COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA In his 1950 review, New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson described William Inge’s drama as “small” — probably because it’s set in the kitchen and living room of an unnamed Midwestern city. More than half a century later, the play actually looms large — the tensions between duty and desire that play out in all of Inge’s full-length works suggest the latent sexual fantasies of power, submission and unblinking righteousness that appear, on the political stage, to be why we’re now so isolated and adrift as a nation. Doc (Alan Rosenberg) is a recovering alcoholic, a chiropractor who gave up his plans of being a physician. His long-suffering housewife, Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), was once a beauty. Her pregnancy by Doc forced their marriage and shattered his professional ambitions. They lost their child and, later, a beloved dog named Sheba. Poof — the centers of our hopes and lives keep disappearing. The pair observe the antics of their young boarder, Marie (Jenna Gavigan), a college student and flirt, a surrogate daughter and unattainable sex object for Doc, who plows through life with decorum, 10 feet from the bottle. Driving Doc crazy-jealous, squeaky-voiced Marie courts a sex-obsessed javelin tosser, Turk (Josh Cooke), who carries a big spear and models almost naked for her in the living room. “He’s not the marrying kind,” Marie explains shrewdly, which doesn’t forestall a night in the sack with her stud mere hours before her fiancé, Bruce (Bill Heck), shows up, engagement ring in tow. (Marie’s double-dipping got cut in the 1952 film version wherein, being a good girl, she sends Turk away with a hard-on.) Merkerson is magnificent for the kind of stoic dignity, sweet humor, brittle submission and tiny shards of pain that she brings to the aging Lola. She’s also black, a casting choice that raises questions only because of the production’s insistent realism. Director Michael Pressman has not updated the play to any point approaching or beyond the civil rights movement. On James Noone’s two-tier set — sans TV and with vintage doilies, kitchen table and fridge — and despite Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s time-pegged late-’40s costumes, not one neighbor, milkman or mailman delivers the blaring possibility that Doc and Lola’s isolation may be compounded by their mixed-raced marriage in the middle of a very bigoted 1950 America. (Depending on where they lived, there’s a significant chance that antimiscegenation laws were still in force.) Adjusting the era or simply abstracting the set and costumes — the way the Europeans do with Chekhov and Arthur Miller — would be obvious ways to address the obvious without changing the text. And despite the play’s ham-fisted symbolism, Pressman directs an absorbing, beautifully acted production. As Doc, empathetic Rosenberg’s fall from the wagon has chilling verisimilitude, and Gavigan’s seductress Marie shows some fierce smarts beneath her dumb show. Center Theatre Group at the KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (no perf July 5; July 12 perf, 8:30 p.m.); thru July 15. (213) 628-2772 or (Steven Leigh Morris)

DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA John Patrick Shanley dedicated this 1980s black comedy to “everyone in the Bronx who punched me or kissed me” — just as the two combustible souls in this drama do to each other, in swift, unbroken succession. Subtitled “an Apache dance,” the play begins in a deserted bar where beefy trucker Danny (Daniel De Weldon) and Roberta (Deborah Dir), a chain-smoking alcoholic with incest issues, first meet. The pair later adjourn to her bedroom in the house she shares with her parents and disturbed adolescent son. There they negotiate a volatile intimacy, furnishing a balm for each other’s wounds. In his direction, Michael Arabian has marshaled the notable expertise of lighting designers Frank McKown and Joe Fusco and sound designer Bob Blackburn, whose combined skills create a three-dimensional portrait of the lovers’ harsh, tormenting world. Both performers have impressive technique, defining their roles with punctilious precision. What’s still missing, however, is the interior inspiration to make this drama a genuinely believable one; instead, they left the impression of playing by the numbers, as it were. Dir, showing some genuinely vulnerable moments, is further along. De Weldon (perhaps too comfortable with his character’s angry isolation) has yet to relax behind his physicality and his voice. ELEPHANT PERFORMANCE LAB, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 7. (323) 960-7753. (Deborah Klugman)

