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ANYTHING
A comedy written in the nothing-human-disgusts-me vein,
Tim McNeil’s play looks at what happens when a middle-aged widower
befriends a Hollywood transvestite prostitute. Early Landry (McNeil) is
a transplanted Southerner still grieving for his wife, while also
tamping down the demons that have caused him to attempt suicide four
times. Next-door neighbor Freda (Louis Jacobs) has just been dumped by
her more-or-less straight boyfriend (Max Williams). The rebounding
Early and Freda take a while to reach eye level for the romance that
inevitably follows — Freda’s a foul-mouthed Vicodin addict working
Santa Monica Boulevard, while Early is a stay-at-home sentimentalist
stuck to a chair listening to his late wife’s favorite Debussy
recording. McNeil and Jacobs are personable actors, but David Fofi’s
direction doesn’t nudge them off their single-note performances. Worse,
McNeil’s talky play starts by seeming to explore what happens when a
person loses everything in life, but quickly becomes another
hooker-redemption yarn — and a fairly plot-free one at that. The only
fun arrives late when Early’s monster sister (Cheryl Huggins) arrives
for dinner with her husband and son (David Franco and Jeremy Glazer,
respectively). Sis is refreshingly bigoted, providing the only moment
of conflict and comedy. She also forces her brother to finally admit
Freda’s a man — a fact, along with an 800-pound gorilla called AIDS,
that Early has not acknowledged. Elephant Theater Company at the
LILLIAN THEATER, 1076 N. Lillian St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun.,
7 p.m.; thru Jan. 13. (323) 960-4410. (Steven Mikulan)
@HEART  Playwright J-Powers’ epistolary drama uses the
“newfangled” technologies of e-mail and instant messaging to tell an
old-fashioned story of love and war. Following the toppling of the
World Trade Center, idealistic young Harris (Mikey Myers on the night
reviewed — the show is triple cast) feels like he must do something, so
he enlists in the Army, with the wholehearted support of his doting
wife, Jennifer (Jessica McClendon, who also alternates in the role with
two other actors). While Harris is overseas being a hero, Jennifer,
saddled with family debts and a young son, fights a losing war of a
different type entirely. The moral of J-Powers’ drama seems to be that
warrior adventuring is ultimately vanity, while the brave are often
left behind on the home front to cope. The problem, though, is that
Powers seems unsure whether he’s telling a soapy tear jerker or a
hard-hitting polemic against the war, and the uncertain, halting text
is unsatisfying as both. Director Paul Linke’s production mainly
consists of the two performers seated behind a pair of laptops for the
entire show. The resulting mood is intimate, although stasis and even
claustrophobia inevitably seep through. Still, Myers is touching as the
dopey, irresponsible would-be hero — and so is McClendon as his
waiflike and increasingly desperate wife. RUSKIN GROUP THEATRE, 3000
Airport Ave., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan.
20. (310) 397-3244. (Paul Birchall)

