ALTAR BOYZ Co-writers Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s cheerful, energetic off-Broadway hit finds itself at the odd crossroads of Forever Plaid and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Altar Boyz sends up boy bands in general — and, in particular, the squeaky clean fellas who make up those astonishingly popular Christian rock groups. It’s also a revue, enacted by five strikingly talented performers (Matthew Buckner, Ryan J Ratliff, Jesse Johnson, Jay Garcia and Nick Blaemire) portraying a fictional Christian band. Their songs, a mix of exuberant ballads that extol the virtue, simplicity and innocence of faith, are zippy and earnest, but they can also be interpreted in a variety of hilariously disturbing ways: Every so often the characters’ masks of piety slip oh so slightly, revealing glimmers of lust and greed. In director Stafford Arima’s tight and upbeat staging, the taut production is assured. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is crisp and wonderfully dynamic. The surprise of the show is how well the subversive satire is integrated into the Christian themes: There’s little rage or anger, and the goofy squareness of Christian rock is depicted with affection, even as its objectives are ridiculed. Broadway L.A. at the WADSWORTH THEATRE, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., W.L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 25. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878. (Paul Birchall)

{mosimage} BENT Martin Sherman’s 1979 play created a furor when first produced because it provocatively depicted the persecution of homosexuals as well as Jews in Hitler’s Third Reich. In 1934 Berlin, hedonistic gay wheeler-dealer Max (Tyler Christopher) drunkenly picks up hunky blond Wolf (Andrew Miller), unaware that he’s a Nazi storm trooper marked for death in the Night of the Long Knives. After Gestapo officers raid their apartment and murder Wolf, Max and his housemate Rudy (Stephen Kline) must flee. When they’re captured and en route to the Dachau concentration camp, Max is forced to assist in the torture and murder of Rudy. And, eager to avoid the stigma of the pink triangle, he convinces his captors that he’s not gay but Jewish. The play also chronicles Max’s love-hate relationship with fellow prisoner Horst (Jamison Jones); their relations, constantly under surveillance, culminate in the famous mental-verbal sex scene. Director Crystal K. Craft brings an interesting female perspective to the play, curtailing the male nudity and suggesting that Rudy is Max’s sister/buddy rather than boyfriend. Christopher and Jones bring rich nuance to the deepening relations between Max and Horst, with sterling support from the strong supporting cast. 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company at THEATRE 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 4. (323) 960-7827. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage}DANCING AT LUGHNASA A paean to music and Irish womanhood, Brian Friel’s memory play centers on five unmarried sisters living in a small Irish town in 1936. In a spot-on performance, Donald Moore as the narrator, Michael, frames the story with fluid ease, lending Friel’s prose a full measure of eloquence. Michael’s the illegitimate son of Chris (Heather Keller), a moody woman still carrying a torch for the footloose and fancy-free Welsh Lothario (Yancey Dunham) who fathered her child. The family’s secure parochial nest has recently been ruffled by the return, after a 25-year absence, of the women’s brother, Jack (Walter Beery). Formerly a priest-missionary in Uganda, he’s acquired, to the dismay of eldest sister Kate (Mary Linda Phillips), a pronounced dementia and openly expressed admiration for African ritual and tradition. As the clan’s sharp-tongued mainstay, Phillips presides with vitality and focus, while Keller, in moments, capably expresses a lovelorn individual’s desperation. Otherwise, under John Gallogly’s direction, an uneven ensemble inclines to staginess. THEATRE WEST, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 17. (323) 851-7977. (Deborah Klugman)

