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THE BAKER'S OVEN The softly Southern lilt of the imploring, impassioned pastor's voice sermonizing on patriotism playing as preshow background music is the red flag. Well, that, juxtaposed with the jarring opening scene, in which a dark electro-rave song slaps the audience while a little girl spanks her knockoff Barbie doll until its legs fly off. Anachronistic, that toy, considering the play's setting is the Great Depression, and Mattel didn't launch Barbie dolls until the late '50s. But in light of the lurid action that follows, that's a negligible quibble. As playwright Christopher Goodwin unleashes one monstrous act of human nature after yet another, you almost laugh at the utter absurdity of the plot and its evil mastermind, the charred-and-shriveled-hearted Roy Baker (Jim Eshom); and you begin to wonder if Goodwin's a 21-year-old theater major who (mis)read Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho too many times before writing and mounting his first play in the college's “experimental” theatre. He's not. And though theater majors might congregate at a coffee shop afterward to discuss the symbolism of such unnecessary blanket violence (the U.S.'s history of military invasions seems a likely and politically correct response) and sexual abuse (organized religion, ditto), searching for meaning in this quasi-Greek tragedy of a play is as fruitless and confusing as its ludicrous final scene. Lila Green directs. Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through August 7. (818) 202-4120 (Rebecca Haithcoat)

GO  BEDROOM FARCE The title is apt, since the action occurs in three radically different bedrooms in a 1975 English suburb. Kate (blond and taffy-voiced Kate Hollinshead) and Malcolm (buff and playful Jamie Donovan) are having a party in their new flat. Nick (Scott Roberts) and Jan (Ann Noble) are invited, but Nick has put his back out and is confined to his bed in agony — and he's annoyed that Jan is going to the party without him. Obstreperous and self-obsessed Trevor (Anthony Michael Jones) and his noisily neurotic wife, Susannah (Regina Peluso), are also invited, but their tempestuous marriage is rocked by one of its endless crises. When Trevor makes a pass at former girlfriend Jan, Susannah goes into massive hysterics, wrecking the party. Trevor descends on bedridden Nick to “explain” his behavior, while Susannah runs to Trevor's bemused parents, Ernest (Robert Mandan) and Delia (Maggie Peach), for solace. Alan Ayckbourn's play plumbs no great depths, but he's unflaggingly inventive in exploring comic surfaces, and director Ron Bottitta has assembled a likable and deftly stylish cast to keep the pot boiling on Darcy Prevost's huge and handsome set. Kathryn Poppen's trendy '70s costumes add further charm. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; variable schedule, through September 26. Call theatre for info: (310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  BREWSIE AND WILLIE If the name Gertrude Stein isn't enough of a clue to not expect your average, well-made play, just walk into the seventh floor, downtown-penthouse performance space of this mesmerizing production by CalArts' Center for New Performance and L.A. stage experimentalists, Poor Dog Group. That's where Jesse Bonnell, John Kern and Jeffrey Elias Teeter's video projections of the surrounding cityscape create the uncanny effect that Efren Delgadillo Jr.'s combat-detritus set is perched high upon a vertiginous, open-air promontory. Such lofty, if illusory, heights provide an apt metaphor for the elevated discourse of Stein's lucidly conversational, postwar novella and its all-too-prophetic admonition against the political and intellectual conformity awaiting America's returning WWII GIs. Set during the limbo period between the end of the war and demobilization, director Travis Preston and writers Marissa Chibas and Erik Ehn's elegant adaptation follows the fears, gripes, prejudices and dreams of Stein's archetypal cross section of soldiers and military nurses as they pass the time fraternizing and musing about their uncertain futures. Brewsie (Jonney Ahmanson), a thoughtful sergeant “foggy in the head” but who wants “to be clear,” provokes a probing dialogue with his fellow dogface, the voluble Willie (a dynamic Brad Culver), which soon includes their less reflective comrades. As the inarticulate men and women struggle to find words for their thoughts, Stein's apprehensions about parallels between the regimented thinking demanded by the Nazi's military-industrialism and those invited by our own consumer-industrial society are gradually given voice. Preston's vibrantly inventive direction of a first-rate ensemble, plus some additional, authentic ambience provided by circling LAPD helicopters, together suggest that any similarity between Stein's fears and the straits in which we find ourselves today is strictly intentional. 7th Floor Penthouse, 533 S. Los Angeles St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through Aug. 1, brownpapertickets.com. A CalArts' Center for New Performance in association with Poor Dog Group production. (Bill Raden)

