Playwright George F. Walker’s quirky comedy thriller, loosely based on a novel by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is about a mismatched conflict between bland sweetness and dark malice. And it will hardly be a spoiler if we tell you the dark side ultimately wins. The world’s most diabolical criminal, Zastrozzi (Philippe Brenninkmeyer), has traveled Europe in search of his greatest enemy, Verezzi (Alex Robert Holmes), a callow and idiotic boy whose connection to the villain is almost ridiculously tangential. Hatching a scheme to destroy Verezzi by using the wiles of sultry. amoral beauty Matilda (Anna Khaja), Zastrozzi hopes to drive the young man to suicide, but complications arise. The production, co-directed by Sara Botsford and Christopher “CB” Brown, crackles with evil deeds and villainous betrayals. Yet the directors’ decision to set the play in the 1940s, with gallons of liquid-ice smoke creating the murky mood of a film noir movie, awkwardly imposes ideas on the drama that aren’t necessarily in the text. Also, the piece sometimes veers into camp, particularly during the last act. Still, the show’s pacing never flags. Brenninkmeyer’s icy Zastrozzi is a nasty delight, and Holmes is hilariously smarmy as the nebbishy object of his loathing. Also noteworthy are the dazzling sword fights, courtesy of choreographer Victor Warren, and Lacey Anzelc’s broodingly murky, nook-and-cranny-filled set. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd, N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 24. (818) 508-7108.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: July 18. Continues through Aug. 24, 2008

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