{mosimage}THE DOG IN THE MANGER A fable by Aesop tells of a dog in a stable who, out of envy, refuses to let the cattle eat the hay that he, being a canine, cannot eat himself. Lope De Vega’s Spanish classic (smoothly translated by David Johnston) transforms the dog into spinster Countess Diana (Carmen Molinari), smitten with her secretary, opportunist Teodoro (Chris Erric Maddox). She’s too haughty to marry her employee yet too envious to allow him to marry her lady-in-waiting, Marcela (Yvonne Fisher). Director Tiger Reel has assembled some wonderful actors. Molinari’s equivocating Diana has a stylish grandiloquence, and her diction is a reminder of what classical training is for. Also grand is Christopher Neiman’s impish Tristan — Teodoro’s lackey — who bounds across the stage with the agility of Puck. And though the casting of African-American Maddox makes for a very funny satire of this play’s obsession with social rank, Maddox nonetheless doesn’t meet the rigorous demands of the style imposed by the play and by Reel’s wonderfully arch yet lively approach. (Reel can actually afford to rein in some excessive exuberance that pushes stylishness into silliness.) On the night I attended, the lighting was a disaster. Poor Fisher had to deliver her soliloquy of melancholy while bathed in one of the shadows that condemned much of the playing area. Bo Crowell’s impressively lit rolling panels received more focus than the actors, who deserve better. Lovely, colorful knickers-and-boots costumes by Alayna Falco. MET THEATRE, 1089 Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 25. (323) 957-1152. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE EMPTY BED Playwright Sharon Yablon’s new play may be a “two-hander,” but a third, unseen character looms very large in her oddball romance. This would be Mrs. Dandridge, a frail old lady tended to by Miss Pickering (Shawna Casey), who’s been hired on as the invalid’s caregiver. Over the course of 65 minutes Pickering runs into her charge’s rabbity son, Jeremy (Jack Kehler), a middle-aged man who drops by his mother’s house almost as though he were there to water an absent friend’s plants. He soon finds himself competing with Pickering for his offstage mother’s attention and then, in a painfully tentative sequence of encounters, develops a tenderness for the aide. Yablon presents some quirky moments (Pickering dancing to Mrs. Dandridge’s music albums, a territorial feud over the matriarch’s glass menagerie), as well as nicely observed insecurities about aging. (“I think we become something else when we grow old,” says Jeremy, and he’s not just talking about hair loss.) There is also, however, little feeling of momentum onstage. It’s one thing for characters to make opaque confessions (“I’m an Anglophile,” Pickering says, as if she were at a 12-step meeting) but, late in Yablon’s self-directed work, her two personable actors still don’t own their dialogue, and some scenes sound strained. The evening unfolds as a promising examination of love, aging and death, whose truths are more elusive than enigmatic. Padua Playwrights Productions at the STEPHANIE FEURY STUDIO THEATER, 5636 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 24. (213) 625-1766. (Steven Mikulan)

{mosimage}ESTER GOLDBERG’S THE BIG SHOW With her Aqua Netted flame of red hair, horn-rimmed glasses and sparkling jacket, Ester Goldberg (Michael Airington) is a diva plucked from a Wacko post card celebrating pop culture circa Neil Diamond and Henry Mancini. Her cocktail-napkin repartee includes “I’m thinking of having my asshole bleached/I don’t think your husband would look good as a blond.” Her onstage band, The Archibald Leeches, accompanies equally bawdy sing-along ditties, while musical director Daniel Gary Busby’s droll remarks from the keyboard straddle the line between support and interference. Goldberg comes off as a cross between John Fleck and Bette Midler. Between jokes, songs and improvising with the audience, she tells autobiographical anecdotes framed in black humor and sexual double-entendre. Airington also channels celebrities that form the heart of traditional gay camp: Katharine Hepburn, Jim Nabors, Jimmy Stewart, Louis Armstrong, Cary Grant, Dame Edna and Paul Lynde — to whom Airington devoted a different and far more penetrating show (An Evening With Paul Lynde), a portrait laced in witty rimshots that nonetheless sidled up to the character’s underlying bitterness. Whereas John Epperson’s Lypsinka uses his wildly funny act to show how the dehumanizing kaleidoscope of pop culture can lead to meltdown, Ester’s just in the recycling business. With a powerhouse impersonator and talent as rare as Airington, Ester can do better than this lounge-act parody, telling dirty jokes and doing good impressions, while lazily endorsing the cult of celebrity. John Hall directs. Main Room at THE COMEDY STORE, 8433 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Fri., 9 p.m.; thru Feb. 23. (323) 656-3225. (Steven Leigh Morris)

FEEDING THE MONKEY IN HOLLYWOOD In Theresa Burkhart’s L.A. farce, Lola and Sunny (Alex Dawson and Burkhart) are floundering actresses whose performances are limited to drunken recitations and faking ill on the phone to Pink Dot. Desperately seeking “daytime validation,” they poison themselves with bleach to have a guilt-free sickbed afternoon of movies, vodka and cocaine and to impress dates Matt and Brian (Matthew Gallagher and Jeff Rubino), who claim to be researching hydroponics — i.e., duct-taping together a mammoth bong. The foursome are already dumb; several disasters later, they’re also deaf, blind and bloody. Inflating, but not skewering, cheap stereotypes, the one-act’s limited insight into Hollywoodland self-destruction stops at neurotic decadence. That this drug culture is identical in Kansas (just swap out powder for meth) helps the satire’s barbs miss their target. After an hour of tweaking and squabbles, the play tries for a moment of earnest pathos as Lola turns to Sunny, her face white-powdered in coke like she’s playing Elizabeth I, and gushes, “This is our life — it will never sound stupid.” FMH Productions at GARDNER STAGES, 1501 N. Gardner St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 25. (323) 769-5575. (Amy Nicholson)

