THE ANIMALS AND ME Vinnie Torrente's whimsical play has much of the flavor of a children's book, but it's undermined by clumsy and naïve dramaturgy. The characters are all animals, including the cops, Officer Hog (Matthew Dorio) and Officer Peggy (Cynthia Wilber), who are portrayed as pigs with snouts and curly pink tails. The action is precipitated by Wolfy (Meyer Deleeuw) because in the animal kingdom a law has been passed calling for the extermination of all wolves. Wolfy seeks to protest this by assembling his animal friends in a wolfish rights committee, comprising motherly hen Chickie (Julie Barry), lawyerly Mr. Owl (Joshua Grenrock), lumbering Mr. Bear (Chris Sloan) and timid Sheepy (Jeff Williams). When they're arrested for protesting without a license, Wolfy is put on trial under capricious Judge Gorillo (John Moskal), with Mr. Owl as defense attorney and a shifty Mr. Katz (Mark Rebernik) as prosecutor. The script is good-humored and good-hearted, and the actors — Deleeuw in particular — lend considerable charm. Their efforts, however, are hindered by too many blackouts, awkward scene changes and more issues than a simple tale can accommodate, including the offstage murder of an animal-rights advocate and a greedy offstage corporation utilizing eminent domain to seize the animals' property. Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; closed. (Neal Weaver)
BULLSHOT CRUMMOND AND THE INVISIBLE BRIDE OF DEATH A sense of humor can be a funny thing. In 1972, when creators Ron House and Diz White first burlesqued the patriotic, globe-hopping adventurer hero from H.C. McNeile's Bulldog Drummond pulp novels, the archetype of the stiff-upper-lip, sex-oblivious British adventurer was a cultural cliché overripe for satire. Monty Python's Flying Circus became a TV legend, roasting such hackneyed chestnuts. Thirty-five years, three wars and a sexual and digital revolution later, however, writer-director House's witless and laugh-challenged misfire of a "sequel" only illustrates how far the comedy gestalt has shifted. The unflappable, horse-hung Hugh Crummond (Oliver Muirhead) is back, this time newly wedded to the not-yet-bedded gal pal/sidekick Rosemary Fenton (Anastasia Roussel), when duty calls. Seems that arch villain Otto Von Bruno (Christian Rummel) has teamed with mad scientist Dr. Morton Fenwick (Rodger Bumpass) to bring down the British Empire with an army of invisible henchmen. But there's a limit to what even this otherwise fine ensemble can do with material tuned to the sensibility of a naughty British schoolboy, circa 1958. (Think Topper padded out with puerile dick jokes and overstretched double entendres.) Edwin Peraza's sound and Stephanie Schoelzel's costumes lend polish to a production that never should have left the drawing board. Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; through Jan. 16. (800) 595-4849, bullshotisback.com. (Bill Raden)
GO CAUGHT In the aftermath of Proposition 8 passing in November 2008, one of the regrets of those who fought valiantly for gay marriage and against the proposition was that enough wasn't done to "normalize" gay couples. And while the events in David L. Ray's world-premiere play take place in July 2008, Caught furthers the cause by dramatizing one of those healthy relationships. In it, Angelenos Kenneth (Corey Brill) and Troy (Will Beinbrink) are on the eve of their nuptials, a ceremony that will be officiated by their friend Splenda (Micah McCain), who is ordained via the Internet. This blissful scene is interrupted by a visit from Kenneth's estranged sister, Darlene (Deborah Puette), who is very Southern and very Christian, as well as her daughter, Krystal (Amanda Kaschak). In the interludes between scenes, we also see Darlene's husband, T.J. (Richard Jenik), preaching to his conservative congregation in Georgia. Secrets, lies and surprising revelations fuel the drama. Director Nick DeGruccio deftly takes Ray's strong and likable characters from page to stage, sparingly playing up stereotypes for comedy without ever reducing the characters to them. Adding to the authenticity are Adam Flemming's delightfully detailed set and Katherine Hampton Noland's colorful couture. Adding to the emotional investment in the story is a talented cast; standouts include Puette, for her rich and intense portrayal of Darlene; McCain, for balancing divalike comedy with deep sincerity; and Kaschak, for combining fresh-faced innocence and a willfulness to create a very believable teenager. Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 24-25 and Dec. 31, added perfs Dec. 26 and Jan. 2); through Jan. 23. Buttermilk Productions in association with Drumfish Productions. (800) 595-4849, caughttheplay.