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Oscar- and Tony-winning writer John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck) fashioned his most autobiographical piece in this haunting play, now in its West Coast premiere. A surreal dark comedy that recalls Edward Albee's semiabsurdist family dysfunction dramas and Tennessee Williams' poetic memory plays, it seamlessly shifts from comic insanity to abject despair, leading to a shattering resolution. Director Anita Khanzadian's surefooted direction ensures a mesmerizing experience, bristling with intelligent and heartfelt performances and hyper-real dramatic fireworks.

The setting is the Bronx, over a 40-year period beginning during the Vietnam War. The characters simultaneously seem to exist in some sort of bizarre netherworld in which everything seems possible except unconditional expressions of familial love. Shanley's portrait of an Irish-American working-class clan prone to emotional and physical violence is told from the point of view of Johnny (Johnny Clark), the younger son, at the ages of 1–5, 16–18, and then 40. Johnny is a pyromaniac and all-around ornery lad, kicked out of everything from kindergarten to college, as he yearns for the love of his superficially encouraging but emotionally blocked mother (Annie Abbott) and domineering cold-fish father (Eddie Jones). Johnny's excessively cheerful sister Sheila (Kimberly-Rose Wolter) escapes the hellish household via marriage, while his brother Joey (Jeffrey Stubblefield) flees to the Navy, returning from duty as directionless and unfulfilled as ever.

With stunning sensitivity, Clark navigates Shanley's rich complexity of moods and themes, rising to the formidable challenge of anchoring this compelling tragicomedy. Jones is magnificent as the well-meaning patriarch, stymied by his own unhappy upbringing and its crippling legacy. Abbott gives a masterful portrayal as the oedipal matriarch, with shades of Nancy Walker in her sardonically funny line readings and sublime undercurrents of sadness beneath the humor. Stubblefield excels as the restless elder sibling, Wolter is ironically comical as the desperate-housewife-to-be, and Amanda Carlin is hilarious as an over-solicitous nun, Johnny's cousin. Smashing design work—John G. Williams' inspired set pieces, Carol Doehring's ambient lighting, Brian Benison's intoxicating original music, and Gelareh Khalioun's astutely conceived costumes—completes the triumph. VS. Theatre Company does itself proud, delivering one of 2005's finest productions to date.

"Beggars in the House of Plenty," presented by VS. Theatre Company in association with and at the Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sep. 10-Oct. 9. $25. (818) 841-5421.

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