REVIEWS

NEBRASKA

at the Angels Theater

Reviewed by Sally Johnson

Inspired acting by a terrific ensemble under Paul Brennan's attentive and gutsy direction makes Nebraska a show to see. K.C. Marsh is Lieutenant Swift, but swift is exactly what he isn't. Newly transferred to an isolated air base outside of Omaha, Swift vegetates day-in and day-out alongside his launch mate Hank, awaiting the go ahead from the Pentagon when their simultaneously turned keys will send their faceless enemies to Kingdom Come. But it's the cold war, so odds are they're just a pair of useless ball bearings in a rusty wheel.

Meanwhile, Julie, Swift's attractive but miserably lonely wife, rots away at home. It's a nightmare scenario where restless energy leads to explosive exchanges, self-destructive behavior, and burnt hamburgers. Laughs elicited from ludicrous and heightened situations are dexterously balanced by the characters' underlying and unsatisfied emotional needs.

Marsh displays the edgy impenetrable quality of a man caught up in an ugly loop from which he's finding it hard to extricate himself. Philip Cass is a comedic marvel as Lt. Hank Fielding, a hot-headed career man always ready with a quick retort. Kate Asner seethes with bottled anger as Swift's wife, a sloppy sexual predator on the lookout for fresh meat. In supporting roles, Kathleen Flynn delivers a giggly strung-out portrait of a wacky radar specialist and Terrence Atkins is a naive Air Force man.

The set is minimalist. Three short platforms and the narrow trough dividing them provide different areas on-base and set designer William Maynard's blinking control panel is a particularly nice touch in this strangely elating and dynamic comedy by Keith Reddin.

"Nebraska," presented by the Company of Angels at the Angels Theater, 2160 Hyperion Ave., Silverlake. Sept. 5-Oct.18. (888) 566-8499.

ARABIAN

NIGHTS

at the Actors' Gang Theater

Reviewed by Jamie Painter

This Lookingglass Theatre Company production, under Mary Zimmerman's innovative direction, is an inspiring, provocative adaptation of The Arabian Nights, the centuries-old book of Indian, Arabic, and Persian storytelling. Zimmerman, who undertook the arduous task of interpreting the book, makes full use of everything available to her--including sound effects, acoustic instruments, luxuriant set and lighting design, and most importantly the talented ensemble of performers--the majority of whom are transports from Chicago, where the Lookingglass is based.

Arabian Nights is a mythical tale about the power of storytelling. King Shahryar (Adam Dannheisser) has lost his sanity and to satisfy his mad lust for power, demands a sacrificial virgin for him to marry, deflower, and murder each night--that is until the alluring Scheherezade (Naama Potok) is sent to his chamber as his next bride victim. The young woman persuades Shahryar to let her tell him a story, which he grants. So transfixed by her wild yarns, the king spares her life each night in order that she continue with her stories--which combine elements of drama, slapstick, eroticism, modern dance, circus acrobatics, improv, and transcendental song and music.

It is difficult to single out any one actor in this production--everyone is remarkably talented, versatile, and physically adept. Mark Brodie, Jane C. Cho, Thomas J. Cox, Dannheisser, Lawrence E. DiStasi, Christine Mary Dunford, Laura Eason, Doug Hara, David Kersnar, Potok, Philip Rayburn Smith, Heidi Stillman, Andrew White, and Temple Williams all deserve bravos. Particularly impressive are Joey Slotnick (The Single Guy) who overwhelmingly proves his comedic skills, and the mesmerzing Joy Gregory. While Lookingglass member and Friends star David Schwimmer was not performing on the night the show was reviewed, he is listed in the playbill as an alternate King Shahryar and is the co-presenter of the production.

Set designer Daniel Ostling and scenic artist Liliana Perez-Reynolds also deserves credit for transforming the Actors' Gang's space into a crimson-red palace of Persian carpets, ornate pillows, and lush velvet drapery. T.J. Gerckens' lighting design is also worth mention, especially for it's inventive use of lanterns which rise and fall from the ceiling to accentuate the actors. There is one drawback to this event--the more than two-and-a-half hour running time. Zimmerman could trim her show a bit without compromising the beauty of it.

"The Arabian Nights," presented by David Schwimmer, Jessica Hughes, and the Lookingglass Theatre Company at the Actors' Gang Theater, 6207 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Sept. 8-Oct. 19. (213) 660-8587.