KIMBERLY AKIMBO David Lindsay-Abaire’s award-winning play, about a teenager with a rare condition that causes her body to age four and a half times faster than it should, is filled with wry, black humor that keeps you laughing through the pain. Surrounded by her alcoholic father, Buddy (Joe O’Connor), her hypochondriacal, pill-popping mother, Pattie (Kathleen Bailey), and her con-artist aunt, Debra (Sharon Johnston), 16-year-old Kimberly (Judy Jean Berns) navigates the treacherous waters of her family’s dysfunction aided only by her anagrammatically obsessed high school friend Jeff (Patrick Rogers). Having experienced menopause, Kimberly is not surprisingly both physically and emotionally more mature than her parents, who work hard at hiding from their dark pasts as well as their current twisted selves. Despite the play’s contemporary setting, Gary Randall’s set design evokes Charlie Brown’s house circa 1970 by combining elements of a cartoon backdrop with grade-school finger painting. Johnston’s charismatic performance stands out, and not coincidently, she alone manages a realistic New Jersey accent. Maria Gobetti’s direction is efficient, moving the scenes along at a brisk clip and punctuating the play’s zingers. While the stream of jokes is fairly constant, what gives texture to the piece is the sadness between the laughs. THE VICTORY THEATRE CENTER, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru March 25. (818) 841-5421. (Mayank Keshaviah)

{mosimage}THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL In the lobby, the audience is asked to chant in unison, “Active evil is better than passive good” — one of the Proverbs of Hell from William Blake’s 1792 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is the source material for Dana Weinberg’s ensemble staging. Inside the tiny theater, bedecked with 12 video screens and two live cameras, the ensemble (Hiwa Bourne, Troy Coleman, Juliana Johnson, Phinneas Kiyomura, Andres Miranda, Nancy Dobbs Owen, Kristyn Palmer, Nathan Patrick and Bibi Tinsley) play out a physical improvisation while randomly calling out from among 70 single-sentence proverbs. The actors are costumed in hospital-gown chic — including one black plastic gown and one white tutu. Andy Mitton and Anthony Solis accompany this organic dance-text-recitative with their own jamming, on keyboard and guitar respectively. Blake’s hell is a land of forbidden pleasures, an antithesis to heaven’s stoic morality: Both are on the stage, melding into each other, often indistinguishable. I’m not convinced one can absorb Blake’s mysticism by hearing proverbs as dance-text, or by chanting them pre-show. That’s what they do in the Army and in cults, whereas Blake was a mystic and advocate of free thinking. This production, with lights going on and off and percussive sound effects, is very busy. I suspect that to get to the essence of Blake’s philosophy, his upending of church and state doctrines that still keep people miserable, there needs to be a sharper point of focus — like a gyroscope that one stares at until hypnotized. Perhaps the music should just be that whirring sound, I don’t know, but I do admire the effort to find truth in the ether. They might find it yet. MET THEATRE, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 p.m.; thru March 24. (323) 957-1152. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SEARCH AND DESTROY Con man, braggart and down-market talent-booker Martin Mirkheim (Bart Petty) has bought into the whole New Age self-fulfillment program, and now fancies he’s one of the spiritual elite. He becomes obsessed with a high-minded novel by self-help guru Dr. Waxling (Hutchins Foster) and wants to make a movie of it. His delusions of competence don’t fool the good doctor, whose girl (Sierra Fisk) Martin has inadvertently seduced. Eventually, his boundless determination and gullibility lead him into the drug and horror-film trades and eventually into a murder. Through all this, he learns the art of intimidation, which he considers requisite for success. Howard Korder’s 1992 play receives an excellent production by director Scott Cummins, with fine performances from Petty, Foster, Fisk and Christian Levatino as a charming but sinister businessman. Korder displays a fine acid touch in this tale of the American Dream gone awry, but his hero seems so craven, dishonest and self-serving that it’s hard to care about him, much less want to spend an evening in his company. Gangbusters Theatre Company and The maD Scene Theatre Company at THEATRE 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; thru March 1 (added perf. Thurs., March 1, 8 p.m.). (323) 960-4429. (Neal Weaver)

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