{mosimage}ACT A LADY Like the players in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the blue-collar acting troupe in Jordan Harrison’s comedy are looking to elevate their lives through art. The residents of a small Midwestern town in the ’30s stage a melodrama in which the all-male cast dresses up as pampered coquettes in the 18th-century French court. With their fancy headdresses, powdered faces and fluttering fans, these thespians — Christopher Goodson, Joe Fria and Ryan Spahn — are hilarious-looking indeed. Add their mincing mannerisms and precision timing (under Kiff Scholl’s direction), and you’ve got ingredients for considerable gender-bending humor. Unfortunately, in Harrison’s script — which to its credit takes on gender stereotypes and the blurred boundary between art and life — once the melodrama’s plot (of two jealous tigresses fighting to the death over a pompous count) has been established, the gag gets repetitive. Far more interesting are the stories surrounding the production: They involve Dorothy (an expressive Alice Wollerton), a Bible-beating accordion teacher married to one of the players, as well as a make-up artist (Kimberly Atkinson) and a feminist director (Kathleen Mary Carthy), both imported from Hollywood. Meanwhile, Spahn’s coltish young man, whose experience playing a French maid brings him face to face with his true desires, is likable and endearing. SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; indef. (310) 281-8337. (Deborah Klugman)

{mosimage}  DISTRACTED Jonathan Tolins’ eugenics play, The Twilight of the Golds, put us on the spot by asking if, given the opportunity, we would genetically exclude the possibility of having gay children. In Distracted, playwright Lisa Loomer’s query is a little more practical, though no less troubling: Should we medicate our children to be free of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) — and, possibly, of their creative individualism as well? Loomer, who wrote The Waiting Room,a pointed social satire about male attitudes toward the female body, vents these and other ruminations through a mother having problems with her difficult 9-year-old son, who thunders tyranically from offstage, sounding like Rush Limbaugh after sucking a helium balloon. Rita Wilson and Ray Porter play the parents who endure a labyrinthine search for a “cure” for their son — shrinks, allergists, doctors all offer advice or prescriptions even as the boy’s school threatens him with expulsion for acting up in class. Loomer has lots of fun knocking down the theater’s fourth wall and offers many wryly observed scenes involving adults who, even as they are distracted by their own electronic devices, struggle even to hold conversations among themselves. The ceaseless barrage of cell phone gags, however, becomes repetitious before too long, and some may find the story’s conclusion too soft a landing. Set designer Elaine J. McCarthy’s multiscreen projections of rapid-fire visuals artfully carries the show’s theme, and director Leonard Foglia has mounted an equally rapid-fire volley of performances from his ensemble, with Wilson standing out as a sympathetic Everymom. MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; thru April 29. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Mikulan)

