THE COMPLICATIONS OF PURCHASING A POODLE PILLOW Mary Lynn Rajskub, an athletic slip of a woman, came to L.A. from art school in Detroit in the late ’90s and threw herself into L.A.’s burgeoning alternative comedy scene. Since landing the role of counterterrorism expert Chloe O’Brian in Fox’s 24, her standup routine now incorporates some bafflement over her considerably more famous television character’s intrusion into her life. In one fleeting reference mocking her “tough life,” she complains about people not even knowing her real name. The complaint comes with a quick, droll glare. With this twist of glibness, you wonder who’s really speaking. The brilliance of her comedy stems from a kind of bewildered, inarticulate persona who goes off on digressions and deliberately neglects to finish stories. The disarray is a con; by show’s end, it all adds up with poetical coherence and a fierce intelligence. It’s as though dozens of ghosts are levitating just over her head, goading her to do reckless if not idiotic deeds that inevitably destroy her friendships and/or her dignity. These are not channeled “characters” that actors flip through in showcase-y solo performances. They’re mere presences, like breezes, with demonic energies that keep prodding and poking their forlorn host, who occasionally sighs from the bombardment in one of the rare moments when Mary Lynn Rajskub emerges from the dustups that constitute the stories of her life. Because of Chloe, she says, she was invited to the center seat on a counterterrorism panel in Washington, D.C. — though she knows absolutely nothing about counterterrorism. It was hosted by Rush Limbaugh, who, in a moment of introduction, kissed her on the lips instead of the cheek. After rumors of their affair spread around the country, her ex called her up, bitterly protesting that “Now they’ve got you.” Indignant, and for a reason having little to do with sanity, she e-mailed Limbaugh, reminded him who she was, and asked for a date — the response was blistering. I don’t know if any of this is true; if it’s not, it’s even more impish and delightful. I’m told she changes 50 percent of her content for every show. Steve Allen Theater at the CENTER FOR INQUIRY–WEST, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Sun., 8 p.m.; (no perfs first Sunday of every month); indef. (800) 595-4TIX. (Steven Leigh Morris)

  HAVANA BOURGEOIS Politics is “just a bunch of old rich white men fighting over money” proclaims Manuel (Theodore Borders), the Afro-Cuban errand boy at an advertising agency in 1958 Havana. The statement portends the communist revolution, which slowly but surely transforms the life of each employee in the agency’s art department during the course of Carlos Lacámara’s play. In true Marxist form, Manuel eventually ousts and replaces Luis Calvo, the president of the ad agency. At the same time, protagonist Alberto Varela (David Michie), a member of the Cuban bourgeoisie, undergoes a crisis of conscience, alternately supporting and condemning the impending revolution. The scenes are framed by speeches from the disembodied voice of Fidel Castro, which segues nicely into a radio broadcast during one particular transition. Despite the at times heavy and political nature of the drama, there is enough humor to undercut the tension, particularly from Panchito (Tony Plana), who “provides the revolution with a little satirical nuance” in the form of hand-drawn caricatures of Castro. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera brings to life the well-delineated, three-dimensional characters of Lacámara, who manages to avoid turning Cuba into an exotic, tropical paradise full of Latin jazz, machismo and slutty salsettes. A Fixed Mark Production at THE HAYWORTH THEATRE, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 16. (213) 389-9680. (Mayank Keshaviah)

