ALL CAKE, NO FILE In this slight cooking-show spoof, performer Donna Jo Thorndale, portraying “celebrity chef Jewell Rae Jeffers,” strides onto a kitchen set, caparisoned in an Aquanet-rigid white fright wig, evincing a folksy Southern accent, a chipper grin and twinkly eyes that hint at layers of lunacy lurking just beneath her cheery façade. It’s a tone-perfect, dead-ringer imitation of TV chef-lebrity Paula Deen, a wonderful gag — for about five minutes or so. After that, the joke — sustaining what’s essentially an overlong SNL skit, wears painfully thin, as the cooking-show spoof offers little context or dramatic tension. In director Shira Piven’s unobtrusive but ultimately workmanlike staging, Thorndale’s performance consists mostly of improvisation as her “wacky chef” character whips up a chocolate cake. On the night I attended, the standout comic moment turned out to be Thorndale’s impromptu bloviating when the cake Jeffers prepared refused to slide out of the Bundt pan (seemingly because the pan had been undersprayed with vegetable shortening). Yet, even the patter, which is occasionally peppered with double-entendres and drug gags — “Ohhhh! I love to see powder in the air!” Jeffers squawks as she flaps some sugar from a colander — is unexceptional. The show is intended as a fund-raiser for the Actors’ Gang’s prison theater workshop program. This is a commendable cause — but, even when it is raised by bumptious musical interludes from Johnny Cash tribute band “With A Bible And A Gun,” the production is still a lackluster vignette. Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Fri., 9 p.m.; through November 20. (310) 838-GANG or (Paul Birchall)

THE BROWNING VERSION Though not as widely known or acclaimed as his contemporary British playwrights, Terence Rattigan was a superb dramatist and chronicler of human emotions. Here, Rattigan’s The Browning Version, the gloomy story of an aging schoolteacher crushed by failure and disappointment, receives a stellar mounting by director Marilyn Fox. A well-regarded scholar of the classics, Andrew Crocker-Harris (the superb Bruce French) has spent the last 18 years as an instructor at a public school in England but must leave the position because of failing health to take a less-stressful job elsewhere. Now the object of jokes and ridicule by his students, and denied a pension by the school, he has a bearing that is subdued by sadness, yearning and a palpable “gallows” surrender to circumstance. His wife, Millie (Sally Smythe), has given up on being happy with him and has contented herself with numerous dalliances with his colleagues (which she delights in reminding him of), and cruelly undermining what remains of his sense of manhood. Her current lover, Frank (understudy David Rogge), is torn between a sense of guilt, his admiration for Andrew, and the dying embers of lust for Millie. It is only when the professor is presented with a rare translation of Agamemnon from a student (Justin Preston) that his mask of stoic restraint melts to reveal a desperately fragile inner life. From this sedate tapestry of characters, Rattigan artfully probes marriage, relationship and our perverse capacity to embrace lacerating emotional pain and self-deceit, which all unfold beautifully on Norman Scott’s cleverly designed sitting-room mock-up. Fox directs this piece with masterful subtlety and draws devastatingly convincing performances from her actors. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 2. (No perfs Nov. 12 & 26 or Dec. 10.) (310) 822-8392.

DETENTION OF THE DEAD The George A. Romero High School has been overrun by zombies, and five stereotypical teenagers have taken refuge in the detention room, where the teacher has been decapitated. They’ve barricaded the door, but the zombies lurk outside. Star jock Brad (Mike Horton) is grieving because his best friend/teammate, Jimmy, has just been devoured, while his girlfriend, sex-pot cheerleader, Janet (Crystle Lightning), is hell-bent on having a man — any man — break out to rescue her. Bad-boy/class clown Ashbury (Michael Petted) copes with anxiety by getting stoned. Self-dramatizing Goth-girl Willow (Samantha Sloyan) decides death is not so appealing if it’s actually imminent. And nerdly Eddie (Alex Weed) thinks he might survive the zombie attack because he’s a virgin, and in zombie movies it’s always the kids who smoke, drink, dope and have sex who die. One by one, they’re picked off, in increasingly bloody, bizarre ways. Rob Rinow’s script is a heavy-handed, predictable send-up of generic horror flicks. It has some funny lines, but most of the laughs come from the actors’ manic performances and physical comedy. Director Alex Craig Mann keeps the action broad and violent, and David Bartlett provides the effective if sometimes deafening sound. Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 10 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 5. Produced by The Katselas Theatre Company. (310) 358-9936. (Neal Weaver)

