Photo by Byron Turk is from Theatre Banshee's production of The Crucible, which critic Amy Lyons argues is a powerful manifestation of our culture of fear; Bill Raden was less impressed with Lauren Gunderson's new play, Silent Sky, about astronomer Henrieta Leavitt, now at South Coast Repertory; Paul Birchall has good things to say about Druid Theatre Company's production of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

This week's coming feature includes reviews of Jane Anderson's The Escort at the Geffen, and Dolores Ribakoff's

Fetish, at the Whitefire Theatre. Check back here Wednesday night for Stage feature.

For all New Theater Reviews seen over the weekend, press the More tab directly below.

NEW THEATER REVIEWS scheduled for publication April 14, 2011


Photo by Steve Cicneros

People often use others to mirror themselves. Pecola (Sola Bamis), the pivotal figure in Lydia R. Diamond's stage adaptation of Toni Morrison's 1970 novel, is a dark-skinned black child perceived as ugly by others — and, unfortunately, by herself as well. Growing up in Ohio in 1941, she longs for blue eyes to help redeem her from her pariah status. Eventually she obtains them — but not before she's undergone a series of brutal, self-annihilating events. Diamond's narration-laden script hews to the book, telling much of the story from the vantage of other characters, chiefly Pecola's kind and more fortunate friend, Claudia (Tekquiree Spencer), and Claudia's sister, Frieda (Tiffany Danielle). The result is a talky drama in which the most horrific — yet most dramatic — elements are pushed into the shadows. (One reason may be that the play initially was created for young audiences.) Perhaps a more consummate ensemble would have transcended these shortcomings, but as directed by Janet Miller, they appear obvious. Shamika Franklin is notable for her crisp, three-dimensional portrait of Pecola's wounded mother, while Kwesiu Jones and Willie Mack Daniels are uniformly professional in various roles. One highly enjoyable scene involves Danika Butler making a splash as the pretty light-skinned middle-schooler whom everyone envies. But Bamis' ingenuous victim needs nuance, and Spencer, carrying the burden of language, does an able job but without the polish and pacing needed to keep us rapt. Phantom Projects, Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun, 2 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., thru April 24. (714) 690-2900, (Deborah Klugman)


Photo by Craig Schwartz

Eugene Ionesco's slice of absurdity and futility receives a faithful staging at A Noise Within. Over the course of this 80-minute, one-act play, an aging couple drags out dozens of decrepit chairs to accommodate a crowd of distinguished guests — who prove imaginary. Old regrets surface from the depths of their memories, and the Old Man lapses into melancholy and grief when recalling the loss of his mother. Company members Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott (directed by ANW Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott) seldom evoke amusement, even when lewdly flirting with their invisible visitors. A gloomy mist pervades a set of dingy, peeling gray walls. Stephen W. Gifford's set and prop design and Ken Booth's lighting suggest a postapocalyptic setting (supported by a single line in the play) and the sense they are isolated in a circular building surrounded by water. Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin clothes the two leads in layers of rags and ratty furs, once sumptuous, now shabby. Ionesco's fixation with solitude, nothingness and the insignificance of human existence results in a stark experience. I prefer theater — even absurdist comedies about the end of the world — to come with at least some levity and relief from the obvious. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, call for schedule, thru May 21. (818) 240-0910, (Pauline Adamek)


Photo by Craig Schwartz

If you think Los Angeles is an unkind city, you should try Inishmaan, the seemingly quaint and picturesque Irish village setting of Martin McDonagh's compelling drama. There, the villagers' otherwise adorable eccentricities have abraded on each other to the point of sparking near-psychotic frustration. By rights, the play should be a sentimental tale, but McDonagh's ferocious writing artfully skewers expectations of stereotypes, instead crafting a character-driven toxic dance of hope and despair. In this tiny island town, circa 1934, young orphan Crippled Billy (Tadhg Murphy) has been raised by two spinster “aunties” (Dearbhla Molloy and Ingrid Craigie), following his parents' tragic death at sea years ago. Within his claustrophobic and incredibly impoverished community, Crippled Billy's dreams have not gone much further than the hope of a kiss from bad-tempered (and possibly psychotic) town floozy Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne), the Egg Man's assistant. However, when Hollywood moviemakers arrive on a nearby island to make a film about the “real” Ireland, Crippled Billy pulls out the stops to become a star — though the results of his scheme take an unexpectedly tragic turn. McDonagh's gorgeously lyrical dialogue is full of one-liners, quirky wit and biting irony, while also capturing the understated sorrow of people who believe life is nothing but suffering punctuated by loss. Like the writing, director Garry Hynes' taut, often explosive yet intimate staging boasts both impeccable comic timing and heartrending pathos — often within a few seconds of each other. Galway's Druid Theatre Company cast is extraordinary, crafting an ensemble of small-village archetypes who appear lovable at first but whose seething undercurrents of spite and malice become all too evident. Murphy offers a sweet and idealistic turn as Crippled Billy, but the supporting figures are startlingly multidimensional as well, from Craigie's tough Aunt Kate to Dunne's abjectly terrifying Helen, and including Dermot Crowley in a hilarious, towering turn as the town's reprehensible gossip. A Druid Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group presentation. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m., thru May 1. (213) 628-2772, (Paul Birchall)


