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Theater Reviews: Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, Cousin Bette, The Peacock Men

GO  COUSIN BETTE Drawn from Balzac’s La Comèdie humaine, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation revolves around a cunning woman’s campaign to avenge herself on the rich relatives who have callously dismissed her as shabby and unimportant. Sheltered, and fed with scraps of food off her pretty cousin’s plate, poor-relation Bette Fischer (Nike Doukas) grows up nurturing her hate, eventually evolving into a plain-faced spinster who is everybody’s confidante but nobody’s friend. Brilliantly Machiavellian, Bette’s fastidious plot to destroy the family involves arranging a liaison between her attractive neighbor and abused wife, Valerie (Jen Dede), and Hector (John Prosky), the lecherous and profligate husband of her virtuous cousin, Adeline (Emily Chase ). Bette also acquires wealth (and thus power) by promoting the work of a young Polish sculptor, Steinbock (Daniel Bess), with whom she’s fallen in love — unfortunately for her, since he ends up betrothed to Adeline’s daughter, Hortense (Kellie Matteson). Directed by Jeanie Hackett, the production purposefully underscores the source material’s melodramatic elements — for example, heightening the narrative’s key points with the melancholy refrains of Chopin. At least one key performance is overladen with shtick, and some fine-tuning of others is in order. Still, Doukas is terrific, delivering a consummate performance that arouses, for her long-suffering deceitful character, pity, disdain — and admiration. Alongside the story’s bathos is its salient reminder of what cruelty, indifference and injustice can do to the human spirit. Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru March 21. (818) 506-5436. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  HAMLET When this Hamlet (Charles Pasternak) says he’ll “put an antic disposition on,” he means it. Pasternak’s prince is sometimes maniacal, bounding around and turning somersaults. He brandishes his wit savagely and at times — as in the closet scene with Gertrude (Jessica Temple) — he can be downright brutal. He’s particularly good in the comic scenes with Rosencrantz (director Thomas Bigley) and Guildenstern (Gus Krieger). There’s not much of the “sweet prince” about him, but it’s a performance that works. He receives solid support from Temple, Jack Leahy, doubling as Claudius and the Ghost; Jamey Hecht as Polonius; and Taylor Fisher as Ophelia. Director Bigley provides a mostly direct and straightforward production, despite a few gaffes: the First Actor’s speech about Pyrrhus is so tricked-out with superfluous business that it’s both awkward and absurd. On the plus side, Bigley gives us a generous portion of the text, tactfully edited. Costumer Jessica Pasternak is clearly battling budgetary limitations, but her decision to try to convert modern men’s suits into period costumes is more distracting than helpful. It’s a long evening (more than three hours) but an engrossing one. Flight Theatre, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs. & Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (951) 262-3030. (Neal Weaver)

PARADISE STREET Title3 is a new company dedicated to giving women strong, unusual, fascinating roles. For its first production, it has chosen Constance Congdon’s dark sociological piece about class resentment and privilege. Jane (Molly Leland), a brilliant, assured and beautiful professor of gender and semiotics — who drops phrases like “the nomenclature of the patriarchal case for hegemony” as easily as ordering a club sandwich — has just moved to a small college town with her self-centered, elderly mother (Danielle Kennedy). Just before the semester starts, Jane’s battered into a coma by a homeless woman (Lane Allison, in a menacing portrayal), who’s bitter over being one of society’s invisibles. As Jane struggles to make at best a partial recovery from irreversible brain damage, her attacker steals Jane’s identity, and is delighted to find that she’s treated as an icon. It’s true: The haves get more while the have-nots suffer. The mechanics of Congdon’s plot don’t make a lick of sense, but we’re hooked by the premise, and by director Courtney Munch’s great ensemble — filled out by Jiehae Park, Jane Montosi and Lorene Chesley in a variety of roles. By intermission, however, the play has made its point. It nonetheless continues to pad along, wedging in scenes in which a Puerto Rican social worker shows Jane’s mother how to use a Kegel exerciser, one of Montosi’s characters silently mops an entire floor, and the homeless attacker babysits her publisher’s drug-addicted daughter. To paraphrase a program note, Congdon needs to appraise this two-and-a-half hour muddle and chip away everything that doesn’t look like the very smart play about class tensions buried inside. The Attic Theatre and Film Center, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (323) 525-0661. (Amy Nicholson)

