Photo by Brandon Terrell

“There is an idea in the open road,” Dostoyevsky says in The Devils. “The highway goes on for miles . . . like a man’s dream.”

The blacktop horizon of escape was once very much male topography, though somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Tom Robbins, the asphalt became feminized — today, in film and literature, The Road definitely has curves. At least two plays in town currently look at women who have had enough of the men in their lives and hit the pavement without looking back.

Staged inside the King King nightclub, Tougher Than Grace, Charlie Terrell’s swamp-goth “anti-musical,” emerges from a miasma of swooning, codeine-nod vocals and video images that suggest what we’re in for — crosses, churches, trees, roads, animals and a young woman whose daddy seems to hover over her a little too close for comfort.

“She had dirt on her skin . . . a hole in her stocking,” Terrell sings, and before you can say “The Gun Club,” we’re introduced to a peculiar kind of blessed trinity: a Preacher (Michael Childers); his wife, Josephine (Irene Muzzy); and that daughter with the hole, Tina (Jackie Page). The Preacher seems, up to a point, like a straightforward Southern minister. Dressed in a cheap linen suit, he brays a litany of apoplectic and apocalyptic incitements while falling back on the occasional snake-handling routine.

Then there’s the Preacher’s rather profane delivery — a little saltier than we’re used to on The 700 Club — and that daughter of his, whom he insists on hugging and tucking into bed every night. There’s also the small matter of the wild parties thrown by the Preacher and Josephine in their house on a hill — bacchanals that have become as legendary among the locals as Elvis sightings.

Into this milieu comes Jimmy Nickens (Donny Persons), a brash, wandering young painter who’s heard the tales and now wants to see the truth. After challenging the Preacher on the minister’s turf, however, Jimmy gets worked over by some toughs until Tina intercedes. Soon Josephine burns down the house, and Tina and Jimmy split for some big, nasty city and its heavenly bars, leaving Daddy to grovel about the streets, pushing a kind of homeless-man’s altar while barking sermons through a bullhorn. The next time he and daughter meet, he shoots a hole in her face.

Tougher Than Grace is a difficult snake to handle, equal parts performance, live band and projected videos — the last of which play during both the band numbers and the acted scenes. It takes a certain amount of guts to try this format; unfortunately, we don’t know if the songs are here to highlight the acting or the other way around. It’s a question we shouldn’t even be asking, since ideally playlist and play should meld together.

Although the 70-odd-minute show runs without intermission, there’s clearly a demarcation between three acts in Tina’s life, and Tougher Than Grace concludes with the most interesting one, in which the disfigured runaway dances in a strip club, half her face covered, à la Phantom, with a mask. Yet even here she hasn’t much to say, and so her final confrontation with the Preacher rolls off as an obligatory moment of “empowerment.”

Director Steve Ferguson’s venue is an imaginative choice whose dark recesses are nevertheless squandered. Despite the unconventional site, most of the action takes place on the club’s stage (or within a few feet of it) and at King King’s circular bar, creating some serious sightline problems. The throaty Terrell is an engaging singer and songwriter, and is backed by an able band. However, it probably isn’t a good idea to have the musicians dominate the one area of the club that is most visible to most viewers, especially since only Childers brings a real acting presence to the evening.

Terrell needs to flesh out his libretto — as it is now, his characters are too broad and his plot too thin to hold our attention, and the story has some gaping holes. (Whatever happens to Jimmy after Tina gets shot?) If nothing else, Tougher Than Grace is an honest attempt to raise some frights
and is in the right spot to do it.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy, Wonder of the World, is enjoying its West Coast premiere at, fittingly, West Coast Ensemble. There’s no distracting video wallpaper here, although its heroine doesn’t seem much happier than Tina. Cass Harris (Madelynn Fattibene) is fed up. We glean this by the way she’s frantically packing a getaway suitcase that lies open on a bed. Mr. Harris learns this too when he unexpectedly pops home from work bearing a baleful-looking trout aspic. Kip (Stef Tovar) tries to persuade his wife not to leave him, but she’s got the seven-year itch and is soon shuffling off to Buffalo on a Greyhound — where she meets Lois (Jan Sheldrick), an alcoholic housewife bent on committing suicide by going over Niagara Falls in the pickle barrel she’s lugged onto the bus.

Cass will not hear of this, however, for she is a woman on a mission, and high up on her checklist of reinvention is to get a “sidekick” — Lois. (Other goals include learning Swedish, wearing overalls and having an affair.) She temporarily talks Lois out of taking the plunge and into sharing a motel room. From there the ambiguous Lucy-Ethel duo see the falls and ride a tour boat, whose Captain (Robert Gantzos) falls for Cass.

Meanwhile, a pair of aged and extraordinarily incompetent detectives (Margaret Silbar and Larry Lederman), adorned in increasingly outlandish disguises, tail the runaway wife for Kip. In the best tradition of the Western stage, a psychiatrist arrives to reconcile egos and restore order — even though said shrink (Angeles Vara) is dressed as a clown and her idea of therapy involves forcing the story’s three couples to role-play a few rounds of The Newlywed Game.

The lights are barely up on Wonder of the World when doubts start crowding our already wandering minds. Isn’t this the play that made a splash in New York with Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Sedaris a few years back? At the Manhattan Theater Club, no less? But haven’t we seen this one before, or another just like it? Isn’t this every comedy we see these days — cute, cloying, full of non sequiturs and spiked with adult kinks? Then it occurs to us that we’re watching another example of what might be called Theater of the Obvious. This is a recreational stage genre in which people with no apparent cultural references beyond television and junk food, and tethered to no discernible social reality, blurt out zany things and fondle toys and guns with equal abandon. “Let’s be lesbians for the weekend!” Cass squeals to Lois. Moments later she’s pining for that Arthurian time “before TV and crack cocaine [when] people used to talk to each other.”

Whatever. To be fair, Lindsay-Abaire’s World is full of “almost” moments. We almost get a whiff of Theresa Rebeck’s perfume during a snappy roundelay of marital conversations that unfold simultaneously in three kitschy theme restaurants, but the scene never evolves past its culinary gimmick. Likewise, the play’s final image, of Cass and Lois adrift in a barrel between two countries and caught between the past and future, life and death, is almost poignant — except that such a feeling is completely unearned here.

Director Richard Israel’s production has two things going for it. One is Will Pellegrini’s set — a fairly bare-bones affair whose economy we never notice because of the giant maps and vintage post cards of Niagara Falls painted on its walls and doors. These graphics do much to transport the audience to this fantasyland of honeymoons and aquatic marvels that has drawn Cass. The show’s second ace is Sheldrick, who, in the role of the dour, cynical Lois, emerges as a welcome antidote to Fattibene’s Cass, whose high, single-note performance is so over the top that we forget where the top is.

Wonder of the World remains a screwball comedy with too many screws missing to take seriously, much less on its own absurd terms. In a way this WCE show is the production this cartoon so richly deserves, because without its celebrity cast and intricate set, we see Lindsay-Abaire’s obvious comedy for what it is, and before long we begin to wonder if there’s room for us in Lois’ barrel.

TOUGHER THAN GRACE | BY CHARLES TERRELL | At KING KING, 6555 Hollywood Blvd. | Runs indefinitely | (323) 960-5765

WONDER OF THE WORLD | BY DAVID LINDSAY-ABAIRE | At WEST COAST ENSEMBLE, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through April 11 (323) 525-0022

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