GREEN TOWN Ray Bradbury’s trio of short plays takes us back to Green Town, Illinois, the site of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, and a stand-in for the author’s childhood haunts in Waukegan. Now 86, Bradbury introduced opening night by reminiscing about the mix of luck and passion that forged his career. And these unabashedly nostalgic tales seem to trace his creative spark back to a sleepy small-town boyhood whose only escape was imagination. In the first, young Ralph’s (Anders Asbjornsen) dull summer sweeping Mr. Wyneski’s (Phil Sokoloff) barber shop is spiced up by the arrival of Charles Dickens (Michael Prichard), who, despite being 60 years in the grave, rents his grandmother’s (Roses Prichard) spare room and takes up rewriting A Tale of Two Cities. The more sprightly and sly second half follows a father and son (Paul Bond and his actual son Matthew Bond), whose papier-mâché prank shakes up Green Town like a champagne bottle, and whizzes us through Dandelion Wine’s “Time Machine” — 99-year-old Colonel Freeleigh (David Fox Brenton), who takes two neighborhood moppets (Gabe Kahn and Rainey) back with him to the thundering buffalo herds of the prairie and the ominous drums of the Civil War. Director Alan Neal Hubbs adds a period charm, as does Robert Arturo Ramirez’s sound design, which makes the evening’s parade of storytellers feel like sitting around an old Philco radio. FREMONT CENTRE THEATRE, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru July 29 (July 29 perf is “Ray Bradbury Live!”). (323) 960-4451. (Amy Nicholson)

HAMLET Staging Shakespeare’s great mortality play out of doors in a cemetery offers promises of spirituality. You can hear some of those promises from the geese in the adjoining lake. Less helpful are medieval LAPD ghetto birds — zooming o’erhead toward infamous Danish Sig Alerts and crimes-in-progress. These whirlybirds drown out a speech or two; later, Ophelia drowns in the stage-side pond and is soon after carried in a regal procession to a grave dug into the lawn. But alack, the show is little more than its evocative atmosphere, and that’s just not enough. Behind the good news that in her environmental staging director Brianna Lee Johnson has rendered the play clearly and comprehensibly (even without microphones) lurks the less good news that it’s emotionally unsculpted. The young ensemble, recent grads from NYU and Steppenwolf Classes West, make sense of the language, but the interpretation mostly stops there in a whitewash of the obvious — rushed recitations, much rollicking and bellowing — as though the aim of filling the daunting space is all that matters. As the Prince of Gloom, handsome Dean Chekvala is lean, graceful and well spoken, yet the role’s delicate transitions whiz by, as though propelled by the understandable fear of slog. But the truth of any role comes from depicting the reasons why one line follows the next, and those reasons aren’t made manifest in many characters, including the title one. Sparks of nuance and insight come mainly from Sarah Utterback’s Ophelia and Derek Long’s Ghost. (Utterback also does some pretty good Pat Benatar riffs on Ophelia’s crazed songs.) Katharine Brandt’s Gertrude is too young, but she displays an appealing intelligence and tenderness. Excellent fight choreography by Ned Mochel. Bring blankets, small chairs and hot wine if possible. It gets chilly out there. Two Blonde Productions and HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri. & Sun., 8:30 p.m.; thru July 29. (800) 595-4849 or (Steven Leigh Morris)

{mosimage} JOHN SMITH: I’m Alive! For someone suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, writer-performer John Smith doesn’t seem particularly bothered with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of this hourlong solo show. Although directed with warmth by Paul Koslo, the evening comes across as half formulated, as though we’re hearing the chapter headings of someone’s autobiography, and not the life itself. Still, this Briton’s narrative, which continually finds Smith in the margins of some profession or lifestyle — phone company employee, love-cult member, wannabe actor — reveals an endearing self-absorption and the glimmer of a longer, more reflective piece. MET THEATRE, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 28. (323) 957-1152. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.