THE PEACOCK MEN Deconstructing American masculinity can be a sticky thicket even in the best of analyses. Add to the mix issues of race and representation, however, and its order of complexity increases exponentially. So it’s no surprise that playwright Ronald McCants’ idea-packed, satiric foray into the psychic minefield of black male identity can be as profoundly disorienting as it is provocative. For McCants’ hapless cast of circus-performing Peacock Men — African-Americans who, like their brilliantly plumed namesake, have been domesticated into gender-warped docility — the ride is also downright deadly. One performer, Robert Mapplethorpe’s horse-hung the Man in the Polyester Suit (Hari Williams), has already succumbed after his reduction to an erotically objectified exhibit and his mysterious disappearance by the sadistic, white-faced Ringmaster, Steve (Will Dixon). So when avaricious street rapper Cash (Chris P. Daniels) signs on as a replacement, he finds himself with a job both physically and existentially more perilous than he bargained for. Turns out Steve’s circus is more of a torture fun house in which Cash and his cohorts (John J. Jordan & Michael A. Thompson) are subjected to humiliations and acts of violence scripted right out of real-world headlines (Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, etc.). While Ayana Cahrr’s staging loses crucial dramatic momentum during some of the play’s lengthier, overly didactic passages, McCants’ nightmare vaudeville proves a field day for its terrifically talented ensemble. Company of Angels, Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 7. (323) 883-1717. (Bill Raden)

SOUVENIR The fascinating idea at the heart of Stephen Temperley’s bio-comedy is the gaping divide between the music we hear in our hearts, and that same music heard by those around us. In the early 20th century, Florence Foster Jenkins made a career as an opera diva in New York, evidently oblivious to the fact that she couldn’t sing. Not only could she not manufacture a note anywhere near what others would call on pitch, she also couldn’t hear the mocking laughter of her audiences. According to Temperley’s play, she was in love with the music she heard in her head, as well as the fame it brought her via record sales and concert appearances. This is what makes the imperious stridency of Constance Hauman’s performance as Jenkins so endearing. Unfortunately, every interesting insight the play offers is overly narrated by her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon (Brent Schindele, who’s terrific on the baby grand that anchors Mike Jespersen’s set), and the two-character drama hangs on his moral struggle and failure to tell his employer the truth, and thereby cash in on her delusions. Even with its elegant production design, including a NYC skyline that pops up when needed via slide projections, and Nick McCord’s delicate lighting design, Gregg W. Brevvort’s production is a one-trick pony. In her various songs and arias, rather than pursuing the elusive notes, which would create an excruciating tension from a musical game of cat and mouse, Hauman is (deliberately) seven miles away, and remains so. Meanwhile, Schindele’s accompanist too often mugs his expressions of horror, when a more muted, droll response would not only be funnier, but it would underscore his hidden agenda. The result is one very obvious joke about the essences of delusion, which are anything but obvious. Falcon Theater, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Feb. 28. (818) 955-8101. (Steven Leigh Morris)