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO CYRANO DE BERGERAC Director Rae Allen revels in the equal measure of might assigned to pen and sword in Edmond Rostand's word-centric, swashbuckling classic. Allen's sure hand in guiding the text along a well-paced tragicomic trajectory begins with her decision to slash the first scene significantly, depositing the legendary lead character and his protruding nose onstage within a few minutes of the outset. John Colella tackles the titular role with an overabundance of seething anger and outward frustration at Cyrano's self-described ugliness, neglecting at times the character's inherent charm, a crucial hinge upon which the play's front door hangs: We have to fall in love with Cyrano if we are to feel the requisite frustration over Roxanne's (an arresting Olivia D'Abo) ill-informed choice of the doltish but adorable Christian (a sufficiently hapless Toby Moore) rather than her eloquent, adoring cousin. Romantic flatness aside, Colella successfully thrusts home poetic parlance, bringing an effortlessness of speech to the verbose role. Jonathan Redding does smarmy to perfection as the pining Comte De Guiche, and Mark Rimer bumbles beautifully as Raggeneau. Swordplay and balcony climbing are skillfully staged in the small space. Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Drive, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; through Jan. 23. (310) 397-3244. (Amy Lyons)
INSPECTING CAROL In Daniel Sullivan and Seattle Repertory Company's holiday-themed comedy, the dozen or so members of a small, Midwestern regional theater troupe are facing a crisis: They are planning to restage their annual tired fund-raising production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and their meager operating budget depends heavily on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But when the company board members are informed that their annual endowment may not be renewed, panic sets in. An inspector has been dispatched to assess their eligibility, which sets everyone's already frayed nerves on edge. Among the eccentric and disgruntled cast members rehearsing the play, squabbling and useless suggestions abound. Meanwhile, obnoxious traveling actor Wayne (Doug Haverty) talks his way into gaining an audition with the beleaguered company. Could he be the government inspector whose arrival they are all dreading? Will sucking up to him help save the company? An adaptation of Gogol's farce The Inspector General woven into a lampoon of Dickens' chestnut, as well as a parody of our arts-funding system (or lack thereof), this annually reprised production suffers from jokes that consistently fall flat. Under Chris Winfield's staging, the humor is as buoyant as a punctured party balloon. Add some spectacularly woeful acting (and not just when they are pretending to be bad actors), and you have a painful night of theater. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (no perf Dec. 24); through Jan. 2. (818) 700-4878, thegrouprep.com. (Pauline Adamek)
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ISLAND OF BRILLIANCE Emily (Ava Bogle) is a savant with an IQ of 40. (Her family is touchy about the preface "idiot.") She can recite any work from memory — even Hamlet — but her gift for words can only duplicate, not create, great literature. That is, until younger sister Evie (Jill Renner), a high school senior applying to Princeton, Yale and Dartmouth, starts secretly feeding Emily her own poems, deceptively simple and stirring pieces that the bedridden girl starts parroting back to the amazement and joy of her mother (Nancy Linehan Charles), a local English teacher (Bill Lithgow) and a public access reporter (Mary Jane). When one child sucks up all the oxygen in the house, how long until the other daughter suffocates? Dawn O'Leary's drama alternates between their home and awkward college admission interviews that show Evie is so cowed by her sister's needs (or really, her mother's needs for Emily) that Evie is her own worst advocate. She's honest, humble and as untrained as a puppy: In one Q&A, she cracks a joke about the drunk students on campus; in another, she assures the questioner that she won't commit suicide if she doesn't get in. The script and Wynn Marlow's direction are too on the nose to let this fascinating family dynamic stretch and settle in. Much of the ensemble members are still getting comfortable with their characters, and Renner comes off as so blinkered and cheery that Evie seems immunized against the pressures she faces. In Act 2, her manic grin gets so big that it threatens to overshadow the more subtle themes of sacrifice and loyalty, and a last-second twist bruises the play's credibility. But the bones of the story are strong, and O'Leary has an ear for a good poem and memorable line. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; through Jan. 16. (310) 822-8392. (Amy Nicholson)