LAST CALL AT MOBY DICK’S Another 30-something reunion story, Ed Marill’s play manages to avoid some of the genre’s more tiresome scenarios while carefully striking a balance between taking itself too seriously and not caring about anything. Mike and Caroline (Marill and Stacy Keanan) own the Moby Dick, a Florida bar that was once a personal clubhouse for Mike and his high school pals. As Caroline pressures Michael to abandon the money-trap bar, a number of those friends descend on the tavern to reminisce. There’s TV star Jeff (Krishna Le Fan), newly turned lesbian Penny (Cori Clark Nelson), failed singer Brooke (Amy Motta) and drug dealer Trip (Steven J. Pershing), who’s packing a gun and an underage date (Avery Brown). We know the only direction this kind of play can take is drunker and uglier. True enough, the characters soon become angry as golden memories suddenly lose their luster and most of the people downing Cuervo shots must confront the gap between early career expectations and current reality. Last Call at Moby Dick’s never shakes off this inevitability — or at least does something new with it — and ends up as a too-neatly-packaged tale of arrested adolescence cured in the nick of time. Acting characterizations never really break away from hurt-and-perplexed, but the 80-minute evening moves quickly enough under Mark L. Taylor’s brisk direction. McCADDEN PLACE THEATER, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 21. (323) 960-5521 or www.­ (Steven Mikulan)

LOVE AND OTHER SOCIAL ISSUES Alternately embracing and reviling his iconic role as scion of upper-middle-class black America from the sitcom The Cosby Show, Malcolm-Jamal Warner recites heartfelt poetry in a concert mix of spoken-word and jazz. Like his TV dad Bill Cosby, Warner takes some highly controversial stands about the irresponsibility of so many black rappers who have betrayed the music he so loves with imagery that corrodes inner-city life and youth. His messages come not in academic, articulate, grammatical English, but in a simple, folksy rhyming meter and overwrought metaphors filled with emotional and political outbursts. Warner is not just speaking about the ugliness of much hip-hop, but also about his guilt over being a black man of means, and trying to figure out what he owes to those still ghettoized. While these social issues strongly push the first half of the evening, he transitions easily into talk of sex and romance — but these are also filled with a tug-of-war between macho crudeness and his feminine side, reaching out for love that’s authentic. Warner’s poetry flows beautifully and is equally matched by the sounds of his jazz-funk band, Miles Long, with whom he plays bass. Most impressive is the band’s vocalist, “L,” whose smooth singing voice plays such a strong counterpoint to Warner’s angst-ridden speeches. ASSISTANCE LEAGUE PLAYHOUSE, 1367 N. St. Andrews Place, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru July 8. (323) 960-7784. (Tom Provenzano)

A NICE FAMILY GATHERING Phil Olson’s family-reunion comedy is a guilty pleasure. Clichés of sibling rivalries abound, and there’s a fraudulently happy resolution asserting that if people just tell each other their feelings, all will be well. The action is provoked by the intrusion of a ghost — the family’s late father (Robert Gallo) — struck down by a sudden heart attack and floating in the mind of misfit son Carl (lanky, goofy Brian Clark), a pastry-truck driver and would-be journalist having to deal with his obnoxiously competitive, successful brother, Michael (Matt Ryan). Despite the Blithe Spirit meets Our Town ghostly derivations, and the whole thing careening between contrivance and schlock, I still liked it. Much of the delight comes from Richard Alan Woody’s breezy direction of a lovely company. The single-minded obliviousness of Michele Bernath’s dainty, ditzy widow, Helen, provides a one-woman charm fest; then there’s sister Stacy (Victoria Blackburn), who barely registers on anybody’s radar. Somebody smashes the kitchen door into her face, sending her reeling, bloodied, across the living room, and nobody notices. (She spends much of the action with small pieces of Kleenex lodged up each nostril.) And when she announces that she’s both pregnant and a lesbian, Michael’s buxom wife, Jill (Lana Ford) — deranged from fertility drugs — bursts into the room after a nap, asking, “Did I miss anything?” This is a messy play with a very big heart. But sometimes, that’s all you need. Elliot Goldwag turns in a dodderingly sweet performance as Helen’s friend, perceived by the lunatic family to be a money-grubbing suitor. LONNY CHAPMAN’S GROUP REPERTORY THEATRE, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru July 21. (818) 700-4878. (Steven Leigh Morris)