Photo by Byron Turk

Director Sean Branney grabs hold of Arthur Miller's red-scare allegory, wringing emotionally charged, angst-ridden performances from the talented cast. Young Abigail Williams (a brilliantly conniving Sarah van der Pol) and her gaggle of naive girlfriends extricate themselves from an oceanic amount of hot water by explaining their late-night woodsy romp with Barbadian servant Tituba (Hollie Hunt) as a ritual in which Tituba conjured the devil, whom they claim walked side by side with scores of local women. A witch hunt ensues and the girls point their adolescent fingers at any woman they want hanged. John Proctor (Shawn Savage), whose love affair with the conniving Abigail comes back to bite him, sets out to debunk the witchcraft accusations when his wife, Elizabeth (a steadfastly stony Karen Zumsteg), becomes Abigail's target. Branney masterfully creates chaos, pitting neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife and holy man against lawman in what amounts to a town battle of holy-war proportions. Van der Pol's Abigail is so full of vicious vengeance that she practically hisses her misguided intentions to win the affections of Savage's skillfully choked-up Proctor. Fear drives the outrageous events of the play, and Branney relentlessly shines light on the fatal foolishness of a fear-driven society. The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., thru May 15. (818) 846-5323, (Amy Lyons)


Photo by Thomas Mikusz

The late playwright Allan Manings was blacklisted and forced to move to Canada. There, he worked on a horse farm till 1961, when he was able to return to Hollywood and forge a successful career in television. So it's not surprising that he should focus on the doings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in this, his final play. Actor-comedian Louis Berns, née Bernstein (Alan Freeman), has reached retirement years, and spends his days with his children, son Scott (Paul Denniston) and bossy but loving daughter, Aimee (Maria Kress), and his lifelong friend and fellow comic, Benjy Gordon (Steve Franken), with whom he plays a daily gin rummy game. For much of Act 1, the play seems to be a gentle, funny Jewish character comedy. But when Scott's journalist friend David (Roy Vongtama) sets out to write a profile of Louie, his research reveals that Louie was called to testify before HUAC in 1951, and named his old friend Benjy, resulting in Benjy's being blacklisted and the destruction of his career. When this information is revealed, catastrophe results. John Gallogly directs a fine cast in a richly nuanced production, with wonderful performances by Freeman and Franken as the two old actors. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Boulevard West, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., thru May 8. (323) 851-7977, (Neal Weaver)


Photo by Ed Krieger

The old Tin Pan Alley tune “Hello! Ma Baby” (more recently popularized by the singing frog in the Warner Bros. cartoons) might be an appropriate score for this 1930 Jean Cocteau play in which an unnamed Woman feels trapped in a room with a telephone that is a lifeline to her physically and emotionally distant lover. Adding to the Woman's slow devolution is a shoddy connection that both drops her call multiple times and crosses wires with other conversations. Lady Gaga, she is not. She wants her lover on that telephone. She needs him on that telephone. Badly. Yet what Cocteau wrote as an exploration of the human voice (as well as a showcase for the divas of his day) here at times sounds more like an extended Verizon commercial. “Can you hear me now?” Yes, but what are you saying and why should we be invested in it? Speaking in a typewriter staccato and landing on her words with labored deliberateness, actress Ho-Jung has a hard time consistently demonstrating the heightened emotion necessary to bring the piece to life. Director Dan Bonnell perhaps errs too far on the side of subtlety, failing to elicit that desperation from her. At the same time, Anthony Wood's translation may be partially responsible for trite expressions of love torn asunder, which undermine the depths of sorrow in Cocteau's original. At least set designer Melissa Ficociello's room nearly collapsing on itself — with its sea-foam-blue walls, which resemble dirty clouds — is a clever nod to both period hues and the Woman's situation. A Bunch of Artists Production. Elephant Space Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., thru April 24. (323) 960-7863, (Mayank Keshaviah)

NEW REVIEW MASSACRE (SING TO YOUR CHILDREN) At the start of Jose Rivera's mystical melodrama, the room goes black for 60 seconds of offstage screaming. Like the play that follows, it's a bold idea that can't resist going deadeningly over the top. Seven murderers — four men, three women — tumble into the room, covered in blood, clutching machetes and crowbars and pipes and knives, and vibrating with the rush of killing Joe, the tyrant who has spent five years terrorizing their small American town. But their chest bumps and self-congratulations quickly fade into the quiet fear of realizing that, sans scapegoat, they now have to think for themselves — and worse, take ownership over whatever miseries befall them. (Surely they can't be any worse than Joe, who has raped the women, killed the children and slashed the population by a third.) This is a heightened world staged too casually by Richard Martinez, who plunks this gory metaphor in a suburban rec room and encourages his cast to pivot from slang to grand speechifying. It's as though the play and this production are so concerned with the big strokes that all the details are scrambled: The characters are inconsistent and their relationships murky. Minutes after one growls to another that they don't know each other and should keep it that way, a cheery five-year flashback to before the Reign of Joe makes the gang look as tight as the cast of Friends. And it's worth noting that only the men get the good speeches — while they recant their painful stories, the ladies just give them massages. Underlying it all is: How culpable are we in our own captivity? Rivera burns with the need to demand an answer but douses his own flames. An Urban Theatre Movement production. Underground Theatre, 1312-1314 N. Wilton Place, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., thru May 15. (323) 369-0571, (Amy Nicholson)

