THE BERLIN DIG Playwright John Stuercke's attempted exploration of ideas and ideology about fascism and world politics results in a stupefying mash: The play takes place in present-day Berlin, where Dieter (Roy Allen), after the funeral services for his mother, plays host to old friends Peter (Irwin Moskowitz) and Rolf (Markus Obermeier). It isn't long before the conversation turns to family ties, to times past and the Nazi era, sparking a drawn-out, vapid exposition about history, complicity and German guilt. It's here that Stuercke's pen goes a-wandering, and doesn't seem to know where to settle, as the discussion turns to contemporary politics, racism, immigration in Germany and America, oil, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the auto industry, Bush and Cheney, the Kennedy assassination, slavery, communism, even the Armenian Genocide, all of which transpires in the span of two benevolently short acts. In Act 2, Stuercke, who also directs, mixes in a little bit of suspense, when it's revealed that Dieter's father was really a Nazi, and a relative arrives from America. By this time, it doesn't matter. Completing the misfire are German accents better suited to Hogan's Heroes and terrible performances that bury whatever potential the play may have had. El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 6. (800) 838-3006. (Lovell Estell III)

ETHEL MERMAN'S BROADWAY Most people of a certain age recall Broadway musical legend Ethel Merman, described by a Time columnist in a 1940 cover story as “a dynamic baggage with syncopation in every breath … and a voice with the hard, clarion forthrightness of a jazz trumpet.” In this solo show, performer Rita McKenzie re-creates Merman, taking fans and Broadway musical aficionados on a nostalgic sojourn. Directed by Christopher Powich and backed by a seven-piece band directed and conducted by David Snyder, McKenzie delivers renditions of celebrated songs, many by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, interspersed with a biographical account of Merman's life, from her early career efforts, while a young secretary from Queens, up through her last successful musical, Hello Dolly. McKenzie comfortably wraps herself in Merman's brassy broad persona for what aims to be a chatty series of revelations to the audience. But while the external mannerisms ring true — the nasal twang in her voice, the unabashed me-ism of her attitude — the performance I saw lacked a fresh edge. (Not surprising, since McKenzie began impersonating Merman as early as 1989.) That said, most audience members seemed to be enjoying themselves. Eric Winterling's glitzy costumes contribute the requisite glamour. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through Feb. 27. (818) 508-4200. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  GIGI Nearly as old as the transition of a script from Broadway to Hollywood is the reverse, a process of adaptation that has created both stage gems like Mary Poppins and stage horrors (literally) like Carrie: The Musical. But with talents like Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) behind it, this staging of the film classic is much more like the former than the latter. The story takes place in 1901 Paris and explores the exploits of wealthy bon vivant Gaston (Matt Cavenaugh), who takes after his uncle Honore (William Atherton), but becomes bored easily. His main diversion is visiting his uncle's lady friend, Mamita (Millicent Martin), and playing cards with her bubbly granddaughter, Gigi (Lisa O'Hare). Gigi is being groomed to be a high-class courtesan by her Aunt Alicia (Susan Denaker), but things get complicated when Gaston falls for her. The highlight of the show is Lerner's book and lyrics, with clever turns of phrase that are, at times, like Noel Coward set to music. Director David Lee masterfully maintains the mischief of the characters, extracting solid performances from a talented cast, and Jared A. Sayeg's lighting paints Paris in princely purple hues. O'Hare's dew-fresh charm in her perky rendition of the title role is a pleasure to watch, as are her scenes with Denaker, whose perfectly pitched Alicia is like Lady Bracknell in a looser corset. Atherton and Martin show great chemistry on the classic “I Remember It Well.” Freud Playhouse at UCLA, Macgowan Hall, 405 Hilgard Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through Feb. 27. (310) 825-2101, A Reprise Theatre Company Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  THE HYACINTH MACAW An unabridged dictionary can be a dangerous thing, particularly when it's wielded with the playfully pleonastic dexterity of a stage poet like Mac Wellman. Like a deranged Dr. Seuss for adults, Wellman marries a love of wordplay with a mischievously subversive wit that entertains even as it teases out the unspeakable fears festering at the fringes of American complacency. In director Jim Martin's handsomely mounted production of Wellman's 1994 fractured fairy tale, the playwright zeros in on our gullible faith in the empty, “pneumatic” bromides and hackneyed romantic tropes that form the fragile mythologies from which we make sense of a larger, unknowable reality. In the case of the Moredent family of Bug River, all of their assumptions about their very identities are upended with the arrival of Mister William Hard (Jerry Prell), “a doctor of divinity, equidistance and gradualist” from “the land of evening,” who announces that they are all orphans. It seems the father, Ray (Craig Anton) is an “inauthentic duplicate” of Hard and the two must trade places to redress the error. Blithely accepting the news, Ray packs his bag and departs, freeing wife Dora (Lysa Fox) to run off with an itinerant vagabond (Simon Brooke), while daughter Susannah (Anna Steers) remains behind to help Hard bury the eerily glowing remains of the dying moon. While Martin's staging underscores the text's whimsical non-sense at the expense of its more mordant phenomenological musings, Cristina Bejarano's imaginative, angular set and Nick Davidson's hauntingly evocative lights eloquently support Wellman's off-kilter cosmos. Royal Theater aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., through March 12. (562) 985-5526, A California Repertory production. (Bill Raden)


