ALTAR EGO With the gulf of incomprehension that frequently gapes between men and women, it's a wonder that anyone ever hooks up. That's the underlying theme in this collection of eight interrelated monologues (credited to playwright James Lyons) about the world's oldest hobby: Yammering about sex until it seems about as interesting as discussing the deboning of a fish fillet. Although the youthfully energetic eight-person ensemble briskly tackles the glib vignettes, the material itself is never able to evade a faint scent of triviality. Lyons (who really should learn how to spell “alter,” though it is spelled correctly in the press materials) portrays a cheerfully amoral husband who defends his frequent extra-marital dalliances with the traditional excuse that he truly loves his wife — but he has needs. Later, Audrey Moore, in a nicely sour turn, portrays the man's wife, who's understandably miffed about the case of the clap she has mysteriously come down with. A particularly droll turn is offered by Leila Vatan, playing an Iranian-American woman, who, caparisoned in the mandatory chador, bemoans her lack of sexual opportunities. And Mike Horton's monologue about a man who has a tiny penis but enormous anger-management issues starts out humorously before shifting unexpectedly into tragedy. In directors Audrey Moore and Leila Vatan's character-driven production, the performers sit onstage in a semicircle, as though they're attending an AA meeting, while watching as each briefly takes center stage. Chuckling gently and indulgently as they observe one another's excesses and humiliations, the mood is both ironic and sweetly forgiving of sexual weakness. However, in the end, the monologues' talky nature is less exciting than actual dramatic interaction would have been. Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 25. (310) 358-9936. Katselas Theatre Company. (Paul Birchall)

CANNIBALS From the endless material regarding the dreams and disappointments of stardom comes this comedy by veteran TV scribe R.J. Colleary about trying to survive in Hollywood. “I act, therefore, I am,” is the motto of the United State of Actresses — a quartet of 40-something thespians who gather weekly to salve their delicate egos and share stories about dwindling job prospects. Mo (Amy K. Murray) is a plus-size mother of three; Elizabeth (Jackie Debatin) is a half-glam, owner-operator of a school for child actors; Linda (Caryn Richman) is a married woman who can't give up the dream; the mouthy Carole (Dale Dickey) keeps finely tuned on antidepressants. The toxic admixture of personalities is good for laughs but doesn't quite offset the play's lack of action, leading to tedious stretches. A ray of light emerges when a “notable” director (Ray Abruzzo) taps the gals for a documentary, but the project is threatened when he brings his accomplished wife (the stellar Robin Riker) along, and investors insist on the participation of a younger actress (Brittany Ross). The saccharine finale holds no surprises. The cast is uniformly fine under Kathleen Rubin's direction. Zephyr Theatre, 7406 Melrose Ave.; Hlywd. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; through May 23. (323) 960-7745, (Lovell Estell III)

GO  DIRTY POOH How does Zombie Joe's Underground make A.A. Milne's short story “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place” NSFW? When Winnie the Pooh (John Byford) gets stuck in Rabbit's (Catherine Weiss) hole, ZJU doesn't mean “burrow.” That's the capper of four radically reimagined tales from Pooh Corner — or should I say, the Pooh Corner confessions. Writer Adam Neubauer and director Miss Amanda Marquardt have set a new high — or low — for fractured fairy tales: Christopher Robin (Lisa Younger) is a drunk, Tigger (Devavani Conroy) a sex fiend, Eeyore (Neubauer) a guyliner addict, and Piglet (Jonica Patella) is a pint-sized, tits-mad, manic masturbator who sticks a balloon of coke up her ass. As for Pooh, he's so devoted to licking every last drop of honey from his beloved hunny pot (charming silent comedienne Jaclyn Ngan), I blushed harder than a 12-year-old watching a sex scene with his grandma. But Dirty Pooh doesn't flinch. The cast and creative team are so do-or-die committed that you'd swear everyone in Pooh Corner had balls of steel — if their spandex outfits hadn't already given you a good look. Go, but get a babysitter or prepare to answer even tougher questions than “What's a Tigger?” ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N.Hlywd.; opens April 9; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through May 1. (818) 202-4120. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  L.A.NOIR UNSCRIPTED After years of perfecting their sharply honed craft of improvising parodies of highbrow masters such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Stephen Sondheim, Impro Theatre decides to slack off a bit with this less demanding satire of film noir. A lot of wordy, mixed metaphors, some cheesy suspense music, a few light gobos representing the shadows of Venetian blinds and voilà: Sam Spade and gang of hard-boiled cynics are ready to roll. Well the gambit worked, the easy clichés and furtive looks of the genre flow out of these improvisers so fast and with such surety that they barely have time to listen to one another before letting the next hilarious banality fly. Actually this opening night the folks did get a bit sloppy in their listening — especially to names — but their caricatures and situations were so fun that no one was keeping track of improv rules. Company artistic director Dan O'Connor is in his element as the bitter detective, Edi Patterson looks perfectly askance as the sardonic beauty, and Lisa Fredrickson is delightful as an over-the-hill movie star; you may never see them in these specific characters, but you will see them at their comic best. Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; through June 13. (323) 401-9793. (Tom Provenzano)


