ASSASSINS Taking on one of Stephen Sondheim’s most difficult and intriguing musicals, with John Weidman’s disturbing and cunningly disjointed book, is highly ambitious, especially for a company not prone to produce musicals. The controversial play intersects the psychotic moments of nine would-be assassins of U.S. presidents — four of the assassination attempts succeeded. The conceit is a carnival arcade game where shooting a president brings a prize of lasting infamy. Dan Jenkins’ fine set, a circus tent painted onto a canvas, expertly conveys atmosphere with budget-sensitive simplicity. Vignettes of murder plots intersect in musical styles in the period of the crime in question — and always with a touch of dark humor. Many fine performers with voices as strong as their theatrical presence understand the Brechtian nature of the play, keeping the audience removed from an emotional connection to the material. Particularly strong are Michael Laurino as an unrepentant John Wilkes Booth and Kyle Nudo as the balladeer who scoffs at Booth’s supposed triumph. Yet this production has two problems: A few cast members simply don’t have the skills to hold up their end, either in singing or acting. Also, director Cindy Jenkins allows some of the actors to mug in a sketch-comedy style that belongs more in a TV variety show than the dark burlesque envisioned by the creators. The small orchestra under Andy Mitton’s direction guides the singers nicely. META THEATER, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 20. (877) 986-7336. (Tom Provenzano)

{mosimage}  BLEED RAIL Behind some lapses of credibility, and with echoes of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, Mickey Birnbaum’s grimly funny new play contains a piercing and darkly beautiful view of killers and prey, in life and the afterlife. Ryan (Dennis Flanagan) carves up beef carcasses along the factory line of a Midwest slaughterhouse. His every move is caught on video, which turns Ryan and his work partner, Justin (Josh Clark), into bloodstained maniacs of efficiency, desperate to keep their jobs. Meanwhile, Ryan’s childhood friend, would-be filmmaker Keith (Cyrus Alexander), works behind the counter at the local Liberty Burger fast-food outlet, selling “Prairie Rings” and “Land of Plenty” lunch specials. One day, a cow struggles off an airborne hook and falls onto Ryan, crushing his shoulder. Too proud to accept disability payments (one of a few pivotal details that strain believability), impoverished Ryan watches his girlfriend, Jewel (Lily Holleman), sell her baby to an adoption agency and drift toward Keith’s bed and his amateur porn enterprise. Betrayed by many and with few remaining options, Ryan heads off to the war in Iraq. In an extraneous if not intrusive scene, Keith reports back from Baghdad with his videotape of Ryan in the crossfire. Credence aside, it’s as though Birnbaum doesn’t believe how seamlessly the mere idea of Ryan joining the Army complements the slaughterhouse, its meat hooks and “almost dead” creatures that encapsulate Birnbaum’s view of modern America. The scene from Iraq is just rhetorical in an otherwise poetical play. Still, Birnbaum’s repartee is as magnificent as his splashes of surrealism, which include a fantasia of former butchers tenderly putting creatures back together, returning their lives. Jessica Kubzansky stages a viscerally charged production in which mimed sides of beef seem to materialize, possibly because we see real red liquid dripping off the workers’ rubber gloves. The productions also boasts the tightest ensemble I’ve seen in this theater, even if there’s not a Latino, Asian or black meatpacker depicted on the stage, when the industry is dominated by nonwhite workers. Hugo Armstrong is particularly striking as the diabolically deranged “hanger” Jim, who goads Ryan to join the Army. The tech elements are unimpeachable, from Susan Gratch’s blood-smeared set of chutes and hooks to John Zalewski’s eerily pulsing sound design that’s something between a far-away disco and a heartbeat fading into silence. THEATRE @ BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru June 17. (626) 683-6883. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE CONSTANT WIFE Constance (Megan Gallagher), the heroine of Somerset Maugham’s 1926 comedy, is one of those wise, charming women (so dear to the hearts of leading ladies) who manage the oafish men in their lives with poise, tact, manipulation and lies. When she discovers that her husband, John (Stephen Caffrey), is having an affair with her best friend (Libby West), she decides that being constant doesn’t require being faithful, and embarks on an affair with dashing Bernard (Kaleo Griffith). Her decision involves her in a pithy, Shavian, feminist debate about marriage. (Among the upper classes, she opines, “Modern wives are just overpaid prostitutes who don’t deliver the goods.” And, “The only real freedom is economic freedom.”) Maugham’s play is artificial comedy, contrived and not entirely convincing, but it does offer some sophisticated wit. Director Art Manke wisely treats the dated script as a period piece, on Angela Balogh Calin’s pretty but curiously abstract ice-blue set. Gallagher nimbly captures Constance’s iron hand in velvet glove, Carolyn Seymour scores as her worldly, acid-tongued mother, and Andrew Borba, Magrath McGrath and Ann Marie Lee contribute slick support. PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; call for schedule. (626) 356-7529. (Neal Weaver)

