PICK INSIDE PRIVATE LIVES When Julia Phillips (Leonora Gershman) — Hollywood producer, coke fiend and author of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again
— started raging onstage, a guy in the front row called
out that “drug abuse is dangerous.” Phillips snarled back that the
audience member liked fucking Thai hookers. Which is just the
interaction Kristen Stone’s gutsy theatrical experiment seeks between
viewers and its seven in-character, dead-celebrity monologues. The
famous loudmouths include Phillips and cult leader David Koresh,
director Elia Kazan, Tupperware queen Brownie Wise, irascible
Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, transgender pioneer Christine
Jorgensen and boozing presidential brother Billy Carter (respectively,
David Shofner, Adam LeBow, Eileen O’Connell, Mary MacDonald, Stone and
Bryan Safi). The lineup members have little in common besides a defiant
sense of self, which they’re gunning to defend against the audience’s
questions. The exchanges aren’t always polite. Jorgensen was asked,
“What’d you do with the excess baggage?” In the creepiest segment,
Koresh twisted around the Bible to justify his stockpile of wives and
weaponry before trying to manipulate a woman with the threat of
damnation. Under Lee Michael Cohn’s direction, the interplay is
seamless, fresh and intense — as when Schott (infamous for referring to
her players as “million-dollar niggers”) attempts to sway us, an
adoption board, into giving her a “little chocolate baby.”
Theatre East at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru March 30. (No perf Feb. 25.) (323) 960-7792. 
(Amy Nicholson)

MACBETH Familiar film and television personality Harry Lennix leads an all-black cast of pure-voiced actors who present the Scottish play’s text with skill — just no passion. The cutting of director Steve Marvel’s adaptation cleverly allows 10 actors to play all the roles, but unwisely strips away most of the play’s mysticism as it reduces the central three weird sisters to one lone witch — sans most of the witches’ speeches — while leaving in some of the least interesting language during the final battle scenes. The most lively work comes from Geno Monteiro as a drunken porter in the show’s one comic scene, as he delivers laughs in the manner of a Wayans-brothers sketch from In Living Color — creating an odd hybrid of Scottish and Jamaican dialects. Less fortunate are some oddly comic turns by Banquo’s murderers, who affect a Central American drug lord’s speech. The limited-budget scenic design is well handled by Emily Phillips, though an overzealous fog machine tends to choke out much of the initial witch scene. Costume designer Naila Saunders makes some fine choices with simple contemporary clothing — though silly children’s-theater crowns are extremely out of place. The brightest moment comes through some elegant fight choreography by Geoff Callaway. LILLIAN THEATRE, 1076 Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 4. (323) 960-1056. (Tom Provenzano)

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS This is the second play in Richard Dresser’s trilogy examining happiness in America. Jodi (Joanna Strapp) is a rebellious teen who decides not to go to college and whose college-educated parents, Neil (Matthew Reidy) and Annie (Deedee Rescher), are initially furious. Eventually, however, Jodi’s decision forces them to re-evaluate their own choices. Neil and Annie recall a time when they were as free-spirited as their daughter, and grow increasingly nostalgic for — what else? — the 1960s. The production elements are, for the most part, solid. Julie Keen’s costumes are character-appropriate; Annie’s pastel-colored, velour sweatsuit is the perfect ensemble for the superficial suburban mom. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s moving set-pieces are slick and simple. Strapp, Reidy and Rescher do an adequate job with the material, and director Andrew Barnicle ensures that the pacing never falters. Still, for the most part, watching this play is like watching a live sitcom — amusing enough, but not at all surprising. Two of the supporting actors, however, manage to rise above the show’s general mediocrity. Preston Maybank delivers a winning performance as Annie’s college pal, Spud, demonstrating excellent comedic timing when he shares his newfound solution to alcoholism: “I go one week totally dry, then the next week I drink whatever I want.” Neil’s socially awkward co-worker, Tucker (Tim Cummings), is refreshingly unpredictable. LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; call box office for schedule; thru Feb. 4. (949) 497-2787. (Stephanie Lysaght)