{mosimage}LOVERS AND LULLABIES The title of this late-night cabaret suggests a theme show, but though there are love songs aplenty, lullabies are in short supply. The performance consists of four soloists (Bob Mundy, Trisha Mann, Richard Tanner and Cynda Williams), linked together by a sly, insinuating emcee, Peter Bedard, who also performs a wicked version of “Fever.” Dancers Angelique Perrin and Rusty Hamrick provide stage decoration and perform two numbers. Mundy is a campy performer (wearing red fishnets beneath his all-black outfit) with a four-octave range who alternates between tenor and soprano, and goes in for a lot of gender-bending gay innuendo, while Mann is a jazz singer who supplies a smooth rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Singer-songwriter Tanner (Ragtime, Seussical) sings with authority and offers the most interesting repertoire: With Mundy, he performs “There Was a Time,” from The Threepenny Opera, and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” from The Fantasticks, plus an affecting old Anita O’Day song called “All the Sad Young Men.” The attractive Williams offers the song “Harlem Blues,” which she sang in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, and a slightly schizoid rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” It all goes down pleasantly enough, but aside from Tanner, there’s not much to get excited about. CELEBRATION THEATER, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 p.m.; thru April 14. (323) 957-1884. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage}SEDUCED “Nothing is harmless till it’s squashed,” declares zillionaire Henry Hackamore (Neil Vipond) a sentiment that has made him the richest man in the world. For all his money and power, though, there is one thing he can’t squash — death. Sam Shepard’s enigmatic yet dreary allegory, based on the reclusive Howard Hughes’ last years, excavates numerous themes such as life, death, aging, love, betrayal and memory, creating an unfocused script that Shepard attempts to mask with witty one-liners and twitchy characters. From a secret Latin American lair, the germ-obsessed and dementia-possessed Hackamore, clad in long johns and long white hair askew, has summoned two former Hollywood starlet mistresses to his deathbed. A bizarre roundelay, staged with assurance by director Elise Robertson, eventually ensues between Hackamore, voluptuous raven-haired Luna (Francesca Ferrara), kewpie-doll blonde Miami (Emily West), and Hackamore’s putatively loyal bodyguard, Raul (Patrick Vest), as Hackamore pleads with the women to spark his evaporating memories, libido and ego. Shepherd’s symbolism, such as the blood transfusions that the aging voracious vampire of capitalism now requires, is not lost on us, nor are his points that even the vilest of creatures can leave behind objects of awe, and that whom you trust may be a bust. Vipond is commendably, grotesquely striking in his portrayal of a man vulnerable to paranoia and dementia, yet still able to summon the venality of his former power. Circus Theatricals Studio Theater at THE HAYWORTH, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru April 15. (323) 960-1054. (Martín Hernández)

THE SERPENT Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1968 “ceremony” — which uses physical theater and group dynamics to depict scenes from the Book of Genesis — has been showing up in the last few years in small theaters from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Tampa to Berkeley, and now in a Hollywood warehouse. This is a fair indication that the thematic loss of innocence at its core has a renewed pertinence to our times. (It was originally presented by New York’s Open Theatre in Rome, in the throes of the Vietnam War and in the wake of assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr.) Perhaps it’s the feeling that our war on terror has served up a draconian assault on mythic American virtues of openness, fairness and our adherence to objective law rather than brutal whim. This, in conjunction with the alarm bells of climate change, really does take us back to the Garden of Eden, and a reinvigorated meditation on what, exactly, has happened to us. Director Chris Covics directs a barefoot ensemble of 12 dressed in gray workout attire. They stand, move and even breathe as a singular organism. The audience sits in circle around a stage of sand, enclosed as though in a tent, as the company visually enacts moments from Zapruder’s film about the JFK assassination. Four women (Kathy Bell Denton, Angela Stern, Brittany Slattery and Kelly Lett) chant lines about beginnings, middles and ends, and losing sight and memory of the beginnings en route to the end. Adam (Alex Carver) blames Eve (Wallis Herst) for his temptation to eat the forbidden apple. In a particularly affecting scene, Cain (Mark Woods), who knows nothing of death, breaks Abel’s (Jeremy Guskin) every bone from petty rage, and is then harrowingly distraught after realizing what he’s done to his brother. Covics shoots narrow beams of light across the black sand, like rays streaming through a cathedral’s stained glass. The closing moments of uplift with the ensemble singing the Beatles’ “Blackbird” is a bit pedestrian in what’s otherwise a riveting, occasionally redundant and often moving service. UNKNOWN THEATRE, 1110 N. Seward St., Hlywd.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru April 7. (323) 466-7781. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SEVERANCE Thirty people get beheaded in author Robert Olen Butler’s adaptation of his own book, a chronicle of imagined thoughts in the grips of dying. In a stark and swift evening of monologues, the untimely demised step forward and spout off about either their youthful memories or their assassins — the most popular killers being husbands, elevators and politics. Butler sweeps from ancient Rome to modern Iraq, according space for both St. George and his dragon. But while David Jette’s direction is crisp and dramatic — the stage and costumes are monochrome shot through with violent red — the speeches often fall victim to histrionics and homogeneity, the latter making everyone from John the Baptist to Nicole Brown Simpson swoon in overripe poetry. Even at its most effective, when the French aristocracy pack the stage or a camera trained on a hooded American truck driver recalls Al Jazeera, the mushy sameness of their phrasings washes out each killing’s individual resonance. The sprightly ensemble, headed by Tyler Jenich as a long-limbed executioner, has fun with these tragic tales of women slain by men, and men slain by men, even though as murderer Pierre-Francois LaCenaire (Jenich) purrs, La Guillotine herself is an insatiable femme fatale. New Renaissance Theatre at the McCADDEN PLACE THEATER, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 31. (323) 463-2942. (Amy Nicholson)