GO  LOCKED AND LOADED Ever hear the joke about the two guys with terminal brain tumors who decide to beat death to the punch? A Jew and a WASP dress up in tuxes, rent a presidential suite stocked with their favorite booze and call some hookers to help them go orgasmic into that good night. OK, so the subject matter and setup of, and even the quietly heartbreaking backstories in, actor-playwright Todd Susman's play are a little derivative — Leaving Las Vegas and Marsha Norman's play 'Night, Mother spring to mind — but some very clever writing and smart performances make this West Coast premiere much funnier and more mystical than the approach its predecessors took. Particularly interesting is Susman's deliberate trafficking in stereotypes. Old-monied Dickie Rice (Andrew Parks) is haughty as he hurls three strikes in quick succession at an African-American hooker, sniffing, “Do you know who I am?” and referring to her “Aunt Jemima” style of speaking. Sad-clown sitcom writer Irwin Schimmel (Paul Linke) turns his poison pen on himself and his Jewish heritage, and Catorce Martinez's (Terasa Sciortino) inability to understand English subtleties is the source of many jokes. But in electing Princess Lay-Ya (a very sharp Sandra Thigpen) queen pin, Susman gives the underdog the upper hand, which Lay-Ya uses to force the superficialities aside to reveal the very real, raw pain coursing beneath. After such deep diving, the resurface at play's end is a little easy; nevertheless, the whole shebang is a much more entertaining evening than the premise portends. Chris DeCarlo directs. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3:30 p.m., through April 16. (310) 394-9779. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

THE REVENANTS Not only do the protagonists in this zombie play break the age-old cautionary rule (in zombie-prone regions) of avoiding the basement at all costs, but they manage to hunker down below ground with two members of the rapidly multiplying undead population. Thus, a long and tediously unfolding chain of events is set in motion by characters entirely lacking sound decision-making skills. All of this stupidity would be fine were it a remotely intelligent commentary on human folly, but nothing in Scott T. Barsotti's text resembles satire or keen irony. Instead, we witness the agonizingly uninteresting plight of Gary (Carl Bradley Anderson) and Karen (Anne Westcott), a pair of old friends whose respective spouses, Molly (Lara Fisher) and Joseph (Rafael Zubizarreta Jr.), have turned zombie. While the uninfected couple make feeble attempts to devise a plan of action, they chain Molly and Joseph to the wall. For the play's duration, Molly and Joseph halfheartedly strain against their bindings while Gary and Karen talk about old times, argue over the extent to which their spouses are lost and question their marriages. There isn't a nail-biting moment in sight here; the constant presence of the zombies creates a tolerance factor that renders them about as threatening as a pair of uncouth houseguests unaware of the late hour. Because Gary and Karen are entirely unremarkable characters, the stakes are further purged. If the goal is to make us root for the zombies (think George Romero's smirk at rabid consumerism in the shopping-mall setting of Dawn of the Dead), then the failure is one of narrative scope: Focusing on four characters in a static setting is no way to build an audience of gleeful zombie sympathizers. Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through March 19. (Amy Lyons)

