The Dark Ages

It could be any back alley in any American downtown, one of those havens for the halt, the lame, the lost, and the scuffed. The pretty, plump teenager talking to herself would be a cop magnet even without the red velvet Elizabethan getup and the archaic language. The cop who takes her in is from another era; one could believe he's a real cop just stepped in from Western Avenue.

But we're still in Hollywood, Toto, and what we have here is the time clash between an unhappy runaway, Nevada (Sara Widzer), who feels she was born in the wrong century, and a by-the-numbers Officer Cliff (Michael Crider), whose dingy beat usually consists of riff-raff. Meanwhile, Nevada's parents are obsessively doing their politico thing (Annie, played by D.J. Harner) and their technology thing (David, played by Fred Sanders) to the exclusion of anything but bored disinterest and irritation with each other and their incomprehensible wild child. Drifting through this domestic tangle is the shape-shifting Phee (Alina Phelan), a Robin Goodfellow type of "shrewd and knavish sprite" who seems to know everyone's dreams and how to fulfill them. She provides David the means to enter the killer virtual reality he craves; Annie finds a soul mate, relief from her constrictive self-denial, and a light for her secret cigarette; and Nevada gets back her self-esteem, with the help of Willy (Brian Sutherin)-but that's another story. It's not easy; as the Rolling Stones told us, "You can't always get what you want...but you just might find, you get what you need."

The characters in Laurel Ollstein's sometimes hilariously funny play are beautifully defined and superbly acted-all hits, no misses. She steers clear of "types" in favor of living, breathing people who wear their emotions in plain sight, even when it's to their disadvantage. Act I is a gem-clever and funny, and mostly realistic, with a number of ah-ha moments. Unfortunately, Act II degenerates to confusion, and there's a Renaissance Faire ethic that goes on too long after we come out of the "dark ages," as it were. Katharine Noon's direction is imaginative and connected, and superbly enhanced by John H. Binkley's economical and amusingly functional set design, Dan Weingarten's lighting design, Tamadhur Al-Aqeel's sound, and Pamela Shaw's costumes.

Presented by Playwrights' Arena at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Jun. 10-Jul. 9. (213) 627-4473.