ATLANTA
Marcus Hummon and Adrian Pasdar’s brand-new American
Civil War musical never ceases to amaze. At every point where you say
to yourself, “This couldn’t possibly get any worse,” they roll out a
new scene that defies such prophecy. Not that individual elements are
lacking. If you removed Hummon’s music and lyrics from the play onto
which they’ve been grafted (like a peach tree branch onto a cactus)
you’d be left with a very pleasing amalgam of James Taylor and Ry
Cooder’s musical stylings with some gospel thrown in for good measure.
Hummon and Pasdar’s story idea has its merits as well — starting with a
bewildered Yankee soldier, Paul (Ken Barnett, who with good reason
bears the expression of a deer stunned by headlights). Paul steals the
uniform and love letters of the Confederate grunt he just killed in
order to pursue an epistolary fantasy. He wanders into the brigade of a
Confederate colonel (John Fleck), who has a penchant for Shakespeare
and for having his merry band of slaves (Leonard Roberts, Merle
Dandridge and Moe Daniels) perform scenes from the Bard while his
brigade is in retreat. All the world’s a stage, I guess. Some of this
might work if the telling of the story weren’t so soppy. Yes, there’s a
“secret” about heritage that’s going to pop out at the end, sort of
like a stripper out of a birthday cake. Then add a jealousy triangle
involving the colonel and two of his slaves. The larger problem is the
creators’ attempt to exploit Southern gothic rather than explore it, resulting in a
compendium of cliches spun from Faulkneresque literary images and a Ken
Burns documentary. Stir in Kay Cole’s choreography, which has the
ensemble stompin’ their feet and swayin’ their shoulders back and fro,
as though snagged on the barbed wire fence between opera and a hoedown,
and the event devolves into a parody of itself. The performances are
fine and the onstage band is great, but here lies a good idea that got
executed, in the military sense of that verb. Randall Arney directs.
GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.;
Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no perf.
Dec. 25); thru Jan. 6. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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PICK 
BENEDICTUS The virtues of
Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s drama of political intrigue
(translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris) come from its
world-weary humor and very global perspective — a prescient saga
written post-9/11 yet before U.S. saber rattling against Iran started
getting louder, it’s set as the U.S. prepares to bomb an Iranian
nuclear facility. In a Benedictine monastery near Rome, childhood
friends now in middle age reunite — if not to save the world, at least
to save their part in it. Iranian-born Jew Asther Muthada (Ali
Pourtash) — dressed like a used-car salesman on holiday in an all-white
suit — has become an Israeli arms dealer and is now terrified of what
will become of his sister and her family who remained in Iran, once
American bombs start dropping on Tehran. The drama consists of a series
of his clandestine meeting with a moderate Iranian cleric, Ali Kermani
(Al Faris) — in black religious garb — who might or might not have a
chance of being Iran’s next president, and who might or might not wield
the influence to get Muthada’s sister out of Iran. In their youth, the
men shared a schoolyard and prison cell during the revolution against
the Shah. The play is set mostly in the dank claustrophobia of the
Spartan meeting room — stained glass beamed onto the black wall like a
mirage (set by Daniel Michaelson). And despite the somewhat stock
melodrama, and the constricted range of line deliveries by Pourtash,
who still possesses an appealingly wry portrayal of the Israeli, the
two men negotiating for arms has the scintillating wit of bluff and
counterbluff, as the Israeli tries to save his sister, and the Iranian
tries to save his skin. Earll Kingston has a thundering voice, and John
Bolton’s snake-oil charm, as an American diplomat/intermediary — don’t
tread on U.S. But an opening scene is emblematic of the play’s droll
humor: On the eve of World War III, a nun (Lisa Tateosian), who may or
may not have planted listening devices, welcomes the Israeli visitor
with ingratiating formality, saying that the church would do anything
for world peace, and Muthada just stares at her as though she were just
released from the mental ward. The play was created in collaboration
with Michaelson, Roberta Levitow, Torange Yeghizarian and director
Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. Golden Thread Productions at THE NEW LATC, 514 S.
Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 9.
(323) 461-3673. (Steven Leigh Morris)
  CRY-BABY  John Waters’ new musical is a Broadway-style camp
frolic about teens in 1954 Baltimore that follows in the stylistic
footsteps of
Hairspray 
It’s harmless and delightful, lacking the ironic depth
of Waters’ 1990 film, on which it’s based. Cry Baby (James Snyder), a
rock singer and member of the bad-boy Drapes gang, falls into a
star-crossed love affair with Allison (Elizabeth Stanley) — the
prettiest of the Squares, a group that includes her should-be
boyfriend, Baldwin (Christopher H. Hanke), a member of a four-part
harmony crew. Deftly guided by director Mark Brokaw, the cast deliver
the sappy comedy with aplomb, particularly the hilarious Harriet Harris
as the lead den mother of the Squares. David Javerbaum and Adam
Schlesinger’s songs are catchy and clever, especially under the fine
musical direction of Lynne Shankel. However, the excitement of this
show comes mostly from Rob Ashford’s nonstop, over-the-top
choreography, which takes full advantage of the outstanding dancers.
Catherine Zuber’s bright and intensely period costumes perfectly match
Scott Pask’s ambitious, constantly moving sets, brilliantly lit by
Howell Binkley. LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La
Jolla; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8
p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 16. (858) 550-1010. (Tom
Provenzano)

