ALICE SIT-BY-THE-FIRE J.M. Barrie’s 1919 comedy is a far more earthbound affair than his earlier success, Peter Pan, yet it still provides a sweet concoction of precocious observations, misinterpreted dialogue and send-ups of contemporary melodrama. Orson Bean appears as The Playwright — i.e., Barrie reciting his own chatty stage directions — who introduces us to the world of Amy and Cosmo Grey (Betty Wigell and Miles Marsico). They are an adolescent brother and sister about to meet their parents, Alice and Colonel Robert Grey (Alley Mills and Bruce French), who’ve returned to their London home after the colonel’s long Army posting in India — an absence that made them strangers to their own children. Amy and her friend Ginevra (Tania Getty) live in a time when girls’ imaginations were aroused not by boys or drugs but by their first visits to the theater. Influenced by romantic stage potboilers, the eavesdropping pair mistake a harmless conversation between Alice and the colonel’s friend, Stephen Rollo (Neil McGowan), as proof of an illicit love affair. Soon, Amy finds herself hiding from her parents in Stephen’s wardrobe as miscommunications pile up among the characters. Director Joe Olivieri delivers a production that is neither taxidermied relic nor overly precious giggle-fit, and gets a fine comic performance from Wigell.Barrie’s play floats through its three acts — a harmless bubble that perhaps stirred the ribald histrionics of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw and many another later farce.PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATRE, 705½ Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 10. (310) 822-8392. (Steven Mikulan)

Alice Sit-by-the-Fire (Photo by Keith Stevenson)

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SHUT UP AND EAT YOUR GROUNDLINGS The Groundlings’ pipeline to SNL has much to do with their predilection for supersized characters butting heads with the normals in skits with inspired origins and predictable punch lines. This latest rapid-fire barrage serves up unhinged ex-football jocks, sashaying “house whisperers,” and hopelessly square dads begging their sons to define the etymology of phrases like “That’s so Raven!” Under Karen Maruyama’s fast-clipping direction, it’s all amusing (except for a tone-deaf pro-Iraq-war musical propagandized by Halliburton), but the best skits shake off the formula and find sublime idiocy, absurdity, and awkwardness. In “Mixed Messages,” two freshman roommates (Kevin Kirkpatrick and Ben Falcone) pretend a more macho answering machine will preclude them from having to come out of the closet to each other (and themselves). “Invasion” invents a sociopathic arcade game that forces its players (Mikey Day and Jim Cashman) to mow down adorable toddlers, while Cashman, Michaela Watkins and Tim Brennen goof around as rabid Food Network hosts whose taping of a segment intro for Osteria la Buca melts down into Jerry Springer antics. The evening’s biggest surprise came during the fourth improv segment when, seconds after the solidly-built Brennan was ordered to dance the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, he was 10 feet in the air slithering nimbly along a pole. GROUNDLING THEATER, 7307 Melrose Ave., Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 26. (323) 934-9700. (Amy Nicholson)

A TUNA CHRISTMAS It’s Christmas Eve in Tuna, the small, quaint Texas town that’s the setting for Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard’s trio of beloved two-actor/billion-character plays, and the townsfolk are buzzing with plans for the holiday like a hive of grannies at a trailer-park bingo game. Plump housewife Bertha Bumiller (Patrick Bristow in glamorous she-drag) summons her family to decorate the Christmas tree — a challenging feat, considering teenage son Stanley (Mindy Sterling, in frightening he-drag) is on parole, while daughter Charlene (Sterling again, in spandex and Flashdance sweatshirt) is pining for the ostensibly gay director (Bristow, in fat suit and sweatpants) of the town production of A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile, Tuna’s local terrorist, a spiteful citizen known as The Phantom, is sabotaging many of the town’s beautiful holiday-lawn displays just before they’re to be judged for the annual decorating contest. With the play’s near-bewildering ensemble of townspeople portrayed by Groundlings local legends Sterling and Bristow, director Stan Zimmerman’s staging should be a dazzling tour de force. Unfortunately, the pacing is unexpectedly inert, and the show’s hampered by Zimmerman’s decision to present the play’s characters as little more than sentimental hicks in varying degrees of regional condescension. The character and costume changes are unexpectedly slow, focusing our attention on the obvious vamping between various characters’ entrances. THEATRE ASYLUM, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan 6. ?(323) 960-7753. (Paul Birchall)

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