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These dark and delightful vignettes about contemporary romance provide a captivating vehicle for this talented ensemble of actors, writers, and directors. If there is a theme for the evening, it is the off-center view of romance as a kind of horrible, random act—not quite as bad as terrorism, perhaps, but in the same general vicinity. Love is played out amid the ruins of our once-bright expectations.

The darkest pieces are from writer Clay Hazelwood, who takes his romance with a heavy dose of violence. In "Pulling Petals, Poison Lipstick," a jilted boyfriend (Anthony Roman) stalks a woman (Dylan Jones) through every corner of her life until she finally arranges for his gruesome murder. And in "Black Market Leisure Time," Hazelwood presents a statuesque, futuristic mind policewoman (Mollie Milligan), who has set her sights on a hapless stay-at-home type (Don Cesario). While none of this material sounds like sitcom-laughter fare, it does provide plenty of laughs, along with real insights.

Playwright/actor Tony Foster contributes several fanciful pieces. "The Maltese Pineapple" is a takeoff on the 1930s film-detective genre loaded with lots of funny, groaner puns. Alexandra Hoover is winning as the hard-bitten private eye, and Foster is wickedly spry as her client. Foster's "Snap," about a chance encounter in the park, is mostly notable for a dazzling performance by Nicole Fazio, who sizzles with comic energy, and also for the strong work of Alan Clark and Annie Morse. Another Foster piece, "It's a Saturday Night," about a Starbucks date between a UPS guy and a FedEx gal, features solid performances by Matt Sturiale and Megan Dolan.

Louis Jacobs writes and performs in the refreshing "Wedding Lament," with David Fofi, which proves that men have feelings, too, as a couple of buddies commiserate about their romantic failures. The offbeat "Muppet Maiden," written and performed by Alexandra Hoover, shows how loneliness can assume outrageous proportions when a woman struggles with her long-term relationship with a Muppet. "My Three Dicks," written by Daniel McCoy, is a fine verse coda about a man courting three lovers simultaneously.

The strong performances, fine writing, and versatile direction of these short pieces reinforce the originality and talent of this fine theatre group. Above all, the pieces project an artistic vision and voice that can contribute much to the Los Angeles theatre scene.

"Love Bites," presented by and at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. May 3-June 1. $15. (323) 962-0046.

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