Our critics weigh in on local theater

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The moldering schoolhouse tradition of spelling bees has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season to the forthcoming feature film Akeelah and the Bee. That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other won two Tonys and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Spelling Bee does have its faults. Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous"; attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like a reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident — feel forced; and many of the laughs come cheap. Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways (including inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance), Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40-66; call 771-6900 or visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

Hijra. It's Bombay wedding season, and Nils' mother wants him to marry a beautiful girl, but he's already fallen in love with a pretty boy. Nils plans to take his new love back to New York as his blushing bride with the help of the Hijras — transvestites with magical powers, questionable monologues, and "sacred mutilated genitalia." Hijra is good-natured fun, and NCTC gives us an affable production; the sound, lighting, and luminous costumes all do a lot with a little, and the actors seem to be enjoying themselves. However, Ash Kotak's first full-length play feels slight, like a Bollywood musical with no musical numbers. The filmic episodic structure makes for awkward transitions, especially during the rushed second act, in which the effort to wrap up loose ends creates unearned moments of revelation and resolution. Characters are forced to examine their deep-seated prejudices in novel ways, yet the playwright doesn't quite enable the audience to have the same experience. Kotak touches on issues of classism and homophobia with humor and honesty, but doesn't make any real emotional or intellectual commitment to exploring these topics with any depth. What we're left with is an amiable, curry-flavored, gay-themed soap opera. Through May 21 at New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $20-40, call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed April 19.

How We First Met.Past performances of How We First Met — in which the love life of a couple from the audience is used as a source for improvised songs and sketches — have involved a pair who met online in a Dungeons and Dragons-style chat room and a man who proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of a show. Not every pair invited up to the Purple Onion's diminutive stage will have as thrilling a story to tell, but that shouldn't matter. The production's cast of improvisers reacts quickly to the information they learn about the guests' romance. Creating snappy, relatively tuneful songs and funny skits out of such banalities as Marie Callender's chicken pot pie and the family cat, the performers prove that it is indeed possible to create comic theater out of life's pathetic details. Yet despite the warm atmosphere and all-round goodwill, the performance is hit-and-miss. Inspired moments come and go, and the overuse of the same few ideas becomes predictable. Jill Bourque (who conceived the show in 2001 as a one-off Valentine's Day special) maintains a crisp rhythm by interweaving questions to the guest couple with improvised material and more rehearsed sections involving costumed characters such as an Italian waiter and a beatnik poet. But despite her attentive direction, the costumed sections feel stagey. Still, judging by the demographic variety in the audience, How We First Met speaks to a wide population. Plus, it's quite fun. Through June 30 at the Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Jackson), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 348-6280 or visit www.howwefirstmet.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 19.

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.

Miss-Matches.com: Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story — unabridged!" That's how actor and writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show Miss-Matches.com. This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through July 1 at the Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

Shove. Never trust a group of 12 people who aren't smart enough to get out of jury duty — and certainly don't trust a woman who wants to be on jury duty for the rest of her life. In the uneven Shove, we learn that recent juror Genette had a transformative experience convincing her fellow jurors that the defendant, Lowell, wasn't guilty of shoving a woman in front of an oncoming subway car. She's so proud of her accomplishment that she grabs her "peer," Sheldon, and tracks Lowell down to relive all the good times. The problem is that Genette has a thing for wacko loner psychopaths, and Lowell might just be crazy enough to murder someone. This is a show about the isolated, silently suffering members of the working class and the desperation of urban runaways who can't run away from themselves. It's fertile territory, and the best moments of Shove summon a compelling menace out of everyday activities — giving a hug, waiting for public transpo. The director keeps things brisk, and the well-cast actors appear committed; the catch is that the playwright and the production can't find a consistent tone. Ostensibly, Shove is a dark comedy, but the comedic elements dissipate any dramatic stakes (and vice versa). Ultimately, we're not able to overcome our doubt — reasonable or otherwise. Through May 13 at Off-Market Theaters, Stage 205, 965 Mission (between Fifth and Sixth Sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 896-6477 or visit www.offmarkettheater.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed May 3.

Also Playing

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

Beauty and the Breast Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

Best of PlayGround 10 Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Circus Showcase 2006 Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (at 17th St.), 626-4370.

The Devil on All Sides Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Don Q Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

Family Alchemy: Malamud and Paley Stories on Stage Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

Farewell to the Tooth Fairy Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

The Glass Menagerie Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

Gnome CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission (at Ninth St.), 626-2060.

Hit It Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

Imagination Unleashed Blue Bear Performance Hall, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 885-5678.

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

Long Christmas Ride Home Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.

My Girl Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

A Number Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

The Passion of the Crawford Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.

Schonberg Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.

Small Tragedy Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

Talking With Angels The Actors Center of San Francisco, 3012 16th St. (at Mission), 389-8975.

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

Winnie the Pooh Fort Mason, Bldg. C, Marina & Buchanan.

Women on the Edge Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.

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