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.

The Maids. What starts seemingly as children's dress-up soon turns to S/M, erotically charged incest, murder, and an indictment of class and servitude. In Martin Crimp's new translation, the inherently debauched text from celebrated criminal Jean Genet becomes performance poetry, as two young maids (Linnea Wilson and Jennifer Stuckert) perform ritual status games while plotting to kill their mistress (Sigrid Sutter). Wilson and Stuckert are young actors, and at times have difficulty handling the sophisticated language believably, but as the plot deepens, their innocence makes their angst, hatred, and rage all the more understandable. The tight confines of the Exit's Stage Left studio theater are well used in Eric Flatmo's set design, giving us the uncomfortable yet thrilling voyeuristic feeling of witnessing something private and dangerous. Genet, a habitual liar and the illegitimate son of a Parisian prostitute, is said to have lived his life as an "intentional pilgrimage to reach the lowest state of evil," but with The Maids, likely based on a high-profile murder case in 1930s France, he thoughtfully and lyrically illuminates class resentment and subjugation. Director Adriana Baer packages the tale adeptly in this sexy and provoking production. Through Feb. 25 at the Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 8.

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.

Take Me for a Ride ... Cute Girl! Karole Langlois divulges her romantic foibles and triumphs amid the flirtatious energy behind the scenes at the Rhino, the world's longest-running queer theater. Langlois, who plays herself, takes us along on her quest to be more desirable -- or, as she puts it, "fuckable" -- resulting in a personal piece that reads like diary entries twisted into lengthy stand-up comedy. The first half of the show, originally a stand-alone one-act, introduces various sexually energetic women representing comical parts of Langlois' recent past. The second half is literally the result of the first: Each actor sheds her role and portrays herself, revealing just how intimate Langlois and her co-stars became while performing the first act a season ago. Fully clothed sexploits, rife with unabashed necking and groping, feature the self-deprecatingly funny star entangled with gals who are confident and comfortable with their lives and their bodies, even when depicting themselves onstage. Toy joy, tequila shots, and playful teasing contribute to a refreshing view of the lesbian libido bereft of confusion or tragedy. The playwright admits that Ridecan be likened to a personal ad -- a long, horny, somewhat scattered ad. But even as she melts in the heat of this cast's impressive chemistry, the jocular leading lady is likable enough to pull it off. Through Feb. 25 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and South Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (Emily Forbes) Reviewed Feb. 8.

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