GO  JAYBIRD AND HALLELUJAH Writer-director Pel Tedder's comedy-drama promises to change the way you think about life, death and the afterlife. Perhaps it will. A bit like an upbeat No Exit on wheels, Tedder's stories concern a handful of unhappy souls riding a bus through purgatory on New Year's Eve. They need to make it to the intersection of Jaybird and Hallelujah in order to cross over to Heaven, but unseen rioters threaten to lock them in limbo. As personal tales are revealed, we are drawn into their torment and recriminations. The flaring temper of an aggressive and sexually charged jock-type Willie (Eric Goldrich) is kept at bay by his adoring girlfriend, Adriana (Sarah Delpizzo), reminding him of the power of positive thinking. We soon learn why he's there, but her presence in purgatory is more mysterious. One smooth-talking character, Swamp Rat (Greg L. Grass) has the colorful and musical vocal delivery of a preacher. There are some beautiful and touching moments in this fine play. Flashes of comedy are underpinned by its serious theme. Don't expect sets or costumes — this production runs on the smell of an oily rag, sustained by the power of Tedder's nicely modulated writing and some convincing performances. Most nights The Ukomo Theatre Project presents the same play with two different casts, interpretations and strikingly different endings. It's an ambitious attempt and worth the effort. Subtitled “The Redemption” and “The Salvation,” the versions perform in repertory. NoHo Actors Studios, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Sat., 9:15 p.m.; through Aug. 7, ukomoproject@live.com. (818) 761-2166. Ukomo Theatre Project (Pauline Adamek)

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LADY LANCING, or, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST The Ark Theater Company's fetching idea of staging Oscar Wilde's farce has, at its core, the original, unrevised script and four-act format. The addition of a minor character and some name changes do little to alter the story or to temper the fun. It's the rough edges of this production that keep that fun at bay. The play is, after all, a gentle comedy with farcical overtones. Here, the tone and pace turn those gentle qualities into a kind of sedative, under the ultralight touch of co-directors Douglas Leal and Derek Livingston. Notwithstanding some glaring instances of flubbed lines (a contagion that spread throughout the cast with the consequence of seeming to dull Wilde's otherwise pointed wit), Kenn Johnson and Leal acquit themselves well in the roles of Jack and Algernon, the two puffed-up dandies whose name-swapping high jinks and romantic foibles lie at the play's heart. JoAnna Jocelyn infuses the requisite imperious dignity and stuffiness to her role of Lady Brancaster, while Anna Quirino and Caroline Sharp are quite good as Jack and Algernon's love interests, despite Sharp's wobbly British accent. Osa Danam's costumes are beautifully understated, and Christina Silvioso's painted backdrops add a visual comic touch. Ark Theater Company at The Attic Theatre and Film Center, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m., through August 15. (323) 969-1707. (Lovell Estell III)

NOT ABOUT HEROES Playwright Stephen MacDonald's 1982 drama about the World War I friendship between British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen is an Anglophile's orgy of poetry and irony. The stage simmers with repressed sexuality and doomed talent — chilled with that stiff upper lippiness that has boys quoting poetry as they march off to get slaughtered in the Somme. In 1917, at the Scottish mental hospital where they have both been committed for shell shock, wide-eyed novice poet Owen (Robert Hardin) nervously approaches his idol, celebrated war bard Sassoon (Josh Mann), to ask for his autograph and to get his opinion of his own verses about the horrors of WWI. The two men kindle a warm mentor-prodigy relationship that stops an inch short of a lip-lock — and, even though they never declare their obvious romantic love, Sassoon is left bereft after Owen returns to his unit and dies pointlessly in the trenches. MacDonald's drama is incredibly well-researched — some might say overresearched, as the piece strives to shoehorn into the text almost every single fact about its subjects' lives. Yet, director Bill Hemmer's elegant if unevenly paced production limns the shifting power dynamic between the two poets, as well as offers a compelling portrait of a war that literally crushed a whole generation of young men into the mud. Hardin's delightfully boyish Owen matures and become ravaged by the conflict, before our eyes — while Mann's subtly arch turn as Sassoon belies the affection for his prodigy lurking below the surface of his snarky ironic exterior. Although the play is ultimately perilously overwritten and a bit static, the production itself recalls the mood and tone of those fringe British dramas that are frequently staged in the backrooms of London pubs, in which nothing ever seems more crucial than art and beauty. Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 22. (323) 960-7744. (Paul Birchall)

