BE LIKE WATER Veteran performance-art monologist Dan Kwong takes a stab at multicharacter, dramatic narrative with this rather sweet, albeit conventionally scripted, coming-of-age dramedy. If Kwong leaves his avant behind, however, fans will be happy to see his signature arsenal of pop-culture tropes and racial-justice themes survive the assault only slightly blunted. Tracy (Saya Tomioka) is a 14-year-old, Asian-American karate-kicking tomboy, struggling through the psychic obstacle course of adolescence. Familiar sexual identity and self-image hazards are made even more harrowing, however, when complicated by the pernicious racism of Chicago’s Chinatown, circa 1978. But this is the post–Bruce Lee world, meaning Tracy has a virile Asian role model she can emulate when she goes up against the class bigot (Jonathan Decker). More than that, she has the man himself, or at least his conjured ghost (an amazing Cesar Cipriano), as her spiritual trainer. Somehow, the ghost’s faux philosophical doublespeak guides her through a brush with the law (and into a dress) and reconciles her culturally divided parents (Michael Sun Lee & Pam Hayashida). As a playwright, Kwong still has some remedial lessons ahead on curbing television-bred structural and linguistic ticks and on how to write a stage entrance. A lush and polished production by director Chris Tashima and his gifted design team helps to smooth over some of the rough edges, while terrific performances from a likable ensemble make one overlook the rest. East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (213) 625-7000. (Bill Raden)
DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE For about half of Act 1, Sarah Ruhl’s comedy clings (as though to an intriguing but weightless straw) to the situation of a young single woman, Jean (Margaret Welsh, perky and bright-eyed), discovering that the reason her neighboring diner (Lenny Von Dohlen) at a sidewalk café won’t answer his constantly ringing cell phone is that he’s just died. It’s not until mid-act, in a greeting card shop where she and the dead man’s brother, Dwight (Andrew Borba), find their awkward, tender courtship constantly interrupted by that invasive cell phone, that the intrusion of technology on our privacy and humanity starts to emerge. In that same scene the pair discover how words on paper are so much more durable than words in air, and the play’s glorious, unfulfilled promise emerges, yet it remains unfulfilled. A rarity without a cell phone of her own, Jean becomes enamored not only with the phone that she filches and keeps answering with a growing addiction but also to inventing stories about the man’s last words (which she never actually heard because she discovered him dead) — in order to comfort his family members and one mistress (Nike Doukas, speaking in the style of an SNL sketch with an indiscernible Continental dialect). We eventually learn that the dead man also made up stories, ostensibly to “comfort” people but really to hide his secret, shady occupation, which was the source of his prodigious wealth. Somebody in the play points this out as a kind of irony. Somebody points out almost every bit of cleverness being strived for, which is a troubling indication of how the play’s pleasingly ethereal notions must be explained because they’re too muddled to stand on their own. That both Jean and the dead man comfort people with lies is intended as a literary flirtation with the larger purposes of fiction, legend and myth — themes that have earned Ruhl her well-earned reputation. But the gaping distinction between one character using lies to hide his present occupation, and another using lies to invent a past, are as broad as a barn door that remains unopened. Instead, Ruhl’s play walks around it and takes snapshots from any angle in the hopes that the resulting collage will pass for a cogent story and a portrait of our times. Rather, we get a sketchy treatment of ideas so beautiful, they deserve better. Director Bart DeLorenzo amps up the caricatures of the women in the dead man’s family — dressing his aristocratic mother (Christina Pickles) in bright red, and draping her with a fox; while his widow (Shannon Holt) emerges as a bundle of perfectly executed comic twitches. The scenes’ broad style strains against the classical romantic streak that blazes through the courtship between Jean and Dwight. DeLorenzo got to the heart of similar themes with far more unity in Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked... at this same venue, which makes it hard to discern whether responsibility lies with him, or with Ruhl’s perfunctory theatrical treatment of her lovely imagination. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (714) 708-5555. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO FATBOY Playwright John Clancy’s 2004 Edinburgh Fringe hit adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi lands here just in time for the Wall Street meltdown and one of the most surreal election campaigns in American history. What does a farce from the turn-of-last-century about a slovenly, debauched and debauching glutton-king of Poland and his equally hideous wife have to do with us? Start with Macbeth, then fast-forward to Charles Keating. Remember home sweet Home Savings & Loan? Enron? If that’s too far back in time, think about Countrywide Financial Corporation and the predatory sub-prime mortgages that we’re all now going to pay for. In Jarry’s play, the padded fat bastards beat and starved their subjects while attaining ever-more riches and power, until a little revolution had the minions chasing their persecutors into the wilderness. Clancy calls his adaptation Fatboy, and Ian Forester directs it like a Punch and Judy puppet show in which the padded clowns punch each other until both are rolling on the floor. Mark Mendelson’s cheesy set comes with the painted-on grime of an old vaudeville theater, fake footlights included. In white-face, Alexander Wells and Rebecca Jordon play Fatboy and Fudgie, a happy-miserable couple who do little but eat money and gleefully hurl abusive epithets at each other — a none-too-subtle dramatization of our own consumer culture. There’s no dramatic arc. It’s not that kind of play. Fatboy screams throughout, and mentions this aspect in one of many asides. He wants pancakes; she wants money. The rest is a stream of creative curses that turn obscenity into an art. The couple actually mentions art more than once, along with catch phrases like “human dignity,” “truth” and “beauty,” before they collapse in paroxysms of laughter. Oh, yes, Fatboy survives his kangaroo trial for international war crimes by mocking the court and murdering his opponents. There’s quite a bit of neck snapping, with sound effects. Just when you’re ready to dismiss all this as beyond over-the-top, the lights dim, and Fatboy turns menacing. He looks straight at us, and holds us accountable for living by the values that have gotten our country exactly where it is now. Fat bastards, that means you. Grand performances also by Alan Simpson, Bobby Reed and Abigail Eiland. Imagined Life Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Oct. 26. (800) 838-3006. A Needtheater Production. (SLM)
GO JOE’S GARAGE Joe (Jason Paige) wants to play music. But after a neighbor (Maia Madison) files a noise complaint with the cops on his garage band, Joe and his girl Mary (Becky Wahlstrom) fall prey to a domino chain of gang rape, venereal disease, wet T-shirt contests, prison time, cyborg threesomes and madness. What’s to blame? “Music,” hisses the Central Scrutinizer (Michael Dunn), a robot narrator dangling from the rafters — certainly not the religious and government figures who sure seem to be pulling the strings. Like novelist Terry Southern, Frank Zappa’s weapon against hypocrisy was to confront audiences with a circus mirror of their culture’s greed and lust. Some saw their reflection; others argued Zappa was warped. Pat Towne and Michael Franco’s world premiere staging of Zappa’s narrative album crackles with outrage and grief masked by a leer — Jennifer Lettelleir choreographs plenty of sex, but like Robert Crumb’s comics, it’s more repellent than titillating. Musical director Ross Wright and the seven-piece band help the snappy ensemble animize Zappa’s eclectic sound, which ranges from dissonant juggernauts to deceptively sweet ditties. Per Zappa’s request, the song “Watermelon in Easter Hay” plays once his hapless Everyman has succumbed to creative censorship; the band puts down their instruments, turns off the lights and cues Zappa’s original version. In that isolating darkness, Zappa’s limber guitar feels like a lifeline — we’re struck by our need for music, and our need for today’s apolitical musicians to break loose and write the next chorus. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 22. (323) 882-6912. (Amy Nicholson)
THE GREAT ELECTION The idea of staging Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock’s early 1900s comedy about a corrupt election in a small town seems like it should be a natural right now, what with all the chaos and turmoil of our own current national campaign. Unfortunately, though, director John Stark’s slapdash production of Leacock’s irritatingly dated play suffers from such a weak comic sensibility that it comes across as clumsy rather than timely. In Pahrump, Nevada, the townsfolk launch a recall election against sleazy state Senator Bagshaw (Martin Clark), a buggy-eyed old coot and multiterm-serving Democrat. The Pahrump Republicans desperately desire to steal the seat and put up local casino- and tavern-owner Josh Smith (John Combs), a cigar-chewing, whiskered reprobate who hypocritically runs on the Temperance and Prohibition platform. To promote his campaign, Smith temporarily turns his bar into a health-food restaurant — and he even wins an endorsement from the town’s pruny preacher (Lynn Wanlass). Much corrupt behavior ensues. Leacock’s attempts to evoke folksy satire come across as patronizing and steeped in tired “hick” stereotypes. The play’s hillbilly-lite atmosphere is so cheesy, Hee Haw looks like The West Wing by comparison. The plot’s a muddle that’s impossible to follow while director Stark’s unfocused direction has the performers shuffling through or mumbling over the work’s corny jokes so that they’re barely discernible. This may actually be an act of charity. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (310) 477-2055. John Stark Productions. (Paul Birchall)
