Photo by Paul MeliaCRAZIES ARE OFTEN ACTORS' MEATIEST ROLES. Yet this winter might well go down as the “What were they thinking?” season, a cautionary semester in local theater in which the perennial theme of emotional instability launched several wingless turkeys, many attempting to fly solely on the basis of their shows' star billings.

It began unambiguously enough, with the Taper's splashy production of Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, a talky, “poetical” drama about a female rescue pilot searching for, among other things, her own past. Then came another ceramics lesson from Philip Kan Gotanda in the form of Yohen, a dull domestic comedy-melodrama about an aging woman's identity crisis, at East West Players; more recently, we've seen Milton Katselas' celebrity-centered Visions and Lovers — essentially two acting-class exercises where lovers yell at each other, laugh a lot and yell some more while running about the bare stage of an echoey Skylight Theater. Sharon Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Danny Glover, Miguel Ferrer and Jenna Elfman were some of the names involved in these enterprises, proving the adage that sometimes talent is not enough.

Normally one looks to the smaller theaters for relief during such a malaise but, alas, 49- and 99-seaters are also staging underwritten, “character-driven” fare and which, excluding the Skylight's show, are bereft of even star power. And as the name appeal diminishes, the theme of madness appears to take over — good old delusional bipolar insanity. For some reason, Valley theaters have warmed to this theme more than others. It began at the Chandler Studio with Infinite Cages, Mike Stutz's long one-act about a woman suffering from manic-depression. Stutz never promised a rose garden to his central character, a physics professor named Sasha (Jeana Blackman), and instead burdens her with a cage metaphor — realized here in the uncredited set design as steel-mesh boxes carried about and inhabited by the 18-member ensemble. (We're all prisoners of our own thoughts — get it?)

Sasha's story wanders in and out of reality and tenses, with dislocation and suicide the leading themes. Our problem is that Sasha isn't the only person confused — the audience, for example, is never quite sure whether Infinite Cages is the professor's story or not. For there is also the matter of her analyst, Dr. Kelly Kennedy (Diana Angelina), an important character who lives in the penumbra of her domineering über-shrink father (John Beckman as the embodiment of Sylvia Plath's “Daddy”). Then there are Dr. Kennedy's other patients, including Bebe (Deborah Carson), a slinky single who upchucks every time she climaxes in bed, and Deb (Cindy Young), who makes excuses for her battering boyfriend. As if these characters weren't crowding Sasha enough, there's also Holly (Kathy Kilsby) as her hectoring alter ego, along with an ensemble that often acts as a whispering, demonic chorus.

On paper, this layering may look impressive, but in a theater seat, the eyes soon glaze over as the mood swings become familiar, and the shuttling of those steel cages grows awkward and repetitious on the Chandler's small stage.

FAR MORE SIMPLE — AND BRIEFER — IS THE QUIET Room or What Happens When a Schizoid Ballerina Is Locked in a Room With a Duck. The program notes tell us that the 50-minute one-act was an autobiographical work created in an acting class during the early '80s by a woman whom no one has ever been able to track down. The elusive Playwright X may or may not be pleased to learn that The Quiet Room was revived off-Broadway last year and has been making the rounds as a solo show at various fringe festivals.

The titular quiet room seems to be a chamber segregated from the rest of a mental hospital. At least we gather it is, given Sissy's (Pamela Levin) hospital gown and the mattress that constitutes Paul Melia's set. Sissy describes herself as a “dancer-typist” whose nervous breakdown at work has earned her a visit to this ward and a series of electroshocks. She ostensibly addresses doctors watching her on the other side of a two-way mirror, but she's really talking to the audience, and it is for our benefit that she produces a toothbrush from her vagina and fashions a hand puppet from a beat-up slipper.

This puppet — whose imaginary persona is a duck, whom Sissy regards as both a fellow patient and confidant, and a possible deity — is perhaps the most grating aspect of The Quiet Room, a juvenile device that quickly wears thin during Levin's one-note performance. She is never anything but manic and childishly accusatory, whether cruelly ridiculing her black nurse or denouncing the nuns from her Catholic upbringing. But directors Melia and Kathy Kerns' staging merely confirms what we always suspect about “mad” plays — that gyrating choreography and mood swings are really there to showcase an actor's range and hide a script's flaws. With all due respect to the reviewers from this newspaper who showered both Infinite Cages and The Quiet Room with praise, the popularity of these plays among performers, directors and critics stretches the question from “What were they thinking?” to “Are they all crazy?”

The 20th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, with Circle X Theater Company, the cast of Naked Boys Singing!, Chris Wells, Karen Finley, Pasadena Shakespeare Company and others, will be held at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, on Monday, April 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.); reception to follow. The posting of nominees can be found online at Admission for all nominees plus one guest is free; for all others, $12. All queries and RSVPs can be made on the Awards hot line: (323) 993-3693. Please make checks payable to L.A. Weekly c/o Lisa Yu, 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Checks must be received by April 4.

THE QUIET ROOM | By ANONYMOUS | At the WHITEFIRE THEATER | 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks | Through March 21

INFINITE CAGES | By MIKE STUTZ | At CHANDLER STUDIO | 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood | Through March 13

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