GO  EMPEROR NORTON, THE MUSICAL One person’s madman is another’s hero, a sentiment blithely celebrated in Kim Ohanneson and Marty Axelrod’s melodramatic musical based on the life and legend of Joshua A. Norton, a failed businessman who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Luckily for Norton (Matthew Tucker), he lived in San Francisco, a city that embraces the bizarre and which did the same for the putative sovereign. Narrated by newsboy Smiggy (Lucas Salazar), the tale recounts how various business interests exploited Norton’s eccentric — if not insane — behavior financially while the “Emp” remained a pauper (“commerce over conscience” is a running line.) While the vocalizing and choreography, restricted by the small stage, are often subpar, director Jim Eshom and his cast’s commitment to the play’s nonsense saves the day. Kyle Clare and Christopher Goodwin are a hoot as two rat-catching dogs who reputedly tagged after Norton; Aaron Lyons is a scheming villain, replete with waxed mustache, battling Matthew Sklar’s “ethical” newsman; and Amelia Megan Gotham and Jessica Amal Rice are hookers and sisters with hearts of gold, even if they do screech like hyenas. After all, as one song lyric goes, “It helps to be just a little bit crazy.” ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through November 29. (818) 202-4120. (Martín Hernández)


THE GHOST BUILDING Playwright Damon Chua’s madcap stab at a Stoppardian play of ideas may sound fine in theory, but its execution proves frustratingly flat. Part genre spoof, part Hollywood Gothic (by way of Babylon) and part “hauntological” allegory, the play taps the unsolved murder of ’20s silent-movie director William Desmond Taylor to create a properly spooky schema with which to haunt the downtown L.A. architectural landmark (on Adam Flemming’s hotel-within-a-hotel set). That’s where aspiring Filipina novelist Cha-Cha Mangabay (Sandy Yu) checks into the story while packing an unfinished manuscript, a dream of publishing success and a 30-day tourist-visa deadline with which to achieve it. However, the hotel and its host of incorporeal squatters soon draw Cha-Cha into their unearthly reenactments of the crime. Joined by a Sam Spade–like fictional detective (Brian Ibsen), Cha-Cha determines both to solve the mystery and adapt it for her own, hard-boiled roman noir. As the investigation-cum-Derridian deconstruction progresses, the proceedings quickly jump their narrative track and dissolve into a chaotic phantasmagoria of merging identities, abrupt character about-faces and parodic violations of genre and stage conventions. Director Armando Molina and a game ensemble (including standouts Andrea Lee Davis, Pat Cochran and Leigh Rose) do their best to keep Chua’s calculated chaos under control but are ultimately defeated by too many overly clever literary conceits and not enough attention to fundamental play craft. Company of Angels, Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 29. (323) 883-1717. (Bill Raden)

L’AMANTE ANGLAISE The French have given us many things: wine, cheese, French kissing and the Napoleon complex, among others. What they have also given us are novels, films and plays filled with endless philosophical and ultimately pointless ramblings that are so filled with internal contradictions that they end up amounting to a kind of intellectual masturbation. Barbara Bray’s translation of the French writer Marguerite Duras’ 1967 play (from Duras’ novel of the same title) is unfortunately an example. The events, if you can call them that, take place in an interrogation room, where The Interrogator (Alex Monsky) questions Pierre Lannes (Gerry Bamman) and his wife, Claire Lannes (Caroline Ducrocq), about Claire’s murder of her deaf-mute cousin Marie-Therese, who was living with the couple. The Interrogator spends Act 1 with Pierre and Act 2 with Claire, trying to figure out why she committed the murder and where the missing head of Marie-Therese is (the rest of her was chopped up and placed on freight-train cars). Carl Ford’s direction does little to remedy the absence of dramatic or intellectual propulsion with his blocking and stagecraft. Ducrocq and Bamman are clearly capable actors but victims of a tedious script that, toward the end, had me wondering if being Marie-Therese, all chopped up, might be preferable to sitting through this play. The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 22. (323) 960-1052. (Mayank Keshaviah)

NIBBLER Just graduated from high school, aspiring musician Adam (Nicholas S. Williams) and his pals hang at the local diner, exchanging the casually benign blather ubiquitous among ennui-saturated suburban youth. Gradually, personal issues emerge. Adam’s father is dead and his estranged mom sleeps with another guy. Matt’s (Rick Steadman) harping dad thinks he’s a loser. Pete (Ron Morehouse) suspects but fiercely denies to himself that he’s a “faggot.” Tara (Joanie Ellen) worries because none of her guy friends want to screw her. The precocious Hayley (Alana Dietz) sidelines as a phone sex worker. Enter the Nibbler — manifested first as flashing lights and strange sounds but soon materializing as a black specter with giant claws, whose touch radically alters each of their lives. Or so the premise goes. In fact, playwright Ken Urban’s nascent horror spoof never gets past the listlessness that overwhelms its characters. There are revitalizing junctures, as when Matt, post-Nibbler encounter, transforms into a Republican fundamentalist and lets loose a scabrous dialogue that exposes the profound schizophrenia of the Religious right. But such smart sharp writing — along with the Nibbler’s laughably scary appearances — come only at intervals. Riddled with loose threads, the play suffers its own schizoid split: Is it a send-up, a social commentary or a quasipersonal reminiscence? In an apparent attempt at all three, it scores well at none. Under Mark Seldis’ direction, the performances, like the play itself, compel only sporadically. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (No perfs Thanksgiving weekend); through December 12. (323) 856-8611. (Deborah Klugman)