GO JULIA Playwright Vince Melocchi's sweet, melancholy drama artfully makes the point that, of all the sorrows, nothing beats the sadness of being haunted by guilt over a long-ago romantic misdeed. Lou (Richard Fancy), a frail old man who clearly does not have too much sand left in the hourglass, shambles into a run-down Pittsburgh coffeehouse, ostensibly to witness the razing of the local department store where he worked some 50 years ago. However, his real purpose in returning to the scene is an attempted reconciliation with his long-lost sweetheart, Julia, whom he feels guilty for spurning many years ago. However, Julia (Roses Prichard), who now has Alzheimer's disease, doesn't even remember her own son, Steve (Keith Stevenson). Melocchi's writing is deceptively top-heavy with conversations that at first appear pointless but gradually coalesce to construct the psychological underpinnings of strikingly plausible blue-collar characters. In director Guillermo Cienfuegos' mostly subtle and emotionally nuanced production, the pacing could stand some amping up, but the feeling of reality encompassed by the interactions and confrontations is haunting at times. In his turn as the gruff, cranky Lou, Fancy builds on our expectation that the character is a feeble old coot, gradually shifting him into a figure whose regret and rage are all too understandable. Prichard is unusually believable as the tragically blank Julia. Dramatically vivid work also is offered by Stevenson's glum, disappointed Steve and by Haskell Vaughn Anderson III, as a family friend who remembers all the parties when they were young. Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 23-Jan. 2); through Jan. 30. (310) 822-8392, pacificresidenttheatre.com. (Paul Birchall)
GO REMEMBERING THE LADIES Toni Morrell wasn't born on a stage, but you'd be hard-pressed to believe that after seeing her live. She thrust herself there early enough, anyway. Lying about her age, she began her career at 14, working the "tough crowds" of men's clubs full of steelworkers and miners in England. Strategizing to win them over, she probably sang many of the songs made popular by the ladies she salutes in this musical review. As she alternates between taking center stage herself and serenading a screen projecting images of Broadway and film stars, her tribute is heartfelt, though it feels a little homemade. The show's a chronological grab bag — the comparatively current Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" is stuck in the middle of Act 1 — and its theme grows just too broad (a musical PSA on Tippi Hedren's big cat sanctuary, Shambala?) to shape into a tidy, cohesive production. Morrell's a queen of ad libs and witty audience interaction; knocking down the giant, wobbly structure and reconstructing the show as a cozy lounge act would better support her talents. Director and longtime producer Karen G. Cadle dishes about the divas in the second act (at age 80, she claims, Tippi Hedren only wears thong underwear!), fun for voyeuristic, tabloid-obsessed audiences. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun, 3 p.m. (no show Dec. 25, added perfs Wed., Dec. 22 & 29, 8 p.m.); through Dec. 31. (818) 508-4200. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO THE SANTALAND DIARIES Even in these lean times, when jobs are hard to come by, David Sedaris' humorous monologue (adapted by Joe Mantello) about the absurdities of his seasonal employment as a department store Christmas elf still has intrinsic charm. Nicholas Brendon does the honors in a fine performance, bringing to life the simple, self-deprecating strain of humor for which Sedaris is known, as well as artfully channeling a raft of quirky characters. The script takes the audience through all the qualifying steps to be certified into elfhood, which include a 10-page test, a urine screen and two interviews. After his central character makes the grade, Brendon slides into one of his many personas and gives a hilarious, inspirational speech, which would shame Knute Rockne, to the fortunate group of new hires. Never far from the surface, however, lurks a burning sense of indignation and a tinge of sadness that life for a 33-year-old man with higher aspirations has come down to donning a goofy elf outfit — complete with cute, crescent-shaped shoes, screaming-red jacket blouse and candy cane–striped long underwear — all the while pandering to bratty kids, overbearing adults and even some irate co-workers. The show plods toward the end but not before Brendon and director Michael Matthews have scored some well-earned laughs. Blank Theatre Company at the Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8. p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 19. (323) 661-9827. (Lovell Estell III)