WHO IS CURTIS LEE? The titular question of this work by Ashford J. Thomas (who also plays Curtis Lee) set in 1950s Greensboro, North Carolina, is sparked by the appearance of a young man in a ramshackle tavern, who immediately attracts the attention of regulars Herman (Gerrence George) and Otis (Carl Crudup), as well as owner Joe (Logan Alexander). Despite his shabby appearance, the visitor, Curtis, claims to be a songwriter for radio icon Miss Wanda Denise (Kelley Chatman) and a boxer. Herman and Otis don’t buy either story, but Curtis’ buying them drinks keeps them mollified. Unfortunately, Curtis has no money, bringing him into conflict with the normally staid Joe, who, after threatening Curtis, takes pity on him and puts him to work. Complicating this situation are Calvin Hunt (Richard Lewis Warren), a greedy white developer trying to force Joe to sell the place; Mitchell (James E. Hurd Jr.), a black gangster to whom Curtis owes money; and Angel (Paris Rumford), Otis’ ironically named promiscuous daughter. Director L. Flint Esquerra skillfully mines the text’s comedy, and Paul Koslo’s weathered set provides an authentic mise–en–scène. Alexander shines in his gruff, pained portrayal of Joe, Crudup and George have solid comic timing, and Hurd Jr. is menacing in his brief appearance. Thomas delivers the sincerity and hotheaded anger of youth, but his writing, characterized by powerful, resonant themes, doesn’t always cohere. MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru February 28. (323) 957-1152. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM Christopher Durang’s Loony Tunes aesthetic — with the help of Daniel Henning’s perfectly modulated direction — is swashed onto our so-called war on terror. Thank goodness Durang has moved beyond family dysfunction. Still, you’d think that by now our recent history, propelled by some deranged might-makes-right cabal from a powerful coven of loons, has been exhausted by American playwrights. Durang’s outrage and piety, however, are channeled into a breath of comedic napalm, something like a cross between The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Dr. Strangelove. Durang has now joined ranks with Dario Fo. Sweet Felicity (stylish Rhea Seehorn, trying to be sensible in a world with no sense) wakes up in bed with a stranger, Zamir (Sunil Malhotra), after a night out at a bar. Turns out, Zamir slipped her a drug, raped and married her — none of which she remembers. The “priest” was Zamir’s friend, porno filmmaker Reverend Mike (Nicholas Brendon, sort of like Owen Wilson with a slow-mo brain). Zamir has anger-management issues and feels badly that most of the women in his family are dead. This is cold comfort for Felicity. Yet she finds herself compelled to defend her “husband” when her Dick Cheney–emulating father, Leonard (Mike Genovese) — a volunteer in the “shadow government” — drags Zamir him into the torture chamber he’d been claiming is a private closet for his butterfly collection. Narrator and power drill–wielding torture-room assistant Loony Tunes (Alec Mapa) encourages Leonard to “bweak a finger, bweak a finger” — all of which is based on a misunderstanding by Leonard’s spy, Hildegard (Catherine Hicks, spending a good portion of the play with underwear swishing around her ankles), who overhearing Zamir’s conversation about a porno movie believes he’s describing a terrorist plot. Durang reruns the ending a couple of times, trying to capture the moment where it all — “it” being the sad plight of our country — went so wrong. I particularly enjoyed Christine Estabrook as Leonard’s blissed-out, seething wife, Luella, who can’t stop talking about the theater, even while torture is being committed upstairs, because theater is what’s “real.” And what has she seen lately? “Two-hundred fifty plays by Martin McDonagh and David Hare.” Britain of course dominates our theater’s new plays, obviously because “Americans are stupid.” Durang is getting a lot off his chest, and off ours. The laughter he generates is from nonsense about nonsense, unnervingly true and cathartic, and beautifully performed. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (2nd floor), Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 14. (323) 661-9827. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  WRECKS The loaded situation in writer-director Neil LaBute’s “love story” allows for a kind of velvet glove to reach inside one’s heart, and then swirls around the intestines for a while before making its withdrawal. This leaves us, well, touched — but in a way that’s far from sentimental. Ed Harris stars in this monologue, set in a Northern Illinois funeral home. His wife’s casket — her photo perched on its lid — forms the centerpiece of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set. Cricket S. Meyers’ sound design offers the whispers and echoes of voices in an anteroom, where our bereaved widower, Ed Carr (Harris), ostensibly floats — that would be his public self. But that’s not what we’re seeing. He refers to himself being “back there” with “them” while he speaks to us through the mirror of his subconscious. What we get is his real eulogy, with the secrets he won’t tell them, because he’s a private person, he insists. (He won’t tell us some secrets, such as his wife’s final four words, either.) He has a blazingly clear reason to be so private, which is the melodramatic revelation near play’s end, which forces us to confront the definition of love, and how that definition rubs up against social propriety. I didn’t buy that revelation, not within the colloquial, ruminative and realistic confines of LaBute’s direction. But that’s a small matter. The big matter is the gorgeous combination of LaBute’s digressive and piercingly insightful love letter with Harris’ tender-furious childlike and ultimately profound interpretation. Ed Carr is a bit like a chain-smoking Dostoyevskian narrator, who, while drifting onto free-associated topics and bilious commentary (on anti-smoking campaigns, for example), he is, finally, on message. And his message about the essence of love is upsetting and unimpeachable in the same breath. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 7. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

For complete theater listings, go to blogs.laweekly.com/style_council/stage-news.


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