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LITTLE BLACK LIES Playwright Steve Stajich’s tenuously directed and underproduced pair of one-acts respectively explores iniquities within the medical profession and the insurance business. In “The Ointment,” directed by Jane Taini, a dermatologist (Frank Noon) who’s been bought and paid for by the pharmaceutical companies, struggles with his conscience when a company rep (John Malone) pushes him to promote a largely untested product. Noon is quirky and interesting as the conflicted doctor coming up against Malone’s unabashedly Mephistophelean sales guy. But the play soon veers off track with the introduction of a shrilly neurotic patient (played without much calibration by Daisy Mullen) whose angry vengeance furnishes the climax to an increasingly surreal and meandering plot. In “Analog,” directed by Katherine James, the office staff at an insurance firm becomes discombobulated when their software is recalibrated and the technician discovers shocking material one of them has stored on the system. Much of the dialogue deals with the petty rivalries and resentments among the group. However, notwithstanding some interesting passages — true of both plays, actually — there’s little depth to the characters, and the story stirs up much ado about nothing. (That may be because the piece was written in one week as a companion piece to the first.) The standard of performance varies; Paul Tigue as the office nerd and Trevor Anthony as a guy into porno establish the most definitive personas. Avery Schreiber Theatre 11050 Magnolia Blvd, N. Hlywd.; Fri-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 19. (323) 960-5775. A Sphere Artists Production. (Deborah Klugman)
MADE ME NUCLEAR On March 1, 2006, singer-songwriter Charlie Lustman was informed by his doctor that he had a rare osteosarcoma (bone cancer) of the upper jaw. What followed was a grueling and painful siege of therapies, involving radiation injected into his body, surgery removing three-quarters of his jawbone, surgical reconstruction and extensive chemotherapy. When, after two years of treatment, he was declared cancer-free, he created this touching 12-song cycle. He sings about the bone-numbing shock and terror of being told he had cancer, his fear of death and sense of helplessness, the solace provided him by his loyal wife, his children and his doctors, memory problems caused by chemo (mercifully temporary), and so on. But the tone is more celebratory than grim: He’s determinedly life-affirming, full of hope and gratitude, and his songs are pitched in an intimate, jazzy, bluesy style. He’s an engaging and personable performer who brings rueful humor and mischief to a tale that might have been unrelievedly grim. If anything, he tries a bit too hard to keep things light. We need a bit of scarifying detail if we’re to appreciate his remarkable resilience and optimism. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Nov. 1. (866) 468-3399. (Neal Weaver)
GO SEA CHANGE This world premiere of Nick Salamone’s latest play offers an elegant study of enduring friendships among five friends (three gay men and two lesbians). From the spaced-out highlife of their youth in the ’70s to a sober, sadder and wiser middle age a quarter-century later, the quintet explores companionship, sensuality and love on a small fishing boat off Cape Cod. The boat’s owner, Gene (Ryun Yu), is outed as a future priest who’s sending his lover, Val (Nick Cimiluca), into a tailspin that spurs the entire group into a orgy of philosophy, pop psychology and nature worship. Twenty-five years later, AIDS and mental illness have intervened in the friends’ lives as they reconnect for a reunion on the boat. Salamone’s clear sense of character and story sometimes falls prey to florid language, but director Jon Lawrence Rivera and the fine cast (including Fran De Leon, Clay Storseth and Lisa Tharps) are skilled enough to navigate through these overwrought moments. Gary Reed’s stylishly crafted boat set provides a vivid sense of place; expert hair and makeup and Elizabeth Huffman’s witty costume designs help the actors add further credibility to the age transitions. L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, Davidson/Valenti Theater, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (323) 860-7300. (Tom Provenzano)
GO WONG FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST Performer Kristina Wong opens her one-woman show under the pretense that she will, in an earnest yet fun-loving fashion, explore the cultural phenomenon of high rates of suicide and depression among Asian-American women. She then proceeds to fail spectacularly at this task, spiraling into a miasma of pseudoacademic theory and her own expression of identity. So what purports to be an entertaining and educational romp through the oft-trod territory of identity politics dissolves into a humorous and poignant refutation of there being much commonality to the female Asian-American experience at all. Wong’s conclusion is multifaceted and profoundly personal. She eschews indulging maudlin stereotypes while embracing — or maybe even reclaiming — a personal story at the core of every Asian-American woman. Wong’s performance is quick and controlled, allowing her to slowly unveil her portrait of madness with such skill, we barely realize it’s happening. Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; through Oct 5. (310) 998-8765. TeAda Productions (Luis Reyes)