THE

MATCHMAKER

at the Colony Studio Theatre

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder, and to celebrate the occasion, the Colony Theatre has mounted a lively production of the author's classic farce, The Matchmaker, upon which the hit musical Hello, Dolly is based.

It's 1890s New York. Dolly Levi (Jodi Carlisle) is a widow with decidedly capricious sensibilities who arranges marriages, and she has her eye on wealthy Yonkers shopkeeper Horace Vandergelder (Al D'Andrea) as her own personal prize. But he's decided to propose to Mrs. Irene Molloy (Linden Waddell), a widow with a millinery business.

Meanwhile, Vandergelder--a grumpy old man if there ever was one--is determined to keep his whiny niece, Ermengarde (Jodi Rosenbaum), from marrying an unsuitable artist, Ambrose Kemper (Gil Bernardy), and Vendergelder's dutiful clerks, Cornelius (Lee Grober) and Barnaby (Darin Anthony), are determined to get just one day free from their miserly boss so they can have an adventure in New York City. In true madcap style, everyone's lives become full of comical complications and entanglements before the play's inevitable sweet and happy ending.

Carlisle brings a light gay '90s giddiness to the irrepressible Dolly and D'Andrea's Vandergelder has the appropriately grouchy looks and moves. Grober and Anthony are full of wide-eyed wonder as their big city adventure grows ever more absurd. Waddell is fine as milliner Molloy, and Caren Saiet is delightful as her ditzy assistant, Minnie. Other standouts are Robert Stephen Ryan, who doubles as Vandergelder's snippy barber and a fussy headwaiter; Kurt Boesen as moralizing drunkard Malachi Stack, and Scott Vance, who doubles as an enterprising cabby and a very funny gypsy musician.

Director Todd Neilsen's clever staging makes grand, inventive use of an old-time bandstand set, and compliments John Patrick's imaginative scenic design. Cheery period music adds just the right turn-of-the-century tone to the show.

"The Matchmaker," presented by the Colony Studio Theatre at the Studio Theatre Playhouse, 1944 Riverside Dr., Silverlake. Sept. 6-Nov. 9. (213) 665-3011.

SELF HELP, OR

THE TOWER OF PSYCHOBABBLE

at the Hudson Avenue Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

Clark Carlton's sparkling comedy Self Help, or the Tower of Psychobabble presents a light-hearted glimpse at the hypocrisy and self-delusion surrounding trendy New Age psychology. Although press materials indicate that the show stirred up controversy in an earlier workshop run, the script seems more harmlessly comical than trenchantly satirical. Under Michael Kearns' buoyant direction, a delightful cast serves up the frothy material as a deliciously light Freudian soufflƒ.

Carlton's play is mildly revolutionary in its taken-for-granted approach to gay romance and its refreshing avoidance of the Sturm-und-Drang suffering that dominates too many gay-oriented plays. With its whimsical treatment of universally relevant issues such as relationship turmoil and pop psychology, the play neatly bridges the gap between "gay" and "straight" theatre.

The engaging story demonstrates how gay relationships can be just as crazily dysfunctional as the traditional heterosexual variety. Tyler (Dean Howell), a 40-something aspiring screenwriter in West Hollywood, struggles to build a relationship with anal-retentive journalist Peter (Jason Moore), whose maddening failure to commit is beginning to smell like passive/aggressive control (pardon the psychobabble). Tyler turns to a New Age psychologist (David Richards) for advice, but the screwed-up doc clearly needs therapy more than either Tyler or Peter.

Howell is hilarious and utterly charming as the befuddled, middle-age-crazy protagonist, and Moore is funny and appropriately contemptible as Taylor's selfish would-be lover. Richards excels as the manipulative analyst, and Marcus Knight is a campy scene-stealer in multiple small roles. Other deft performances are delivered by Rodney Hargrove, Gary Sear, Tony Davis, Joe Gill, and Steve Tyler.

"Self Help, or the Tower of Psychobabble," presented by Aged in Wood Productions at the Hudson Avenue Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Sept. 4-Oct. 10. (888) 566-8499.

PYGMALION

at South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Zach Udko

One might say that Pygmalion, Henry Higgins, and director William Ludel have something in common: all three produced a beautiful creation with care and diligence only to see it walk off without so much as even a good-bye. Indeed, this production of Shaw's masterpiece about the arrogant phonetics professor and his pupil, the innocent Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Nike Doukas), has all the makings of a first-class production--top-notch talent, lively music, as well as gorgeous and highly artistic sets, costumes, and lighting. Yet something in the first two of the play's five acts leaves something to be desired, mainly in Ludel's slow-paced directorial choices.