NEW REVIEW SILENT SKY One of the cardinal sins in playwriting is allowing the audience to get too far ahead of the story. Any but the tautest of grips on the narrative leash will exact its toll in attenuated tension and let loose the dogs of boredom. So it is with playwright Lauren Gunderson's feminist-flavored rehabilitation of pre-World War I Harvard astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Monette Magrath) in this harmless and anodyne commission by South Coast Rep, now playing on its main stage. In real life, Leavitt was one of Harvard astronomer Edward Charles Pickering's all-women “human computers” engaged in number-crunching drudgery while actual telescope time was reserved as a bastion of male privilege. The play presents her as a poet and frustrated dreamer whose determination to circumvent the unseen Pickering during her off-hours condemns her to spinsterhood but results in “Leavitt's Law,” the critical astronomical yardstick that would enable later scientists to fix our place in the limitless expanse of the cosmos. Colette Kilroy and Amelia White lend fine support as the heroine's closet-suffragette computer cohorts, and Nick Toren is suitably spineless as the romantic interest who is both smitten by Henrietta's rebellious wit and threatened by her superior intellectual ability. Costumer David Kay Mickelsen contributes meticulous period detail to director Anne Justine D'Zmura's sleek production, while York Kennedy's lights and John Crawford's projections animate the evening firmament spinning above John Iacovelli's spare, rotating turntable set. All that moving spectacle can do little, however, to help the overly familiar text catch up to an audience left waiting at the final blackout for the work to add up to something greater than the sum of its wiki facts. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Tues., Wed. & Sun., 7:30 p.m., Sat. & Sun., 2:30 p.m., thru May 1. (714) 708-5555, (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW TARTUFFE A few minutes into Jon Kellam's rendering of Molière's classic farce, you know you're not in for a routine production. There's the flowery, drawn-out introduction by Steven Porter, spoken in French with audio translation; the colorful mass of balloons heaped at center stage; and sound effects from the “noisy corner,” courtesy of Jef Bek, who plays various percussion instruments and keyboard organ. All nice touches in this tale about a hypocritical scoundrel who by dint of pious pretense and subterfuge wreaks havoc on a respectable Frenchman and his family. However, Kellam has his sights on underscoring the work's timelessness via David Ball's breezy adaptation, which bestrides the author's 17th century, our own era and various points between. The effect is more of an imposition than an illumination. It's also interlarded with much that is digressive and not at all funny. The physical comedy is effectual — to a point — but it starts to wear especially thin in the languorous Act 2, along with Bek's seemingly endless potpourri of sound effects. Cast performances are lively and engaging, the one exception being a flat Pierre Adeli (who in all fairness was brought in a week earlier in place of the ailing Scott Harris), in the critical role of Tartuffe. Fully memorable are Ben Kahookele's gorgeous costumes, and Mary Eileen O'Donnell's smattering of props, which are cleverly designed and used. The Actors' Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru April 30. (310) 838-4264, (Lovell Estell III)


Photo courtesy of Son of Semele Ensemble

An artist obsessed with chasing a story typically results in one of two outcomes: The director emerges from the dark forest of creation on top of the mountain (see Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan), or the artist delves so deep within so as not even to recognize being lost. Unfortunately, Son of Semele Ensemble's latest world premiere, a collaboration with playwright Oliver Mayer, falls into the second category. Director Don Boughton conceived the play after reading an article about a 76-year-old woman who disappeared in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains, home to Chief Joseph's Nez Perce Tribe. Even after an extensive search, no trace was found of the missing woman. Conducting interviews with locals and interweaving those with the myths of the region, Boughton and SOSE built a story around “Maude LeRay's” mysterious vanishing. The staging is a blend of those two elements: the factual — rescue teams gathering, her husband, Howard (Alexander Wright), being questioned; and the mystical — cast members double as animals that talk to and spirit Maude (Dee Amerio Sudik) to and from the mountain's nooks and crannies. The material doesn't stretch far enough to fill a 90-minute play, but the bigger problem is the subject matter itself. Though something like a theme surfaces three-quarters of the way through (after Maude tells the animals she wants to go home to “WalMart runs” and other mundane tasks, one asks, “You sure you want this?”), it's one Thornton Wilder did too famously in Our Town to recycle. Whether the theme is supposed to be more or less important than the story, the company must give the audience a reason to care as much as the creators do. Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m., thru May 8. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

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