EM Lewis’ intense drama portrays the nightmare of four Western hostages
facing execution in Iraq. American engineer Harold Wolfe (James
Eckhouse) has been held in isolation for six months when Caroline (Beth
Broderick), a British Embassy employee, is tossed into his tiny, dank
holding cell, bound, gagged and blindfolded. Following her initial
panic, the sardonic, well-coiffed Brit (how does she keep her do in
place till the final scene? — a minor quibble) combats her terror with
disdainful irony, snubbing her cellmate and scorning the meager
nourishment he counsels her to eat. Meanwhile, in a neighboring
cubicle, two recently kidnapped journalists — volatile Jack (Jeremy
Gabriel), a seasoned loner, and idealistic Michael (J. Richey Nash), a
petrified greenhorn — clash over what an escape attempt might do to
their chances of survival. As weeks pass, the deadline for the
beheading of Harold and Michael nears. While the play implicitly
opposes U.S. policy, the main thrust is psychological, not political:
to probe the transformations human beings undergo as they endure
isolation, deprivation and dread. For middle-class audiences with lives
of privilege, the similarity of their social station to the hostages on
the stage will only intensify the drama’s considerable power. Under
Darin Antony’s direction, and underscored by designer Dan Jenkins’
cavernous yet claustrophobic set, the question of who we are beneath
our posturing lands with such force, it jangles the nerves long after
the play has ended. THE BLANK THEATRE, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.;
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Sept. 23. (323) 661-9827 or (Deborah Klugman)

  INVASION! THE MUSICAL A more apt title for Aaron Matijasic’s hilarious musical satire would be “attack of the penis snatchers.” After a mysterious light appears in the sky, the inhabitants of Tucker County, New Mexico, panic and demand answers. The weight of the investigation rests on the shoulders of Sheriff Brewster (Will Harris), a potbellied mountain of a man who loves liquor and X-rated jokes. Things get stranger when old man Fletcher (Ben Giroux) turns up missing his genitals, walking like a zombie and chanting the names of menu items from a Mexican restaurant as if they were a sacred mantra. Among the populace joining the hunt for the terrifying, dick-pilfering aliens is an alcoholic, lecherous priest (Matt Falber), a blond bimbo (Kate Feld), two “ghetto hoochies” (Whitney Vigil and Nicole Gemma), Jesus (Al Rahn), Satan (Giroux), and even Dan Brown (Scott Burman), author of the Da Vinci Code. This nonstop comic orgy is freighted with ethnic jokes, scatology and gloriously disgusting ditties such as “Aborted Fetuses” and “Toxic Shock Syndrome.” Matijasic’s book and lyrics leave no room for any ethnic group’s dignity. The playwright also directs, keeping his fine ensemble’s shtick and physical comedy at just the right pitch. Hats off to composer/music director Billy Thompson for a beautifully crafted score. HUDSON BACKSTAGE THEATRE, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 23. (323) 960-7612 (Lovell Estell III)

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM In Shakespeare’s most sprightly (and sprite-filled) comedy, Lysander (Ryan Pfeiffer) and Hermia (Italome Ohikhuare), Demetrius (Michael Perl) and Helena (Katherine Brandt) run amok in the forest, enchanted by the fairy Puck (Zoe Jarman), while the fairy queen Titania (Brianna Lee Johnson) becomes infatuated with strapping young were-donkey Bottom (Eric Hunicutt). However, this time, the goings on, staged by director Chrisanne Blankenship, unfold in the environs of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — and if you don’t think the funereal location adds a certain frisson of darkness to the play’s usual merriment, you are having your own midsummer night’s dream. Blankenship’s production is appealingly acrobatic and playful, with crisply timed slapstick. Yet the show’s playing area — a long makeshift stage that has been set up along the cemetery’s memorial pool — is so large that the acoustics are frequently dreadful, and that’s even without the inevitable and constant helicopters hovering overhead. Still, the performances are high spirited and genial, particularly Hunicutt’s wonderfully daffy Bottom, Johnson’s power-sexpot Titania, and Jarman’s spunky Puck. This is a pleasant, traditional production whose intimacy and sense of joy is all but sapped by the gigantic gravestones not far from the audience’s backs. Tall Blonde Productions at HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri. & Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Sept 2. (800) 595-4849. (Paul Birchall)

