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.

Two Rooms. As the title suggests, Lee Blessing's riveting drama takes place in two rooms, undecorated except for the artistry of the four performers. Blindfolded in Beirut, Michael Wells (Jay Martin) is an American professor taken hostage, forced to endure solitude in darkness in the first room while he relates memories and letters to his wife aloud in monologues rife with imagery and mental anguish. A world apart, the second room is empty of furniture but also filled with frustration and longing. In the stark confines of what we understand to be Michael's old study, his wife, Lanie (Mary McGloin), focuses on her husband and considers what drastic or passive measures she might take to bring him home. Lanie's meditations are repeatedly interrupted by Ellen (A.J. Davenport), the government official assigned to address Lanie's pleas for government action, and Walker (Daveed Diggs), a seemingly sympathetic journalist. These three assertive characters debate the delicate retrieval of a nonmilitary prisoner of war. Each possesses a selfish motive for his or her involvement, rendering the dialogue intense and engaging. Tensions play out beautifully in the understated portrayals by Diggs and McGloin, both of whom depict intelligence and emotional maturity as Walker and Lanie make desperate decisions. That Two Rooms, penned in 1988, is still so relevant speaks to its strength -- and to the persistence of flawed U.S. foreign policies. Custom Made has produced a play that is simultaneously pertinent and worthwhile. Through Feb. 11 at the Off-Market Theater, Stage 205, 965 Mission (between Fifth and Sixth streets), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 896-6477 or visit www.custommade.org. (Emily Forbes) Reviewed Feb. 1.

Also Playing

9 Parts of Desire Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

Around the World in 80 Days Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.

BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.

Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Clean House Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro (at Mercy), Mountain View, 650-903-6000.

D*Face New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Dick n' Dubya Show: A Republican Outreach Cabaret The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Family Alchemy Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

from okra to greens/a different kinda love story Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Hamlet La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, 510-234-6046.

Happiness The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

How We First Met The Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Pacific), 217-8400.

The Immigrant San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at South Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255.

Improv Revolution Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

In on It The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 587-4465.

"Intrigue in the Mansion: Murder Mystery Dinner" The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.

Lil' Bit in Love: Love Songs From Broadway Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Love, Chaos & Dinner Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Loveplay Old Oakland Theatre, 461 Ninth St. (at Broadway), Oakland, 510-436-5085.

The Master Builder Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

Miss-matches.com Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Monday Night Improv Jam Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.

Monday Night Marsh The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Nero (Another Golden Rome) Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

New Woman Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.

The Night of the Iguana Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Sorya! Setsubun Sweetheart! Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

Strange Travel Suggestions Marsh Berkeley, 2118 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley.

Theatre District New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Twelfth Night Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman), Berkeley, 510-704-8210.

Uncle Buzzy's Hometown Theater Show Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

"Viva Variety" Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), for more information call 863-0741.

Warsaw Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

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