HARM’S WAY  Shem Bitterman’s play is a thoughtful, stateside view
of America’s actions in Iraq, centered on an Army atrocity that is
investigated by a military father (Jack Stehlin) whose daughter (Katie
Lowes) falls in love with the case’s chief suspect (Ben Bowen). While
it doesn’t completely fulfill its dramatic potential, the two-hour
show, directed by Steve Zuckerman, mostly avoids editorializing,
preferring instead to question how good people do terrible things.
CIRCUS THEATRICALS STUDIO THEATER at the Hayworth, 643 Carondelet St.,
L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 21-22, 28-29 & Jan. 4-5);
thru Feb. 9. (323) 960-1054. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next
week.

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LOCAL STORY
Kristen Palmer’s play suggests you can go home again,
but you may not be welcomed when you get there. Years ago, D’Lady
(Michelle Hilyard) ran away with goofy guy Jimmy (Jeffrey Emerson), and
took him to an isolated Colorado melon patch, then absconded with his
car. In the melon patch, Jimmy had a brief encounter with a fey,
barefoot young woman, Betsy (Mandi Moss), who seems to have escaped
from a folk tale, but in the play’s action has now returned in pursuit
of Jimmy, who now shares a house with passive Bubba (David Wilcox), who
carries a torch for D’Lady. (Bubba hasn’t set foot out of doors since
she left.) Bubba’s sister, Amory (Jennifer Anne Evans), is a control
freak who manipulates her husband, Roy (Monroe Makowsky), by
withholding sex. But now that she’s eager to have a child, he reacts
passive-aggressively by becoming impotent. (He also sees ghosts.) When
D’Lady reappears on the scene, she serves as a catalyst to energize the
others. Director Inger Tudor gives the piece an excellent production,
and the performances are fine, but it’s a rambling (though often
amusing) tale about eccentric characters behaving eccentrically.
THEATRE OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.;
Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 16. (323) 993-6103. (Neal Weaver)

MONNA VANNA  Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s bloated 1902
melodrama has not been produced in this country for more than a
century, and now we know why. This fusty work tells of one man’s
willingness to sacrifice thousands of lives to protect his wife’s
virtue and his own “honor.” In 15th-century Italy during a war between
Pisa and Florence (Pisa, on the losing end, is besieged, and its people
starving), Guido Colonna (Stephan Smith Collins), the ruler and
military leader, is desperate when he gets word that Prinzivalle
(Bryant Romo), his Florentian counterpart, will spare the city if
Guido’s wife, Vanna (Emily Wing), visits his tent. Despite the dire
situation, the enraged, jealous husband
refuses, turning aside the pleas of his father (Robin Field) to spare
his people. Act 2 details the meeting between Prinzivalle and Vanna —
who defies her husband and delivers herself — revealing the pair as
long-lost childhood sweethearts, and forcing her to a hokey choice
between love and duty. Directed by Joel Marquez, the production doesn’t
find whatever psychological complexity might be ferreted from the
long-winded script — favoring instead head-splitting histrionics and
slushy sentimentality. A spare set leaves the performers with little to
do while delivering their long speeches. Field is watchable as a
seasoned elder, and Wing communicates vulnerability in a wan
performance. However, both the bombastic Collins — whose arrogant
commander never questions his own virtue — and the bathetic Romo are in
over their heads. Lizbeth Lucca and Sarah Moore’s colorful period
costumes are thoroughly wasted. STELLA ADLER THEATRE, 6773 Hollywood
Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.;
thru Dec. 16. (323) 465-4446. (Deborah Klugman)

