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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Burn This. At the center of this play about lifestyle divides is the coked-out restaurateur Pale -- a dangerous and coarse fireball of machismo who invades the lives of a New York dancer named Anna, her scriptwriting boyfriend, Burton, and Larry, a flamboyant adman, all of whom are trying to grieve the death of their gay roommate. What results is an animalistic apples-and-oranges love affair between the brute Pale and the refined Anna. The fatal flaw of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson's script is that the audience is subjected to endless reminiscing and chest-pounding about a character who never appears onstage and is dead before the action begins. As Larry, Nate Levine provides much-needed comic relief with his quick-witted repartee, and Benjamin Fritz brings depth and sensitivity to Pale (a part written originally for John Malkovich and more recently played by Edward Norton) as he struggles with his brother's homosexuality and a romance that can never work. Shortcomings aside, Christopher Jenkins' production truly touches on a feeling of unrest that permeates today's society. As Anna says, "I'm sick of the age I'm living in. I don't like feeling ripped off and scared." Through Feb. 19 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (between Oak and Fell), S.F. Tickets are $20-38; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 1.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters -- an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie -- through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

"The Mystery Plays." Fantastic Four comic-book writer and Yale playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa steals from The Twilight Zone, H.P. Lovecraft, and Hitchcock in his bid to be the theatrical heir to M. Night Shyamalan. This slick production is actually two otherworldly plays about mystery, sin, dark secrets, and, as one character puts it, what happens to human beings when "God [is] looking the other way." In The Filmmakers Mystery a Hollywood director (T. Edward Webster) is haunted by a ghost after finding himself the sole survivor of a gruesome train crash -- think Shyamalan's Unbreakable, complete with twist ending. This is followed by Ghost Children, which explores the bloody ties and secrets between an attorney (Cristina Anselmo) and her brother (Chris Yule), who's serving life in jail for the murder of their parents. The superb cast (with standout Rod Gnapp as the Rod Serling-like narrator) and sci-fi production values create an engaging eeriness, but the potential for real creepiness is lost in Aguirre-Sacasa's script, which plays like a stylized, staged reading of a screenplay, relying too heavily on a protagonist's first-person narrative while all the juicy action happens offstage. Perhaps this is why the playwright is currently working on a big movie deal. Through Feb. 11 at the S.F. Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Jan. 18.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $38-70; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24, 2005.

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