{mosimage}THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH Thornton Wilder’s surreal comedy posits history as a sort of Karmic loop, with the Apocalypse occurring again and again to a single New Jersey suburban family, who live 5,000 years, but wind up paying for it by experiencing an Ice Age, a Great Flood and a World War or two. As all these things happen, dad Antrobus (Kelley Hinman) invents the alphabet and the wheel, and finds himself under threat by sultry sexpot Sabina (Maria Lay), who tries to seduce the devoted family man away from his beloved wife (Emily Kuroda). In director Jon Lawrence Rivera’s straightforward but stiffly paced staging, the absurdist comic elements are unexpectedly reined in and half hearted — and his attempts to add “relevance” to the sprawling play by having the characters occasionally shift into singing contemporary rock songs actually have the effect of focusing our attention on the very aspects of the show that feel most dated, such as the sometimes talky and coy dialogue. Kuroda offers a nuanced performance that is the veritable embodiment of motherliness, while Lay’s sexy Sabina steals almost every scene she’s in. Yet, the production is unable to escape a stodginess that seems at odds with the play’s epic goals and scope. Actors Co-op at the CROSSLEY TERRACE THEATER, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru April 16. (323) 462-8460. (Paul Birchall)

WHEN GROUNDLINGS WALKED THE EARTH There was a time when you left a Groundlings show with a stomachache from too much laughter. Although the troupe is still loaded with talent, the edgy, irreverent, over-the-top writing and humor that was its trademark has all but evaporated. More puzzling is the fact that this show is touted as having a prehistoric theme, yet none of these skits show anything of the sort. It certainly offers some laughs, with writing that vacillates between the mundane and the outrageous. “Stoopified” is a bizarrely funny skit about a first date between friends (Kevin Kirkpatrick, Michaela Watkins) that ends in a most unusual manner. Unfortunately this clever number is followed by the low-voltage “Dinner Talk,” in which two couples banter about the politics of the day and the war in Iraq. This authorial patchiness sets the tone for the entire show, which is made all the more glaring by Ben Falcone’s tepid direction. However, “Norman Dies” is a hoot, depicting a recently deceased man (Andrew Friedman) who learns that the afterlife isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Inferno’s Demise” is equally funny: The brilliantly comedic Jim Rash presides over the denouement of a comic-book nemesis. GROUNDLINGS THEATER, 7307 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; indef. (323) 934-4747. (Lovell Estell III)

WOMEN OVER THE INFLUENCE You don’t need to be a woman in her 50s with a penchant for ’60s girl groups to enjoy writer-performer Christina Hart’s new play, but it might help. In program notes, Hart writes that she was inspired by repeated viewings of The Full Monty, and music makes up a large part of her spectacle about four small-town, middle-aged women who decide to re-create their high school musical act. If you don’t already know and love such classic tunes as “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Leader of the Pack” or “Someday We’ll Be Together,” much of the play’s charm will be lost on you. While moments are hilarious, the comedy is often a little stale and the timing just a touch off. An unexpected dramatic twist toward the end of Act 1 is the first moment in which the play really shines, and Hart’s own performance with it. Hart and co-star Kara Pulcino, who play the sisters at the drama’s core, offer the most notable acting turns, both revealing moments of startling depth. However, like most of their fellow cast members, while time-travelling between the present and the past, they wobble between discomfort, predictability, superficiality and finding an emotional center. Janice Allen, however, gives one particularly consistent and strong performance. HOLLYWOOD COURT THEATRE (in the Hollywood United Methodist Church), 6817 Franklin Ave., Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 1. (323) 960-4424. (Alexis Roblan)

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