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ASCENSION

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Maybe it's me. But when a play is labeled "smart" it's usually because a playwright wants desperately to prove he or she is not stupid, or because the generous descriptor is the easiest way to ensure that audience members don't feel stupid. But in this instance, Maurice Chauvet's play, in its world premiere, is most definitely smart. His knowledgeable look at an affluent white-bread L.A. family as it begins to crack under its faรงade is intelligent, grounded, and funny, beautifully and lovingly produced by Apartment A under Michael Angelo Stuno's steady direction. It's also 45 minutes too long. But maybe that's me, too.

Stay-at-home-mom Beth (Sarah Aldrich) would probably be keeping her cool in her stylish Hancock Park Spanish Colonial-even after her picture-perfect life is knocked askew by the arrest of her 12-year old daughter for shoplifting-except she's suddenly been burdened by a live-in mother-in-law from hell (Kate McGregor-Stewart) and somehow senses that the life of her lawyer husband (Daniel Murray) may not be as spotless as it seems. Aldrich is pretty fantastic as the bright, sexy go-getter who gave it all up for her husband's career-or that's her line, anyway. For a long time she's been keeping score of what she's lost or what has been stolen from her, including her faith. She has finally reached a point in her upwardly mobile climb at which she's questioning everything: the choices, the lies, the judgments, and the stories we tell ourselves to make it all okay. Chauvet has drawn complex characters who don't settle for easy answers, and Stuno very assuredly directs this compelling company. Particularly effective are Michael Gallagher as Beth's unlikely friend and confidant and Rosemary Boyce as the gorgeous face of corporate greed. Nods, too, to the detailed performances of Marissa Hall and Paul McKinney.

Ascension is overflowing with moral quandaries and unsettling ideas. It's a candid portrait of a certain kind of people who usually never go there-at least in public. Set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has done a lovely job creating the attractive world of this play, which barely contains it all. Maybe we'd all be better off with a little less of a good thing.

"Ascension," presented by Apartment A at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sep. 2-Oct. 9. $15-20. (310) 823-0710.

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