By no means is this a misguided rendering of the classic, yet with Shaw, one often runs the risk of facing boredom if timing is not handled with absolute precision. The last three acts, in fact, are so highly enjoyable, that it's almost as if we're watching a different show.

What makes this production even more enjoyable lies in the wonder that none of the actors of this flawless ensemble ever rely on past interpretations of the canonized roles. Nicholas Hormann's Higgins adds new dimensions to the part that Rex Harrison never had; this professor is fidgety, playful, almost child-like--a real momma's boy. Doukas skillfully takes Eliza through the three stages of her growth with hilarious, yet endearing results. Colonel Pickering is both compassionate with a suppressed sense of adventure thanks to David Byrd's wonderful portrayal. Serious overtones are offered by the stern, matriarchal figures Mrs. Higgins (Anne Gee Byrd) and Mrs. Pearce (Martha McFarland), and Richard Doyle steals the show as Alfred Doolittle, the morally-impaired spokesman against middle class life.

It would be a crime to let the show's technical expertise go unnoticed. With four elegant, picture-perfect sets, Karen TenEyck beautifully captures the aura of 1912 London, all well-lit by Tom Ruzika. Also, Walker Hicklin's costumes are, well loverly.

"Pygmalion" presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Sept. 5-Oct. 5. (714) 708-5555.

TAP DOGS

at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

When it comes to silver screen tap dancing icons, there are the Fred Astaire fans and the Gene Kelly fans. Astaire embodied the grace, Kelly the physicality. Dein Perry's Tap Dogs is like Kelly's raw, masculine style increased exponentially: a worker-boot, testosterone-pumped, new form of tap which seems more fitted for the construction site than the ballroom.

Aggressively and creatively designed and directed by Nigel Triffitt, the show is technically as flashy as the performers. The stage is literally built and torn to pieces by the powerful dancers during the course of the evening. It's an incredible set design of corrugated steel and ladders in which everything which appears onstage is pushed to its creative limits--even consumed. The sharp lighting design of David Murray sears the dancers in place, in an attempt to contain their boundless energy, and Darryl Lewis' sound design is a show in itself.

Then there are the dancers, all acrobats and comedians, as well as incredible showmen. Dance director Sheldon Perry sets the energetic and amused tone for the evening. Pounding and prancing, Perry more attacks the floor than dances on it. The show never becomes a faceless chorus line, and each dancer gets a chance to show off his unique style. Ben Read stands out in the group, simply because he makes it all seem so easy. Laid back and almost sleepy, he brings a little Astaire to the evening. However, all deserve mention: Jeremy Fullam, Christopher Horsey, Jeremy Kiesman, and Anthony Locascio round out the dancers.

Tap Dogs isn't as strong a piece of theatre as Stomp or Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, for little narrative is developed during the evening. It's essentially a show of skill, in which the talented performers try to progressively "wow" the audience with their feats. Still, these dancers do truly amaze and Dein Perry must be commended for introducing this exciting new style of tap to audiences throughout the world. Let's hope it finds its way into the often stagnant choreography of our traditional musical theatres soon.

"Tap Dogs," presented by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, on the grounds of the Veterans Administration, West Los Angeles. Sept. 2-Oct. 5. (310) 825-2101.

OTHELLO

at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre

Reviewed by Jeff Niesel

Shakespeare's Othello really belongs to Iago, the villain whose blind hatred drives his ruthless plot to destroy Othello's marriage and political power. For the play to be compelling, Iago has got to be good. Unfortunately, in this Old Globe Theatre's production, Richard Easton isn't quite up to the task.

Easton, who has done his share of Shakespeare in the past, simply doesn't make Iago likable enough. Granted, Iago is one of Shakespeare's most sinister characters, but Iago's evil stems from his two-faced nature--he appears to be Othello's greatest ally while behind his back he sets Roderigo and Cassio against him. When Iago tries to charm Othello, Easton practically does it with a wink to the audience, thus never winning over the compassion that would make him such a complex and compelling character. Given Easton's unconvincing portrayal, the play's most important theme--that there's no way of determining a person's true intentions--fails to come to fruition.

As Othello, Tyrees Allen doesn't have the same difficult task as Easton. Allen smoothly makes the transition from fearless military leader to emotionally crippled, jealous husband and he handles the role well. Allen's transformation is so complete, he even breaks into a sweat as he grapples with his desire to strangle his wife Desdemona (Christina Haag).