POLYESTER THE MUSICAL “You can leave disco, but disco never leaves you,” say the Synchronistics, a four-piece ABBA-esque band that broke up on the eve of what would have been their big national break: an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. True enough. It’s 20 years later, but the blonde (Pamela Donnelly) is still so furious about the brunette (Gwendolyn Druyor) “schtupping” her husband (Christopher Fairbanks) that that lusty night at the Howard Johnson’s in Green Bay feels like yesterday. In two decades, none of them has moved on to a new career or love interest. (Fourth member Jim Staahl still lives at home with his mom.) The Synchronistics have reunited for one last performance for a fundraiser on the public-access station that gave them their start, and everyone’s future depends on it. The stakes are so hard-hammered that by the end of Act I, no less than a disco hall of fame, the station’s existence, the announcer’s (Robert Moon) career, a new tour, an illigitimate child and two marriages depend on the squabbling band raking in $10,000. Phil Olson and Wayland Pickard’s musical isn’t trying for subtlety. Each of the 16 songs relates directly to the band’s mood, and in case we miss the message in disco ditties like “I Want You, But I Hurt You,” the characters rehash their feelings afterward — or in one instance, into a number with, “I’d like to do a song about what we were just talking about.” Pickard and Doug Engalla’s direction similarly understates nothing, though both Druyer and Staahl manage to soft-shoe in hilarious turns as the not-so-supergroup’s humble dolts. Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 20. (818) 506-0600. (Amy Nicholson)

SALLY SPECTRE THE MUSICAL This musical by writer-composer-director-producer-accompanist David P. Johnson is subtitled “A Children’s Horror Story for Adults,” but it may not be coherent or credible enough to appeal to either children or adults. Sally (Rebecca Lane) is a blond ghost/waif with a dangerous-looking hatchet embedded in her skull, of which she seems blithely unaware, though she wonders why she has headaches. She has been confined for 50 years in a purgatorial room of a Victorian mansion, accompanied by toy soldier Bartholomew (Matthew Hoffman) and a clown named Nero (Adam Conger) who has a split personality: He’s also a cat, a teddy bear and a king. Despite repeated attempts, Sally is unable to open the only door. Her captor is a creature called The Wraith (Rob Monroe), who likes to play Chinese checkers, and tells her that she can’t leave till she’s willing to remember her past. The piece is a confusing grab bag of random elements cobbled together with some rhyme but precious little reason. Lines like, “There’s absinthe in the holy water,” may perplex children, and seem pointlessly cryptic to adults. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. W., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 29. (323) 851-7977 or Produced by Theatre West and In Spite Productions. (Neal Weaver)

GO  TREE An elderly black woman, Jessalyn Price (Sloan Robinson), suffers from dementia in an upstairs bedroom in Chicago’s South Side, circa 2000, where she lives with her caretaker son, Leo (Chuma Gault). The story of Jessalyn’s past, and of her impassioned, forbidden love, emerges through her too-poetical ramblings, in Julie Hébert’s otherwise riveting family drama. The saga comes into clear focus, however, with the help of a Caucasian interloper, Didi Mercantel (Jacqueline Wright) — a single, emotionally brittle brainiac from Louisiana who “suffers” from some gender ambiguity, and who claims to be the daughter of the man, just deceased, who once loved and abandoned the woman upstairs. Just when you thought August: Osage County had put the family drama to rest for a while, here comes a new play that doesn’t ride on the macabre or the Gothic; rather, it’s propelled by a kind of anthropological dig of detritus and handwritten missives from decades past, revealing the tugs of history, society and circumstance on a white Southern youth and his black girlfriend, both from Louisiana, trying to build a life together in the land of the free. Leo’s daughter, J.J. (Tessa Thompson), chastises Didi that she has no right to seek consolation for her father’s death by bursting in their door. “You’re not family,” J.J. declares. Whether that declaration is a truth, a truism or a cruel opinion lies at the heart of what this play says about our relations to each other in a nation of interlopers. Jessica Kubzansky’s staging brings the characters’ wry intelligence to the fore. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through December 13. (323) 461-3673 or An Ensemble Studio Theatre-L.A. production. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.


GO  THE TROJAN WOMEN In his adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy (so freely swiped from the original that Euripides’ byline doesn’t appear on the program), Charles Duncombe takes a macroscopic, brutal and unrelenting look at the end of the world. Genocide in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, unsustainable population growth and climate change carry the day, and the play, with excursions into a theme that has punctuated Duncombe’s earlier adaptations of texts by Sophocles and Heiner Müller: the relationship between gender and power. Scenes depicting physical mutilation and rape in war zones — choreographed by director Frédérique Michel — contain an excruciating authenticity, even in the abstract. Michel undercuts this harrowing tone by incorporating elements of farce in other scenes. This is still very much a work-in-progress, conceived for all the right reasons. As is, the directorial tones wobble like a top, and the adaptation contains far too much explication. The evening also reveals why theater matters, and how this kind of work wouldn’t stand a chance in any other medium. It’s too smart and too passionate to dismiss. City Garage, 1340½ 4th Street (alley entrance), Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m. (“pay what you can”); through Feb. 21. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

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