THE DISTANCE FROM HERE Teenage boredom turns lethal in Neil LaBute’s harsh look at suburbia. The family at the center of the play is, of course, dysfunctional, which is by now familiar LaBute territory. Teenage Darell (Blake Hood) is a manipulator and petty thief, but his father, Rich (Matt Berg), is onto his tricks and hides his money in his shoe. Little attention is paid to Darell by his slatternly stepmother, Cammie (Jocelyn Towne), who spends most of her time failing to take care of the constantly crying baby of her stepdaughter, Shari (Jen Bronstein). When not cutting class, Darell hangs out at the mall with his buddy, Tim (Shaun Anthony), bullying him and mocking his minimum-wage job while simultaneously asking to borrow money. After Tim tells a tiny lie concerning Darell’s girlfriend, Darell’s cruelty turns into unrestrained viciousness. Director Brian Frederick elicits strong performances from his young cast, particularly Hood, who imbues casual brutality into one of LaBute’s nastiest characters. A creative set design by David Offner allows for quick scene changes during the 95-minute play that’s performed without an intermission. The Shoreline Theatre at the SANTA MONICA PLAYHOUSE, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru May 20. (818) 986-9817. (Sandra Ross)

FAT PIG A better title for Neil LaBute’s 2004 play about a babe magnet who becomes romantically involved with an overweight woman might be Big Fat Liar. For while some of this 95-minute one-act nudges us into examining how we instinctively keep at arm’s length socially unacceptable people (defined here as the fat, crippled, gay, bald and elderly), the real subject under LaBute’s microscope is the male predilection for using white lies to escape uncomfortable situations with women. Tom Sullivan (Scott Wolf) becomes enamored of a hefty-sized stranger he meets in some kind of fast-food restaurant. Helen (Kirsten Vangsness) is smart, funny and well aware yet not self-conscious of her appearance, which Tom swears he doesn’t notice. At his office job, however, he’s mercilessly reminded of it by Carter (Chris Pine), his cynical buddy, and by Jeannie (Andrea Anders), a bitter blonde whom Tom had been indecisively stringing along even while dating Helen. On some levels, the play resembles LaBute’s The Shape of Things but lacks that work’s keenly observed psychological terrain. Fat Pig’s tender moments between Tom and Helen are oddly bereft of originality and simply seem inserted to make the lovers’ inevitable fall that much louder. Even the best dialogue, found in the office scenes, sounds more like stage badinage than the pitiless scraping away of façades and defenses for which LaBute is known. Jo Bonney, who directed the original New York production, allows the numerous office confrontations to devolve into sitcom material. Still, Vangsness is compelling as the big girl whose heart was made to be broken, and Anders turns in a good performance as her viperous rival. The boyish male actors, however, simply lack the weight of age to be convincing as, in Carter’s case, charismatically cruel, and, in Tom’s, pathetically neurotic. GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; thru June 10. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Mikulan)