The rest of the cast is solid but unremarkable--Scott Ferrara gives Roderigo the necessary na•vetƒ and Vaughn Armstrong is appropriately sincere as Cassio. Katherine McGrath, too much the victim here, could have played Emilia better, as she is the play's most cogent voice.

With its white-washed bricks, Ralph Funicello's airy set adequately conveys the seaside locations of Venice and Cyprus and Michael Gilliam's lighting design makes good use of strobes in bringing the occasional thunderstorm to life. Although director Jack O'Brien does an adequate job with the play, it's missing the spark that a powerful Iago should provide.

"Othello," presented by the Old Globe Theatre at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Aug. 24-Oct. 4. (619) 239-2255.

ALL MY SONS

at the International City Theater

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Preceding the birth of Death of a Salesman by two years, All My Sons marked Arthur Miller's first large-scale success as a playwright. And, similar to the enduring tale of Willy Loman, at the heart of this drama is Miller's familiar, tragic view of man's battles with guilt, morality, and society's role in defining those two concepts. Unlike Salesman, however, Sons lacks a uniform strength of character and clarity of plot that, given a less than sure staging, can lead to an underlying sense of unfocused energy. Coupled with a relatively uneven first act, these shortcomings are inescapable in this International City Theatre production.

Laboring under Miller's reliance on highly-wrought plot elements and a rather unsympathetic central character, director Jules Aaron and his ensemble nevertheless drive home the play's true impact in an impassioned closing act that serves the playwright's ultimate purpose: to show the ruinous consequences of deception, especially self-deception.

On one level a denunciation of greed and wartime profiteering, Sons outlines the personal grief suffered by two families who are torn by the war-related death of one son and the involvement of the fathers in the deaths of 21 other servicemen through the manufacture of faulty aircraft engine parts. In the spotlight are Joe Keller, his troubled wife Kate, and son Chris--all of whom have taken part in the creation of Joe's financial legacy, which is earned at the expense of his jailed business partner and the family's reputation.

Unfortunately, the generation of feeling for these characters is hindered by a first act that features too many ineffective subplots and a hazy set-up--all of which receive a somewhat perfunctory staging by Aaron and the players. It is not until the second act that the motives of Miller's characters become clear and the cast is able to humanize their roles to the greatest effect.

Upon revealing the truth of his guilt, Paul Lukather's Joe movingly comes to terms with his flawed code of ethics. Barbara Tarbuck's Kate garners commiseration as a woman blindly devoted to husband and sons, and Simon Billig, as Chris, turns in the most honest portrayal, showing the anguish of a son caught between filial loyalty and moral duty. In the final, and violent, resolution of their conflict with each other and their own consciences we find the resonating frailty of modern man, which became the hallmark of Miller's subsequent dramatic works.

"All My Sons", presented by the International City Theatre at the Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Sept. 5-28. (562) 938-4128.

THE LADIES OF THE CAMELLIAS

at the Julia Morgan Theatre

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Plays about the theatre are a tricky proposition. Too often, their creators become mired in self-referential smugness. Such is the case with Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Ladies of the Camellias.

The premise is promising. The two grandest of turn-of-the-century grande dames, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, meet for the first time when the latter is preparing to star in Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias (later turned into Garbo's signature role, Camille). An anarchist bursts in backstage and holds the two divas hostage, along with their leading men and other factotums. He harangues them about the meaninglessness of art in an age of social unrest. Eventually, we learn that the anarchist is a disgruntled reject from Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theater.

Garrett-Groag's script never delivers, and Larry Biederman's plodding direction fails to ignite the admittedly meandering material. Is the play meant to be a good-natured jab at the larger-than-life egos of stage stars, a la The Royal Family? Or is it going for a larger, Stoppardian social critique? No one seems to know, and the end result is that some very good actors are left with little to do besides play into obvious clichƒs and engage in occasionally funny bits of slapstick.

Elizabeth Benedict's Bernhardt is too simperingly sweet, and we never get a glimpse of the killer instinct at the heart of her theatrical being-- an instinct we must believe is there for the plot to develop logically. Wanda McCaddon infuses her Duse with an amusingly lugubrious quality, but her performance is also at one level throughout the long (two-and-a-half hour) play. Jon DiSavino and Clive Chafer as the bullied leading men have some funny Marx Brothers moments in their scenes with Ben Cleaveland's Ivan the anarchist, but the wide-eyed-terror-and-bumbling-ineptitude routine gets stale quickly.

