ARMSTRONG’S KID Stanley Bennett Clay’s drama about guilt, anger and repression centers on a trial stemming from 14-year-old Thaddeus’ (Tory Scroggins) false accusation of molestation against his dad’s charismatic gay best friend, Mr. Drake (Clay). After prison time and sizable civil court reparations, Drake’s tried to move on after 10 years, though his reclusive digs hint of a life forever divided into Before and After. When Thaddeus, spurred by a range of secret motives, drives up for their first confrontation in a decade, their bourbon-fueled talks quickly escalate from civilities to tirades. Clay has the foundation for a play about modern-day witch-hunts and the wounds of loneliness. At present, however, it’s a series of traded speeches where the two men keep reversing their arguments. Clay’s direction feels hemmed in; still, as the dignified drunk, he has a bitter hauteur, while Scroggins’ more layered and contradictory role results in the young actor coming across as swaddled and stiff. The scenes with the the most frisson come when alcohol and anger spur both men to fling slurs that undercut their moral authority and allow us to question each one’s self-image as the victim. Theatre Unlimited, 10943 Camarillo Ave., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 9. (323) 480-3232 or www.ticketmaster.com. (Amy Nicholson)
EARTH SUCKS In writer-director Jonas Oppenheim’s frothy sci-fi musical comedy, Earth’s main contribution to the Cosmos is rock & roll. Angsty high school junior Echo (Emily Stern, perhaps a little too snide) fantasizes about falling in love with a handsome outer space creature who would whisk her away to the stars for a variety of adventures doing whatever it is a human and an alien can do together. To achieve this goal, Echo transmits a song out into the galaxy, luring to Earth a wacky outer space rock band, headed by the illustrious Fluhbluhbluh (Lucas Revolution), a handsome young bachelor in a red spandex Gumby suit, who speaks through a bug-eyed sock puppet. Unfortunately for Echo, it turns out that her NASA scientist dad (Christopher Fairbanks) has been negotiating with sultry, villainous she-alien Ulinia Swords (Nakia Syvonne), who’s aiming to use NASA’s radio telescope to broadcast a diabolical siren song that will turn the entire population of the universe into her slaves. The piece boasts a number of invigorating hard-rock numbers in the style of the Ramones, the Talking Heads and Devo. Still, the crackling music is integrated into a singularly sloppy book, with problems compounded by unfocused gags and Oppenheim’s hyperactive blocking. The show would earn more respect as a rock opera without any dialogue: Syvonne’s hilariously wild-eyed, throaty turn is both funny and tuneful, in the style of Eartha Kitt. And Revolution’s alien crooner brings to mind David Byrne. ArtWorks Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 2. (323) 960-7744. A Citizens of Earth production. (Paul Birchall)
HAMLET Traditionalists beware! Director Michael Michetti’s lean, mean and stripped-to-the-extreme version of the Bard’s masterwork is out to raise your hackles. For the rest of us, though, Michetti and his abundantly talented ensemble deliver the goods — a riveting, provocative and lucidly entertaining Hamlet that comes agonizingly close to the definitive. Michetti’s boldest conceit is a radical collapse of Act I. A series of cinematic quick cuts establish Freddy Douglas’ prince riven by Oedipal angst. Instead of the traditional battlement scenes, Michetti employs an upstage screen of fun-house mirrors and has Hamlet channel the king’s ghost in his own distorted reflection. Exit Dr. Freud, enter Norman Bates. This suggestion of a schizophrenic break transforms Hamlet from hesitant intellectual into calculating killer; it also strips the subsequent action of its moral ambiguity and propels it into a kind of driving, Hitchcockian psychological thriller. François Giroday’s Claudius becomes a silver-tongued, cold-blooded schemer; Deborah Strang’s Gertrude his willing accomplice (when she isn’t unnaturally doting on her son). Matthew Jaeger, as Laertes, brings a disturbing whiff of incest to his brotherly affection for Ophelia (Dorothea Harahan). Tony Abatemarco lightens the load — and scores another of his trademark triumphs — with his superb comic rendering of Polonius. Designer Sara Ryung Clement ties it all together with an elegant, minimalist set and costumes, which are a timeless blend of modern and period dress. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, call for schedule; thru Dec. 7. (828) 240-0901, Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org. (Bill Raden)