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Craig Warner’s problematic stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a thriller but unfolds as a whydunnit since the audience always knows who, in this homicidal fable, is guilty. Yet Warner clings to some of the whodunnit conventions you’d find in a Mousetrap, including a detective whose astonishing breadth of knowledge makes us suspect he sat through Act 1 with us. The result is a schizoid work that never clarifies what it really wants to be. Guy Haines (Christopher McFarland) and Charles Bruno (Adam Chambers) are the titular strangers who cross paths in a lounge car. Charles, a garrulous rich kid, makes a strange suggestion: Charles will kill Guy’s unfaithful wife and, in exchange, Guy will murder the father Charles despises. Mistaking Charles’ proposal for a boozy joke, Guy agrees — with tragic consequences. Director Scott Dittman’s production tries very hard to serve Highsmith’s story of obsession, but struggles with Warner’s uneven script and only really connects with it in the last scene, set in a railway yard. Not helping matters is Noah Lange’s large, spare set; the stage (which is shared with another play) seems to dwarf the cast even as the story demands a neurotic, claustrophobic milieu. Chambers is affably goony as Guy’s homosexual stalker, but doesn’t explore any other levels of interpretation of this disturbing figure. Shari Shattuck turns in a nice portrayal of Charles’ Jocasta-like mother. KNIGHTSBRIDGE THEATER, 1944 Riverside Dr., Silver Lake; Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Feb. 11. (323) 667-0955. (Steven Mikulan)


TAKEN Tracy Meeker and David Serpa’s play was originally written to be a film. One hopes the screen version will be more compelling and concise than this stage one. If you think your love or work relationships are dysfunctional, get a load of what Meeker and Serpa’s characters wallow in. Crackerjack salesman Mark (Drew Richards) is an amoral, self-centered and privileged prick who screws over his time-shares sales partner, Peter (Jason Britt), belittles his own long-suffering girlfriend, Cynthia (Meeker), and disrespects his co-worker Ricky (director Serpa). Why do they endure his abuse? Perhaps it’s because Peter makes bigger commissions, Cynthia can live work-free and well dressed, and Ricky can bang Cynthia while Mark’s away on business. Or maybe they lack the self-respect to deflate Mark’s hard-charging, womanizing macho image. Richards’ performance nails the swaggering Rick, whose insufferable bravado may mask an unsavory and dark secret. But it is Britt as the humble and relatively honest Peter who truly draws our sympathy, as he wrestles with compromising his principles for a fat paycheck. While adequate performers, Meeker and Serpa’s participation as actors may have undermined their roles as playwrights (and, in Serpa’s case, as director), rendering them unable to edit the superfluous scenes and dialogue that bog down their earnest work. ECLECTIC THEATER COMPANY, 5314 Laurel Canyon Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 11. (818) 508-3003 (Martín Hernández)

 13 This engaging, fast-moving musical (book by Dan Elish, songs by Jason Robert Brown), with its all-teenage cast, is all about being cool. (All the actors and most of the band members are between 12 and 17 years old.) And at Dan Quayle High School in Appleton, Indiana, that’s a real problem for Evan (Ricky Ashley): he’s new in town, a New York Jew in a WASP world — and the son of a divorced single mom. He hopes to establish his local rep by persuading the cool kids to come to his bar mitzvah, even if this means ditching his one friend, Patrice (Sara Niemetz), because she’s not in the in-crowd. He’s also under siege from pushy Archie (Tyler Mann), who is regarded as the ultimate geek because he’s on crutches and who also has a hopeless crush on local teen queen Kendra (Emma Degerstedt). Elish’s coming-of-age book though sometimes predictable, is fresh, funny and sometimes touching. And it provides ample opportunity for Brown’s high-spirited songs, and dances by Michele Lynch. But it’s the terrific teenagers, singing, playing and dancing up a storm, who make it all worth while. David Gallo’s wonderfully versatile set, Candice Cain’s stylish costumes, Mike Baldassari’s flashy lights and David O’s sharp musical direction are all top notch. MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 18. (213) 628-2772. (Neal Weaver)

TSURIS A madcap comedy in the making, Mark Troy’s untidy farce turns on the travails of a put-upon Jewish guy named Malvin (Danny Lippin). Sandwiched between his hostile, homicidal wife, Ruthie (Jade Sealey), and his domineering parents, he seeks refuge in the arms of soon-to-be-married Dottie (Colette Freedman) — who is also a victim of an overbearing mother. Unfolding in West Palm Beach Florida bagel shops and the county jail, the not-quite-convincing tangle of events includes Malvin’s arrest for arson, an affair between Malvin’s dad (Stan Kelly) and Dottie’s mom (Donna Luisa Guinin), and the ongoing marital rants of a husband-and-wife/waiter-and waitress team (George Frangides and Sundeep Morrison) who are oblivious to their customers’ weary indifference. The understated Lippin provides a firm anchor for the Jewish-slanted satire that sometimes works and sometimes falls flat. Sealey also downplays to advantage. But despite some funny moments, the various subplots, of sketch comedy caliber, don’t always hang together. Better performances among the rest of the supporting ensemble might have filled in the potholes; under Michael Preece’s direction, however, these are too often off the mark or over the top. SIDEWALK STUDIO THEATRE, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 3. (818) 558-5702. (Deborah Klugman)

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