RICHARD III Actor Gus Krieger knows that Richard III must be a vivid, diabolical figure, and he creates an indelible image, with a mane of shoulder-length hair and a prodigious hump, skittering around spiderlike on two crutches. It’s a commendable effort, but Krieger doesn’t yet have the authority and charisma to dominate this huge, sprawling, highly rhetorical play. Director Charles Pasternak provides a brisk and efficient production, but it tends toward the generic, lacking nuance and a discernible point of view. Partially this is due to the youth of the cast: Eddie Castuera is an almost baby-faced King Edward and Anna Bolt, a startlingly youthful Queen Margaret. Any play of this size requires doubling of roles, but when the same actor, without change of costume or makeup, appears as multiple characters, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. And the all-black costumes (occasionally relieved by a white or red sash) tend to make the actors seem interchangeable. The weapons, however, are splendid, and the battle scenes at the end are athletic, featuring Richmond (Thomas Bigley, who provides a welcome vocal clarity) and Richard in a bizarre hand-to-hand combat that’s usually kept offstage. The Porters of Hellgate at WHITMORE LINDLEY THEATER CENTER, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., thru July 8. (310) 497-2884. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage}VICTIMS As we enter the theater to attend writer-director Maria Olsen’s unsettling meditation on the minds of serial killers, we’re greeted by a kindly gentleman in full clown makeup (Mark Hein). Given the play’s subject matter, the sequence, with its overt channeling of John Wayne Gacy, sets a palpable mood of dread. Sadly, aside from the spooky opening moments, Olsen’s kaleidoscopic production is too disconnected and lacking in context to effectively chill the blood. The play boasts a variety of surreal and symbolic quick-shot vignettes about homicidal killers. There are songs and dances — and sequences in which deranged-looking actors leer and goggle at members of the audience, who quite rightfully start to wonder who will leave the theater alive and in what condition. In one scene, a grinning maniac (Avi Tanners) recites a series of emotionally charged words, while victims in whiteface prance around him. In another, a woman in a vivid red dress recites what seems to be a poem attributed to 18th-century serial killer and so-called vampire Elizabeth Bathory, as maniacs writhe all around her. Yet the play’s structure ultimately favors artifice over coherence, and the show is so stylized, the characters appear to be little more than lost fragments. ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru July 7. (818) 202-4120. (Paul Birchall)

{mosimage} WALK’N THRU THE FIRE John DiFusco is best known for his 1980 war drama, Tracers, an homage to the Vietnam vets with whom he served. Center stage in DiFusco’s new, stylish, semiautobiographical performance piece is a simple wooden shrine festooned with familiar religious and spiritual icons (Buddha, the archangel, Virgin Mary, Indian dream wheel). It neatly emblemizes the play’s central idea: the search for God and meaning in life and in a world that all too frequently appears to have neither. Blending music, dance and poetry, writer-actor DiFusco and co-directors Che’Rae Adams and Janet Roston take the audience on a richly detailed tour of DiFusco’s life, starting with a Massachusetts household shared with six siblings, headed by a solicitous Catholic mother and domineering Protestant father. We’re shown DiFusco’s rambunctious adolescence, the railings of his father (Richard Azurdia) against rock & roll; DiFusco’s hell in the jungles of Vietnam; his college life, his marriage, fame as a playwright; then the deaths, sudden and otherwise, of friends and family. Battles with personal demons and alcohol resolve themselves with the discovery of spiritual peace. DiFusco is a gifted storyteller who plumbs the hearts, heads and significance of his characters, and plaits their lives onto a large but accessible canvas with insight, passion and humor. The actors who play multiple roles are good, though their performances appeared rusty at times. Rounding out the cast are Michael Kachingwe, Kwana Martinez and Eileen O’Connell. HAYWORTH THEATER, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 21. (800) 838-3006. (Lovell Estell III)

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