The script abounds with in-jokes about the theatre (proving the veracity of Stoppard's observation that "laughter is the sound of people congratulating themselves.") However, in the end, The Ladies of the Camellias fails to convince us of its central argument, that, as one character observes, "audacity and nerve are the starch of the spirit."

"The Ladies of the Camellias," presented by TheatreFIRST at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Sept. 5-Oct. 5. (510) 845-8542.

THE FIRST BEDROOM

at the Ventura Court Theatre

Reviewed by Zach Udko

Satire is supposed to be witty, bold, dark, and funny. It delivers a potent message by making us laugh. Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Swift, for instance, are satirists. Sharianne Greer is not--a point on which I differ with the press release for her new play, The Fist Bedroom, which insists that it is "satirical drama."

Presented by both Women in Theatre and Theatre of Hope for Abused Women, this production, which is more like political soap opera than anything else, has some serious agendas. The men in the show get off relatively easy, considering one is an abusive junkie, another a sleazy Senator, and the third an overbearing Republican President. The hot-button issue of the evening is abortion, as the president's daughter (Kristina Lear) doesn't want to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term, and the relationship of the first couple is jeopardized by a disagreement on this issue. To the president (Quinn K. Redeker), it's murder, while his First Lady (Dena Dietrich) has her reasons for her pro-choice sentiments.

There's just not enough meat to fill the show's entire two hour duration, and way too many side issues get thrown into the pot to cloud things up even further. It's unfortunate that Bedroom has to limp pathetically on the heels of Wendy Wasserstein's latest An American Daughter, which was by no means a hit but had far better dialogue and more interesting characters.

None of the actors really help out the bleak predicament either. Diana Castle does a great impersonation of a 1930s film actress as the president's malicious daughter, Colleen-- though that's not exactly what the role requires. Redeker offers an insincere portrayal of a tormented man in power. And though she has her moments, Dietrich simply is unbelievable in the role.

The details ignored by director Allison Bergman don't help: Set pieces are sloppily visible in the background waiting to be brought on, a classroom-style poster of the Great Seal of Iowa is thumb-tacked to the Senator's desk, and a staged fight reaches remarkable heights of phoniness. And I don't think it's a satirical kind of phony.

"The First Bedroom," presented by Women in Theatre, Theatre of Hope for Abused Women, and Ventura Court Theatre Alliance at the Ventura Court Theatre. 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. Aug. 22-Sept. 28. (818) 763-3856.

ROCKETS & BLUE LIGHTS

at the Hudson Theatre

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Are you still suffering withdrawals from The Twilight Zone marathon last Labor Day? Try this: Mitch Giannunzio's script posits a small, cabin community in Western Massachusetts (with a charmingly rustic set by Henry Douglas Grey) just after a meteor shower has sprinkled the earth with poisonous gases that kill everybody. But not all at once. And not animals or plants. Summer resident Michael (Skip Stellrecht, in one of the more endearing and huggier performances as a gay outcast) receives his rather outspoken and formerly estranged sister Linda (Eileen T'Kaye) into his summer retreat. She has driven there through a Heironymous Bosch landscape of death, decay, and disorder. Alone. From Manhattan. This is a comedy, mind you.

This entire incredibly hard-to-swallow premise is an excuse to get six different characters together in a small room so they can learn, grow, and wait for each other to die. Are you chuckling yet? Other participants are Elizabeth (Patience Cleveland), the neighbor just up the road; Charles (Ken Salley), the teacher to whom nobody has even spoken before, and Pilar (Elizabeth Reilly), a character who inspires a wish for the greater efficacy of extraterrestrial poisons. Things look hopeful when the sweet-faced, guitar-toting Nick (Stephen Heath) barges in, since he has all the earmarks of a Sexual Magnet, but alas, the character's potential disappears with the final chord of his impromptu hootenanny. Scott Segall's direction is not the sort to let a portentous moment pass unweighted, which drags this ostensible comedy on even further.

Stellrecht and T'Kaye have a winning chemistry between them, conveying both the love and anger that exist between the siblings, but this is seriously diluted by the ensuing post-apocalypse house party. The resultant muddle, with its artificial who-will-be-the-next-to-die engine, becomes ludicrous all to soon. Next stop The Rewrite Zone.

"Rockets & Blue Lights," presented by and at the Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Bivd., Hollywood. Sept. 2-Oct. 8. (888)