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN Manuel Puig’s novel dealt with the volatile relations between frivolous gay window-decorator Molina (Chad Borden), and Valentin (Daniel Tatar) — an earnest, straight political prisoner — sharing a South American jail cell. A previous dramatization zeroed in on that relationship. But, writing the book for this musical version, with score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Terrence McNally faced the task of “opening up” the story, and creating opportunities for musical numbers. The Spider Woman (Terra C. Macleod), a symbolic fantasy figure, had to be expanded into a role for a female star. So, like a ballet with too many divertimenti, the story must constantly stop in its tracks to accommodate splashy numbers or conventional, often irrelevant songs. Director Nick DeGruccio and choreographer Lee Martino have mounted a terrific production, with a fine cast, an athletic dance ensemble, a huge and handsome set by Tom Buderwitz, slinky outfits for the Spider Woman by Anne Kennedy and sterling musical direction by Michael Paternostro. The actors are fine and make the show moving when the script lets them. But too many numbers and distractions clog the show’s arteries, and the compelling central tale falls prey to Broadway razzle-dazzle. Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through Oct. 26. (800) 595-4849 or www.havoktheatre.com. A Havok Theatre Co. production. (Neal Weaver)
THE LIEUTENANT NUN Billed as a comedy, playwright Odalys Nanin’s cartoonlike dramatization of the life of 17th-century Basque noblewoman Catalina de Erauso offers little insight into this unique historical personality and the conventions she battled. Victim of a rigid Spanish patriarchy, the teenage Erauso fled the convent where she’d spent her childhood. She donned men’s clothes and became a Spanish soldier who lived and fought under the name of Guzman. Condemned to death for brawling, she confessed to being a woman and was not only spared execution but — remarkably — granted a dispensation by the pope to continue to live as a man. Her proven virginity and her service to the state saved her, and her memoirs brought her celebrity in her lifetime. Co-directed by Johanna Siegmann and Ivonne Coll, this adaptation features Nanin in the title role and employs broad strokes to portray Guzman as a swaggering, courageous hothead, irresistible to women, who go wild over her lovemaking techniques. The play opens on high melodrama, later shifting into a bawdier vein with no hint of tongue in cheek. The dialogue is simplistic and the acting over the top. No effort is made to give shading to the characters or, more interestingly, to the ideological dynamics behind the church’s acceptance of her transvestism and its apparent “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward her sexual preferences. Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Rd., West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 26. (323) 960-7829. (Deborah Klugman)
GO M. BUTTERFLY David Henry Hwang’s 1988 drama receives a fine staging by director Derek Charles Livingston. Hwang artfully blends the story of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with the incredible case of Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat working in China, who was convicted of treason in the 1980s. The play spans some 20 years and opens with René Gallimard (Sam R. Ross, in a splendid turn) pacing about in a jail cell in France, where he recounts the sad, often humorous tale of his decades-long love affair with the beautiful opera diva Song Liling (the masterful J. Manabat), whom he met one night at a show. His eerie attraction to the singer gradually evolves into an obsession bordering on idol worship of this “perfect woman,” even compelling him to divorce his wife, Helga (J.C. Henning). Among a series of surprises slowly unveiled is that the lovely Song is actually a Chinese “Mata Hari,” who wheedles classified information from the Frenchman. The play’s engagement and humor derive from the brilliant subtlety of Hwang’s interweaving themes of sex, gender, racism, reality and illusion. Livingston manages his cast superbly, and August Viverito’s minimalist set design serves the effort well, along with his slyly understated costumes. The Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd.; North Hollywood., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. through Nov. 8. (800) 838-3006. (Lovell Estell III)
GO THE MOST MEDIOCRE STORY NEVER TOLD In his autobiographical one-man show, Jay Sefton takes every aspect of the autobiographical one-man show and dismantles it before our eyes. This is because his show isn’t really about his youth in Philadelphia and subsequent move to L.A., nor is it about his older and more macho brother Joe, whom Sefton portrays and who frequently hijacks the show. Sefton’s exploration probes the essence of a story, and the distinctions, if any, between a legend and a lie. Joe keeps goading Jay to make things up or the show will be a bore. The awful truth is that his brother may be right — that a normal, honorable if meek youth with caring parents is the pleasant kind of existence that nobody wants to hear about onstage, or see in movies or read in books. Edward Albee once said that he writes a play in order to understand why he’s writing it. Sefton’s show is so clearly undertaken with the goal of Sefton trying to understand why he should be telling his life story, the result breezes past narcissism on a charm-filled meta-literary excursion, under Debra De Liso’s nimble direction – something like a magic- carpet ride. Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 26. (323) 960-7780. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature next week.