GO  LOOKING FOR TROUBLE These five clever one-acts are stylishly directed by Kerrie Kean: “Resin,” by Brian Lennon, the most substantial work, is a Strindbergian tale of longtime gay lovers (Carlo Serna and Brett Holland) who are at war because each is determined to impose his own definition on their relationship. In “Satiety,” by Lennon and Tom Martin, a garrulous young man (Danny Junod) encounters a loony, possibly homicidal young woman (Jessica Wright) in an airport restaurant. Alan Ball's “The M Word” features Wright and Steve Rifkin as lovers who are such control freaks that even their courtship must be conducted via scheduled PowerPoint presentations. Simone Cook's sweetly comic “Love in War” presents a young couple (Cook and Keith Robinson) whose relationship is complicated by the birth of their child. And in Lennon's “Ruth,” brothers Ian (Rifkin) and Jason (Junod) are staying in a bed-and-breakfast in Ireland, presided over by proprietress Ruth (Angelina Leaf), but Jason is so arrogant, opinionated and meanly argumentative that all who know him are driven to thoughts of homicide. The plays aren't all of equal merit, but all are entertaining, the casts are versatile and engaging, and the uncredited minimalist sets are elegantly appointed. The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through May 2. Produced by White Buffalo Theatre Company. (818) 925-4021. (Neal Weaver)

GO  MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE In 1933 France, two submissive churchgoing maids named Christine and Lea Papin brutally murdered their employer and her daughter, a crime that riveted the country and set off a firestorm of debate about the conditions of the working poor. Director Michael Unger's signed and spoken production of Wendy Kesselman's handsomely staged drama speculates around that event. Stockpiled with the minutiae of the maids' daily routine, it explores the increasingly bizarre psychological dynamics between the perpetrators — the fastidiously capable Christine (Deanne Bray, voiced by Darrin Revitz) and her clumsier, dependent sister, Lea (Amber Zion, voiced by Lindsay Evans), as well as their relationship with their mean “Madame” (Casey Kramer) and her docile daughter, Isabelle (Jennifer Losi). Performed without an intermission, the plot's unhurried rhythm reflects the excruciatingly slow pace of life in the setting's time and place. Bray and Zion are lovely and expressive in communicating the sisters' bond, forged ever more tightly in response to Madame's nitpicking cruelty, though Christine's dark side could be underscored more emphatically. Kramer's villainess is so fulsomely drawn as to border on caricature; this apparent directorial choice, made to emphasize the melodrama, is handled by this performer with considerable skill. And Losi projects an effective foil as the petulant Isabelle, whose impulses toward kindness are ultimately annihilated by her mother. Tom Buderwitz's set, Leigh Allen's lighting and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's costumes create an ambience of musty money contrasting aptly with this dark, disturbing tale. Deaf West Theater, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.- Sat., 8 p.m,.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 30. (818) 762-2773, (Deborah Klugman)

GO  PAVED PARADISE: THE ART OF JONI MITCHELL There's a lot of love onstage in John Kelly's wryly affectionate performance/portrait of folk-rock legend Joni Mitchell. Which may explain the secret to how a lanky, middle-aged man who bears no earthly physical resemblance to the Canadian singer-songwriter can hold an audience spellbound for the duration of his two-hour tour of the Mitchell songbook simply by donning a blond wig and a floor-length lace gown. Call it drag if you must, but, unlike the jugular-ripped camp of the divas caricatured by, say, Lypsinka (a fellow alumnus of NYC's downtown performance-art scene of the '80s), Kelly's is a kinder, gentler and altogether more transcendent art. Perhaps that's because the objective here isn't so much to mimic the star's stage mannerisms (though he does that to hilarious effect) as it is to capture the underlying spirit and humanity of her performance. Thus Act 1's survey of '60s classics (including “Chelsea Morning,” “Circle Game” and a Wigstock-tweaked version of “Woodstock”) and Act 2's roster of '70s superhits (“Amelia,” “For the Roses,” “Down to You”) are both sweetly interpretive and immediately familiar. Kelly's trained countertenor voice and actor's instinct to underplay character finds winning support in keyboardist/musical director Zecca Esquibel and bassist Eric Holder; while Kevin Malony's lean and fluid staging completes what amounts to a highly entertaining argument that only by first walking in Mitchell's shoes can a performer earn the right to inhabit her music. Renberg Theater, 1125 N McCadden Place, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 25. (323) 860-7300. (Bill Raden)