MY MOTHER’S YARD Lisa Temple’s monodrama suggests that her mother was a judgmental, critical harridan with relentless iniquities. Mom disparaged her hair, her modest breast size, her height, and all her endeavors, including her cheerleading, her equestrian skills, and her theatrical ambitions. Add to the list Mom’s financial exploitation of Temple via counsel to sign off on ill-advised loans, investments and purchases. The woman reportedly reserved her approval for Temple’s male siblings, one a parasitic spendthrift and the other inclined to drink and drugs. Mom is contrasted with Temple’s supportive, loving husband and equally perfect mother-in-law. (Temple’s husband, Rich Brunner, is credited with the script.) The show’s subtitle describes it as “One Woman’s Journey of Healing and Forgiveness,” but what we get is a 65-minute indictment of Temple’s family, followed by five minutes of grudging reconciliation. The virtues of Temple’s undoubted sincerity crumble beneath the self-indulgence of her indignation. It doesn’t help that the piece is set, irrelevantly, in a sporting-goods store, where director Jan O’Connor finds little for Temple to do except fiddle with the props. Little Apple Productions at ACTORS GROUP THEATRE, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 25. (323) 960-7862. (Neal Weaver)

  QUARTET Like English playwright Christopher Hampton, the late German poet and überexperimenter in theatrical forms, Heiner Müller, also had a go at adapting Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century novel Les Liasons Dangereusesfor the stage.Whereas Hampton transformed the novel’s series of correspondences into a straightforward erotic melodrama about libertines and innocents, Müller’s Quartet (here in a translation by Marc Von Henning) turned the letters into a far more interesting, linguistically dense and poetical sequence of arias and dialogues spoken by two characters, a man and a woman named Valmont and Merteuil (Troy Dunn and Sharon Gardner). Quartet strongly suggests that the pair are acting out a jealousy duet that involves sexually ensnaring a virgin from a convent, while corrupting the president’s femme — leaving girl and femme ruined — just for the puppeteers’ fun, and boredom, and insecurity. What’s to be insecure about? Why, aging and death of course, underscoring the frailty and presumptuousness of human power in general, and of sexual power in particular. What good is power if it lasts no longer than the blink of an eye? Valmont and Merteuil’s bitter game is a form of revenge against God for their own mortality, a petty swipe of nihilism motivated by reminders of their own physical decay. Director Frederique Michel has the pair switching roles, which further dramatizes the gamesmanship. She also adds two “Players” (David E. Frank and Mariko Oka); he makes droll remarks behind a golden mask while she enacts the role of the virgin. Set against the sky-blue backdrop of Charles A. Duncombe’s elegant production design, which also includes a pair of suspended chandeliers and a centerpiece crucifix, the spectacle is as beautiful to watch as it is to hear, thanks in large part to the eloquent and intense performances that, even at fever pitch, sustain a quiet dignity. Also, Michel’s overlay of Kabuki formalization helps elevate the lusty melodrama from a poem about the meaning of sex to one about the meaning of life. CITY GARAGE, 1340½ (alley) Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 23. (310) 319-9939. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Leigh Morris)

  TITUS ANDRONICUS If you thought today’s slasher movies were gruesome, get a load of this rarely performed Shakespeare classic, thought to be one of the Bard’s earliest tragedies, and generally regarded as historically fascinating literary crap. Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s sturdy direction comes with requisite dark humor applied to this loud, long gore fest relocated from ancient Rome to 1930s Italy under the fascists. General Titus Andronicus (Charles Pasternak) returns after a decade of war with the Goths and brings as prisoners their vanquished queen, Tamora (Amanda Marquardt), her lover, Aaron the Moor (Eddie Castuera), and her three sons. Having lost 21 of 25 sons in battle, Titus sacrifices one of Tamora’s sons as restitution, setting in motion plots and counterplots that draw more blood than a Michael Vick dog fight. There are also allusions to our current political climate, with noble Basianus (Patrick J. Saxon), son of the recently deceased emperor, and his cohorts sporting blue ties and cloaks, while his vindictive brother and rival for the throne, Saturninus (Jonathon Bangle), along with his pals, are partial to red. Poor old Titus descends into madness as the dead bodies mount, including those of his own progeny. While the spray-on gray in 20-something Pasternak’s hair does not convince one of Titus’ maturity, the stentorian tone of his line deliveries does. Porters of Hell's Gate at the WHITMORE-LINDLEY THEATER CENTER, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Sept. 9. (310) 497-2884. (Martín Hernández)

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