GO  THE SONNETEER Nick Salamone's play examines the ways in which homophobia, guilt, self-delusion and hypocrisy cause the gradual disintegration of the Cardamones, a first-generation Italian-American family. Louie Cordero (Paul Haitkin), his younger brother, Michael (Ray Oriel), and their friend Joey (Ed Martin) go off to serve in World War II. Michael and Joey, serving in France, secretly become lovers. After the war, Louie marries his sweetheart, Livvy (Sandra Purpuro), but he also discovers the relationship between Michael and Joey, and his virulent homophobia is aroused. He orders Michael to stop seeing Joey and threatens to kill Joey. Then, in a work accident, Michael runs over Louie with a cement mixer, causing his death. Pressured by salty, bossy older sister Vita (Cynthia Gravinese), who wants to save him for middle-class respectability, Michael marries a sweetly naïve hospital nurse, Ella (Victoria Hoffman), whom he'd like to love, but doesn't. Meanwhile, Livvy, desolate over Louie's death, writes sonnets to relieve her pain. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera sensitively explores the rich characters and understated subtleties of Salamone's play, with fine assistance from his able and faithful cast. Haitkin, in particular, scores as both homophobic Louie and his scholarly pro-gay son. Davidson/Valentini Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through March 13. (323) 860-7300. (Neal Weaver)


TUCUMCARI Riley Steiner's bittersweet country tale transports us to a 1930s motor-court homestead along a remote, dusty New Mexico stretch of Route 66. For young bride Lillian (Ciera Parrack), marriage means embarking upon a new life and exploring the vast world beyond her Albuquerque farm. But on her honeymoon she is dismayed to learn that her new husband, Lyle (Logan Fahey), has a different future all worked out for them — running the motel he won in a card game. Lil makes the most of her lot and all is going well until a handsome traveler passes through their tiny town of Tucumcari. Meaningful looks exchanged between Lil and Cade (Robert W. Evans) suggest a heated past. When Cade stays on to help Lyle build a porch, Lil finds her affections are divided. Pretty as a picture, Parrack is excellent as the stubborn and feisty heroine, conveying a deep and conflicted longing for the life she always dreamed of having. As quiet and slow as a country mile, Steiner leaves plenty of space between the spoken words, and director Doug Traer preserves the languid rural pace of this sweet and simple life. While it's enjoyable to watch the porch taking shape, the lean story merely plods along. Upstage, behind a scrim, a trio of country singers (Aric Leavitt, Rachel Kiser and Pat Whiteman Astor) yodel and harmonize exquisitely to the strains of banjo, guitar and fiddle, singing cowboy and coyote tunes. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theater, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills (on the Beverly Hills High School campus); Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through Feb. 27. (310) 364-0535. (Pauline Adamek)

WRINKLES Paul Kikuchi's blithe, slight comedy is a paean to that most unlikely of heroes: the dirty old man. And, really, if the tragedy of King Lear is that of an elderly fellow who “shouldst not have been old til (he) hadst been wise,” how much nicer a world it is when a man can be both old and a horndog. Tightly wound lawyer mom Nancy (Amy Hill) finds a bag of sex toys in the garage and mistakenly assumes they belong to her innocent teenage son, Jason (Ki Kong Lee). However, when the toys turn out to belong to Nancy's octogenarian live-in dad, Harry (Sab Shimono), her head starts spinning like the jigger on the Hello Kitty vibrator. It turns out Harry has a burgeoning career in a niche film industry known overseas as “elder porn.” And, when Harry turns out to be “huge in Japan,” it only means complications for his bemused family. Director Jeff Liu's cheerfully brisk pacing and the cast's engaging comic timing help keep Kikuchi's lightweight farce from edging into dark or disturbing terrain. Kikuchi's appealingly glib dialogue boasts endless snarky one-liners — he certainly gets plenty of mileage from that old gag genre known as the “mock porn title” (Lady and the Gramps and Joy Suck Club, to name but a pair). Yet there's also something a little distasteful about the piece's steadfastly surface-level approach to the porn world's creepier aspects — and the farce's energy wanes midway through, when the play's one joke has reached its saturation point. Still, the show's saved by deft and hilarious turns from Hill's ferocious “tiger mom,” and by the gruff, understated Shimono, as the world's most unlikely (yet strangely charismatic) porn star. East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 13. (213) 625-7000. (Paul Birchall)


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