POLITICO! The idea of an almost entirely improvised rock opera based on a presidential campaign stuffs the ballot box with possibilities, but the final tally hangs like a dangling chad on the performers’ satirical wit, and their ability to locate a political edge. With the general concept that the Devil is running our political show, and candidates’ relatives, with their sundry addictions and improprieties, can drive a campaign manager to drink, the comedy on the night I attended was both obvious and blunt, when surprise and sharpness were called for. Director Joseph Limbaugh appears here as a somewhat lumbering Devil/satyr (with perky assistant Karina Bustillos, in horns) in order to set up each scene for the actors/characters who happen to be present. Musical director Susan Peahl did a first-rate job modulating composer Jonathan Green’s opening and closing chorals, beautifully sung a cappella by the ensemble. The scenarios include the PR nightmare for Liberty Party campaign manager Molly Hatchet (Kimberly Lewis) – representing candidate Senator Scott Turner (Brian Lohmann, who had somewhere else to be, and didn’t appear onstage that night). Turner’s son, Beverly (Barry O’Neil), is lead singer of the band Involuntary Ragnarock, and has impregnated his girlfriend – as musicians tend to do – and Hatchet was grasping for strategies of containment. Robert Covarrubias has a nice turn as stern Special Agent Gregory Eagleson (who has a soft side), while Alexis Kraus and Diana Costa put in respective appearances as the drug-induced visions of Sacajawea and Susan B. Anthony. Stage presence so frequently fell victim to the the ad hoc essence of improv, I found myself wishing that this American apple-pie filling was more tart, or that somebody would write a script for these guys. Acme Comedy Theatre, 135 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri., 9 p.m.; through Nov. 14. (323) 525-0202. (Steven Leigh Morris)
RAZORBACK John Pollono’s “pitch-dark comedy” — set in a rustic Maine cabin – is packed with terrific roles. The roles may be richer than the play’s essential qualities. These qualities start from those in any family drama by Sam Shepard, mingled with the comedy of idiot-thugs pitched against ineffectual poet-philosophers found in Harold Pinter’s early plays, and Quentin Tarantino’ film Pulp Fiction. Pollono is a good writer, but with 30 new plays per week opening in L.A. alone, one asks for aspects of originality and theatricality in a new work rather than those of indie-film derivation, which prevail here. Dean (Richard Fancy) is an aging ex-thug with a few months to live, condemned by what appears to be colon cancer. Fancy plays him defined by brute dominance and machismo yet with clearly elucidated soft spots for his second wife, Sandy (Suzanne Ford, in a nicely textured performance), and their intellectually precocious “son,” DJ (Edward Tournier). Dean’s boozy ex, Ruth (Laura Gardner), arrives in a blather of intoxication, along with the tattooed, bloodied adult son, Rocco (the excellent Jack Maxwell). Turns out Rocco is on the run, and if we never met whom he’s running from, or understood why, there wouldn’t be an Act 2. The character study of Act 1 yields to the hostage drama of Act 2. Large weapons get brandished, family secrets get unleashed, there are jokes about the overwrought violence in which the play indulges, like the fantasy of a gangster comedy to star Robert DeNiro and Chris Rock. In their stead, we get terrific portrayals by Rob Bottitta and Patrick Flanagan as the Mafia up from the city. And though the play’s ultimate worldview can be found in innumerable DVDs arriving in the mail from Netflix, this is still a good workout for the actors, the writer and for director Elina De Santos, who shapes the action as seamlessly as she can. Stephen Gifford’s realistic set is also effective, under Leigh Allen’s lights. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 2 (323) 960-7726. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY A musical docudramatic look at American life, faith and the rise and fall of Ted Haggard in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Oct. 26. (213) 628-2772. Presented by Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, and the Vineyard Theatre, New York City. See Theater Feature.