GO  SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE Michael John LaChiusa's dynamic 2005 musical, based on short stories by Rynosuke Akutagawa, examines the nature of truth. The title refers to our proclivity for seeing only what we want to see — and failing to report it honestly. The piece consists of four scenes. Two, set in medieval Japan, deal with the tormented relationship between two lovers, played by Lesli Margherita and Doug Carpenter. The third, “R Shomon,” is set on the night of the New York premiere of Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon and retells its tale in a modern setting. A brash, handsome Thief (Carpenter) sets out to seduce the brassy, sexy Wife (Margherita) away from her Husband (Perry Ojeda). By morning, the Husband is dead, and the three participants deliver wildly conflicting accounts of what happened. The dead Husband's story is told via a Medium (Suzan Solomon). A shifty, unreliable passerby (Jason Graae) provides a fourth version. The fourth scene, “Glory Day,” gives Graae a chance to shine but seems to belong to a different play. LaChiusa's stirring score mingles jazz with Japanese inflections. Director Daniel Henning delivers a taut, sexy production, with impeccable music direction by David O, and all five actors provide passionate conviction. The Blank Theatre Company, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru May 23. (323) 661-9827, (Neal Weaver)

GO  SICK “It was an angry poop,” exclaims Pamela (Vonessa Martin) to her husband, David (Ramón de Ocampo). She and their 10-year-old son, Michael (an adorable Quinton Lopez), wait out the barrage of f-bombs from Gary (Johnny Giacalone), Pamela's drunk brother who is cursing out his wife, Carla (Diarra Kilpatrick), because she threw him out of the house. Pamela and David agree to take in Gary, and in the ensuing intertwined episodes over a period of months (including one unforgettable mac 'n' cheese and marijuana scene between Gary and Michael), we are exposed to the maladies that afflict these characters — from Pamela's hypochondria and Gary's intoxication to David's libidinous yearning and Carla's cocaine cravings. Even Michael's secretly sexual pediatrician, Dr. Brown (Brendan O'Malley), and Carla's donut-downing, Jesus-loving 12-step buddy, Jeannie (Anita Dashiell), can't shake their dis-ease, until Michael, the anchor in this sea of sickness, gets some bad news of his own. The two-character scenes that dominate the piece showcase Erik Patterson's edgy and hilarious play, and Diane Rodriguez's muscular direction energizes its episodic nature, cleverly turning even the transitions into opportunities for storytelling, such as employing an onstage waiting room for offstage characters. Sandra Burns' flexible, minimalist set (with its wonderful robin-egg blue floor), appropriately illuminated by Adam Blumenthal's harsh hospital fluorescence, provides the perfect backdrop for a talented cast that is solid across the board and keeps us laughing amidst the pain. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 16. (213) 489-0994, ext. 107, A Playwright's Arena and Latino Theatre Company Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

SOMETHING HAPPENED Being “on the down low,” a practice in which a black man in a committed heterosexual relationship covertly engages in homosexual behavior, became familiar territory in the early 2000s. J.L. King's memoir and subsequent Oprah appearance, a juicy New York Times Magazine cover story, and episodes of popular network TV series like NBC's ER all pitched tents on the hot-property subject. Critics quickly followed, decrying the hype. That's why L. Trey Wilson's world-premiere play feels a little late. Although he focuses more on the effects and not the phenomenon of homosexuality in the African-American community, it's unlikely the sensitive, highly educated Deanna and Doug Piper (Mashari Laila Bain and William Christian) wouldn't be Times subscribers, nor would they not read between the lines in their own house. Beyond that, however, the play is overstuffed with unnecessary characters (a superfluous couple), trite dialogue (“Life lessons — they're everywhere”) and an unsatisfying wrap-up that's also symbolically confused. The script's weaknesses fortunately don't hide the strength of the cast: Fuschia! and Jeorge Watson stand out. Open homophobia in the black community deserves discussion, especially in an era when an African-American president is advocating pro-gay legislation; yet, the phrase “no homo” is quickly tacked on to even the most innocuous of proclamations in hip-hop culture. This attempt just won't be the moderator. Wilson also directs. Pacific Stages, 2041 Rosecrans Ave., El Segundo; Thurs.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through May 16. (310) 868-2631. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

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