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THREE PLAYS BY SARA FINNEY-JOHNSON

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Peopled with a rotating bevy of recognizable television and film actors, depending on the night, UPN producer and playwright Sara Finney-Johnson's one-act plays range from sublime to fairly predictable. The writer's strongest piece, Simple Things, leads off, offering a reunion of grown sisters at their childhood home, where the veil of secrecy is lifted on incidents of abuse and molestation. As the eldest, Lee Garlington is mesmerizing as she struggles to repress pain and anger before erupting with a confession of her own iniquities. Stacey Martino matches her with equal expertise as the sibling who abandoned home to seek her fortune. Director Adleane Hunter dips into her cast's well of emotion by incisively restricting any sense of exaggeration.

Strangely, Finney-Johnson's next offering, Mazel Tov & Black Eyed Peas, also directed by Hunter, strays over the line into well-worn melodrama. It's not as if we haven't seen a street-toughened black teenage girl such as Maya (Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly), whose mouth needs a bar of soap. When confronted by her elderly Jewish neighbor, Mrs. Levy (Estelle Harris)—complete with obligatory Holocaust stories—Maya softens remarkably despite that her mother is murdered. Exposition such as this is certainly tricky, but the repeated use of a speakerphone, over which Maya's mother and her drug connection constantly call from a crack house, is an eyebrow-raising convention that even Hunter's direction can't surmount. The proceedings never feel truthful, and both actors end up seeming disconnected from the story and from each another.

Glow wraps things up on a lighter note, depicting a confrontation on a park bench between a couple on the verge of entering an L.A. courthouse to finalize their divorce. In her final performance of the run, Mo'nique brought a sharp-tongued backbone to Glowdean as she confronts her husband (Gary Anthony Williams) about his sexual indiscretion and overall lack of concern. Her repartee with Williams—including an unnecessary flashback sequence concerning their first date—reveals Finney-Johnson's and director Tony Singletary's extensive backgrounds in sitcoms.

Both directors make adequate use of Shelley A. Wallace's varied sets, of Nerissa L. Williams' standard-issue lighting plot, of Yolanda Braddy's serviceable costuming, and of Tony Bracy's nondescript sound design. With the exception of the opening piece, the night is one of hastily stated, developed, and wrapped-up dilemmas—entertaining on some level, no doubt, but hardly groundbreaking.

"Three Plays by Sara Finney-Johnson," presented by and at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jan. 9-Feb. 15. $20. (800) 671-7328.

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