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SPEECH AND DEBATE Stephen Karam's hit 2007 off-Broadway play riffs on the presumed nerdiness of high-schoolers who opt for forensics over sports. In this case, three outcasts are also determined to triple their misfit status via drama, the school newspaper and a “gay-straight-alliance.” The journey through youthful angst begins as gay Howie (Matt Strunin) trolls online for sex only to discover, to his major gross-out, that he's sexting with the theater teacher. Meanwhile, ambitious but untalented would-be coloratura Diwata (Tiffany Jordan) captures Howie's attention with her “blogalog” about the same teacher's unjust casting policies. Also pulled into the electronic circle is aspiring reporter Solomon (Simon Daniel Lees), who is obsessed with sexual predators. Through a series of scenes, subtitled with Speech and Debate rules, the three find a mutual attraction bordering on friendship, which ultimately allows them to find solace in their eccentricities. Finally they collaborate on a bizarre musical performance–art piece mixing aspects from the plays of Arthur Miller, and Wicked, among several mismatched ingredients, which is fascinating in its pure awfulness. Though not quite convincing in terms of youth, the acting of the students is superb, compassionately exploring the constant pain and few joys the characters experience. Unfortunately the same is not true of Nina Donato in a pair of adult roles that fly into caricature — a choice seemingly pushed by director Jon Cortez to get some laughs, which prove to be at the expense of the production. Cortez also keeps the pace so sluggish through clumsy scene breaks, they interfere with the crispness of his young stars. Mike Rademaekers' clever set easily transforms between schoolroom and bedrooms, which provide the unfollowed cues for agile scene transitions. Secret Rose Theater, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 22. (877) 620-7673. (Tom Provenzano)

THREE SISTERS AFTER CHEKHOV Adapted from Chekhov's classic, Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura's multi-storied melodrama tracks the wavering fortunes of three sisters living in 1941 colonial Port of Spain. The action — colorfully inlaid with Caribbean culture and language — transpires in their multihued, middle-class apartment overlooking the city's main drag. Alma (understudy Elayn Taylor), a spinster in her 40s, serves as the family's matriarch, while 30-something Helen (Yvonne Huff), trapped in an unhappy marriage, has fallen hard for a gallant British officer (Douglas Dickerman). The youngest, Audrey (a lively and appealing Diarra Kilpatrick), cherishes buoyant dreams — soon to be shattered by the shadow of war in Europe and local unrest among the island's poor, arising from water shortages, skyrocketing prices and government corruption. Meanwhile, trouble ferments within the family when the sisters' doted-upon brother Peter (Terence Colby Clemens) becomes enamored of a sexy manipulative social climber named Jean (Nadege August). The play gathers speed as romantic entanglements intensify and the motifs of war, manhood, personal integrity and freedom from colonial rule shift to the fore. Director Gregg T. Daniel displays a deft hand, but the performances are something of a patchwork, with certain characters far more vividly drawn than others. In addition to Kilpatrick's endearing Audrey, the evening I attended featured understudy Jeorge Watson, injecting a welcome dynamic as Helen's implicitly unscrupulous and predatory spouse. Designer Shaun Motley's shabby chic interior works well, but the set's hand-painted blue backdrop lacks the very dimensionality it's supposed to suggest. Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Aug. 8, lowerdepththeatreensemble.org. (800) 838-3006. A Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble production. (Deborah Klugman)

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