 
SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK
The 19 ditties belted out by Chad Borden, Tameka Dawn,
Antoine Reynaldo Diel, Eduardo Enrikez, Elaine Loh and Susan Rudick are
one-third of the entire output of the beloved ’70s and ’80s kids
program and, as such, they cover a lot of educational ground. Listen up
and learn about grammar rules, women’s rights, the solar system, time
tables and a whole lotta American history. While the lyrics are often
so mumbled that the exact definition of a pronoun is indecipherable,
the tots in the surprisingly hipster-free
matinee audience were downright giddy about multiplying by fives and
pretending to be Russians and Italian immigrants as they jumped into a
melting pot superimposed with a long wooden spoon. But the standout is
the cherubic Rudick, whose crystalline voice makes a haunting lullaby
of “Figure 8” and gives “Interplanet Janet” extra bop (though Pluto is
now thrown dismissively into the wings). Stringing along the favorites
like “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Only a Bill” (along with a grating
framing device about a teacher who needs inspiration, darn it),
director Mark Savage and choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza keep the mood
peppy without parody, though as the character Bill (as in Senate bill)
shuffled offstage, someone couldn’t resist shouting, “Can we get out of
Iraq now?” GREENWAY COURT THEATER, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Sat., 4
p.m.; Sun., 4 & 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 24. (323) 655-7679. (Amy
Nicholson)

SPLIT SECOND  The action in Dennis McIntyre’s gritty 1984 drama
unfurls on a seamy New York street where a black cop, Val (William
Christopher Stephens), makes what seems to be a routine bust of white
car thief William Ellis (Taber Schroeder). Offhand banter between the
pair turns ugly when Ellis taunts his black captor with an onslaught of
racial insults, after which Val snaps and dispatches the garrulous
perpetrator with a bullet to the heart. What follows is straight out of
dirty-cop protocol. Val works the scene to make the murder appear
legitimate, lies repeatedly to a skeptical inspector (a fine
performance by Gary Robinson), and finds himself doing the same to his
cop buddy, his wife, Lea (Janora McDuffie), and his straight-laced
father (Ernest Harden Jr.), a former policeman. The final scene offers
no surprises and little perspective. In his overwritten script,
McIntyre fails to make this killer cop’s feelings of guilt, moral
ambiguity and ultimate self-betrayal viscerally convincing, opting
instead for a melodrama, contrivance and racial animus to explain and
justify the indefensible. No fault can be found with JWJ’s direction,
or the fine performances. THE NEXT STAGE, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., Second
Floor, Hlywd.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru. Dec.13. (323) 850-7827 (Lovell
Estell III)

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  THE WINTER’S TALE
Shakespeare’s dream play starts in Sicily, where King
Leontes (Geoff Elliott) grows suddenly and weirdly jealous of his house
guest, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Stephen Rockwell), for the way the
hostess queen, Hermione (Jill Hill), cajoles Polixenes to stay a bit
longer. Something about the way their noses almost brush up against
each other sets the Sicilian king into a rage — like Othello but
without Iago goading him. Rather, Leontes manufactures this insanity
all by himself, and for no apparent reason. Out of his gourd, he
formally, publicly charges his pregnant wife with infidelity, and
anybody else of treason who might stand up for her, such as his loyal
servant, Camillo (William Dennis Hunt). At her trial, an oracle defends
the queen’s honor, but this is not evidence Leontes can hear, or bear.
Being of Greek origin, the tale entails some fleeing, and the abused
queen’s death, but not before the premature birth of her daughter, whom
the lunatic king banishes as a bastard. The other pole of this bipolar
play is Bohemia, 16 years later, where the mid-section unfolds,
revealing King Polixenes’ predatory issues with his son (Ross Kidder),
who’s now wooing the Sicilian King’s banished daughter (Alison
Elliott), though only we know her ancestry. A scene much like the
raising of Lazarus from the dead provides the hypnotic peak to the
drama’s slow crescendo of events. A lush visual beauty envelopes
co-directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott’s elegant
production. Some of this is contained in the opulent beauty of Peer
Gottlieb’s lighting design, and the way it falls on Soojin Lee’s
Edwardian costumes. There’s also Darcy Scanlin’s deceptively spare set,
framed by metal spikes at the stage’s perimeter that reach at varied
angles into the sky. That the language is so beautifully spoken goes
without saying in this company, but here it’s supplemented by a
wandering violinist (Endre Balogh), whose sparingly selected
accompaniments give this production its meditative grace. A NOISE
WITHIN, 134 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, call for schedule; thru
Dec. 8. (818) 240-0901, ext. 1. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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