John Patrick Shanley’s semiautobiographical one-act about growing up in a dysfunctional working-class Irish-American Catholic family is smartly directed by Larry Moss. The play opens when Johnny (Chris Payne Gilbert) is 5 years old and is only dimly aware that love is missing from his life. His sister, Sheila (Lena Georgas), is escaping the household through early marriage, so the real problems don’t start until brother Joey (the excellent David Gail) returns home from the Navy. His death-obsessed mother (Francesca Casale) is disappointed by the gifts he brings, and nothing he can say or do will please his father (Jack Conley). Moss’ bold directorial style is most evident in the darkly comedic scenes, with exaggerated line deliveries such as when cousin Sister Mary Kate (Denise Crosby) leads the family in a mangled version of “Hail Mary.” The action jumps ahead 15 years, as Johnny’s just been thrown out of college and he’s doing battle with his elder brother. The final segment is a dream sequence that’s been effectively lit by Leigh Allen to emphasize the hellish qualities of home life. Johnny knows that his escape from his family will come when he has “the words,” for he doesn’t want to just hate his parents — he wants to understand them. Conley is superb as the violent father who wields a meat cleaver with ease. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 29. (800) 838-3006.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Feb. 20. Continues through March 29, 2009

LA Weekly