenes with the grief-stricken mother. (Bailey is particularly adept at burying her despondency beneath strata of terse propriety.) Director Carri Sullens elicits performances that flow with crosscurrents of hardship and fury, yet with a delicacy that's almost amiable. Ormeny and Gardner excel with these gifts. And the latent violence simmering between the soldiers — one a devotee of graphic novels, the other of real novels — speaks head-on to why the United States can't seem to generate a reasonable discourse with herself about anything that actually matters. The isolation of the three scenic compartments underscores that point but at a cost, rendering this production more cinematic than theatrical, despite some emotional volatility, as though the action aches for close-ups and camera angles deprived us in this room. Yet, like American Dead, it's another penetratingly written rumination, a lament even, for something indescribable that's been lost in this country — and to this country. Victory Theatre Center, 3326 West Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 25. (818) 851-5421, thevictorytheatrecenter.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE UNEXPECTED MAN As in Yasmina Reza's mid-'90s hit Art, her immediate follow-up play also features characters in a strained — and perhaps losing — battle to align themselves in perfect counterbalance with art. However, here, rather than three egos colliding in a comedically vitriolic clash of egos, Reza's characters, in pensive retrospection of a lifetime spent deriding sentimentality, move through an elegantly painful self-analysis that reveals them each to be longing for some sentimental feelings. These two middle-aged people, a man and a woman (the excellent Ronald Hunter and Judy Jean Berns), ride a train from Paris to Frankfurt sitting across the aisle from each other; the man a famous writer in the twilight of his career, the woman an avid consumer of his books. They first acknowledge each other in their respective imaginations before eventually speaking to each other directly. Even when in conversation, it is beautifully unclear (deftly shaped by director David Robinson), whether their exchange is actually occurring just in their minds. Chrystal Lee's set emphasizes the distinctive isolation of each world, and the uncredited montage of images that roll by slowly on two upstage screens offers subtle but powerful punctuation to the play's themes. The Lounge Theater 2, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlwyd; Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through March 28. (323) 960-7785. Bright Eyes Productions (Luis Reyes)


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