LOOT Joe Orton wrote his now classic 1966 comedy about law and disorder after having been imprisoned for defacing library books — replacing their covers with pornographic images in order to observe the shocked reactions of patrons checking them out. Orton’s brush with the law compounded his resentment of authority and its thuggery in a “free society.” That resentment saturates Loot and gives the play a strikingly contemporary resonance is our era of security trumping civil rights. Nobody has a moral backbone in Loot — certainly not widower McLeavy (Alan Blumenfeld), not his bank-robber yob of a son, Hal (Joshua Biton), or Hal’s lover, a funeral director named Dennis (Joseph Rye) who was in on a recent heist and who, with Hal, replaces the late Mrs. McLeavy’s corpse with cash while stashes her body upside down in a closet. As the deceased’s former caretaker (Jill Hill) — with seven brutally murdered husbands to her name — plots to marry the widow, even before the dead woman is interned, a local inspector from the Metropolitan Water Board (Geoff Elliott) comes sniffing around, amplifying the farce about search warrants, civil rights and the rampant greed that underlies our civil society. Orton stated that the farce should be played seriously in order to work, and the very comedic slant of Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s staging may explain why it plays as though through a thin blanket, lacking the terror that lies at the comedy’s core. There’s no other reason, since the actors are so fine, as is Michael Smith’s atmospheric, box set and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes. A NOISE WITHIN, 234 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, call for schedule; thru June 3. (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SUN ON A GULF MOTEL Playwright Stinson Carter’s disjointed drama is a steamy gothic simmer-fest in which a pleasant family vacation turns into an occasion for venting long repressed hatreds. Wealthy encyclopedia salesman Daddy (Paul Buxton) takes his doting wife, Mamma (Blaire Chandler); their sullen adult son, Jimmy (Philippe Chang); and Jimmy’s mousy bride, Anna (T.M. Rawlins), on a holiday to Mexico. When Daddy abruptly dies from a heart attack, Jimmy inexplicably refuses to call the police and instead dumps Pa’s corpse into the trunk of the family car. Mamma could just as easily call for an ambulance herself — but she becomes unhinged and launches a tirade against her son. This leads to a long series of powerful, but increasingly bizarre revelations. Carter’s play is full of corrosive fury, but the logistical underpinnings are weak and contrived. Really, there’s no reason for any of the characters to remain in the same room after the recriminations start, and director John Cady’s unevenly paced production descends into a seemingly endless series of forced histrionics and sputtering false climaxes. The performers inject the confusing goings-on with all the passion they can muster, and Chandler offers a particularly ferocious turn as the embittered, crazed Mamma. STELLA ADLER THEATER, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m. www.plays411.com/sun. (Paul Birchall)

{mosimage}TAKING CARE Mia McCullough’s staid dramedy is about the ties that bind in the co-dependent relationship between a Jewish mother and her disturbed son. The action unfurls in the neatly appointed Chicago apartment of aging Ma (Maria Gobetti) that she shares with her 45-year-old son, Benny (Tim Sullens). Benny refuses to take his meds, often paces about like a caged animal and is prone to outbursts of rage and nervous tics, all of which his long-suffering mother patiently endures. This contentious pairing does yield its lighter moments, such as a quiet, dignified Hanukkah celebration and some humorous verbal jousting. But the bulk of this 90-minute production is devoted to depicting an odd domestic arrangement in which the decibel level is frequently high, and the characters do pretty much what we expect of them; even the change of roles toward the end of the play comes as no surprise. McCullough’s script is smartly written but distinctly arid; she never probes behind these characters’ visible outward eccentricities (we are left to speculate about the exact nature of Benny’s affliction), and there are only faint hints at a past that contains some unpleasant memories and family secrets. The performances, however, are first rate under Carri Sullens’ intelligent direction. VICTORY THEATRE CENTER, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru June 17. (818) 841-5421 (Lovell Estell III)

WORD, EDGEWISE Each piece in Kevin Vavasseur’s evening of performance poetry ticks off a bullet point on a list of social ills. Most are grim, like the Hollywood agent unaffected by 9/11 (his first question is “Who’s got the rights?”), or the AIDS worker explaining to his new case that all his finances will be fine, as long as he dies — the better for funding. Vavasseur’s best monologues pack a fresher punch than those depicting his obvious, unassailable sympathies. In “I Carried You,” a doting mom slowly reveals she’s setting her smothered child up for failure, while in “Angry Jesus” a crucified Vavasseur curses us for emphasizing his suffering over his teachings. The risk is that it’s easy for these short, single-minded screeds to come off as preachy, which Vavasseur attempts to overcome with enthusiasm and imaginative staging. Literally dressing up his opinions, he recites a poem about materialism while loading himself with bling. And as the dying spirit of New Orleans, he runs in with a parasol and handful of beads before climbing into a sick bed and gracing us with his own eulogy. LYRIC-HYPERION THEATER, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri., 10:30 p.m. (added perf May 19, 10:30 p.m.); thru May 18. (866) 811-4111. (Amy Nicholson)

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