Our critics weigh in on local theater

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[en]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. In an open-ended run 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.

Killer Joe. Marin Theatre Company's sold-out production of playwright Tracy Letts' Killer Joe has moved to the Magic Theatre, and reactions couldn't be stronger. It's essentially a hillbilly noir set in a Texas trailer park, in which members of the white-trash Smith family (giving new meaning to skid-marked tighty-whities and greasy wife-beater tank tops) hire a contract killer with "eyes that hurt" (a sinister Cully Fredricksen) to kill the dim-witted dad Ansel's ex-wife in order to cash in on a $50,000 insurance policy. But Lee Sankowich's directorial pacing is erratic, and the performers use vastly different styles. The hilarious Howard Swain (as Ansel) appears to have fallen out of a Cheech & Chong movie, while Stacy Ross (as Ansel's new wife, Sharla) is superb in her adulterous realism. The first act ends in a beguiling, slow seduction between the killer and the virginal underage daughter (Anna Bullard); after intermission the show cranks the violence up so high that it rivals the most gleefully disturbing moments of a Tarantino flick. But the excruciating and titillating difference is that this is live theater, not the relative safety of celluloid. Killer Joe's visceral punch to the privates may explain the two outraged audience walkouts on the night I attended as well as the mini-standing ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through July 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $30-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.killerjoesf.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 21.

Like a Dog on Linoleum. Solo performances often teeter on the uncomfortable edge between tiresome personal confessional and manic multiple personality disorder, but Leslie Jordan transcends the genre by bringing a performance to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre that is hysterical, poignant, and, dare I say, endlessly entertaining. If David Sedaris and Tennessee Williams sat down to write a play, it would be Jordan's life as he fashions it. Linoleum presents the veteran character actor and Will & Gracestar seamlessly weaving tales from his childhood in Tennessee, where he twirled his baton on the front lawn ("I was the gayest man I knew"); his lifelong love affairs with bad boys and narcotics ("I'm so grateful to drugs and alcohol — I wouldn't have made it through adolescence without them"); and on into his long career in Hollywood ("I arrived with 200 bucks sewn in my underpants"). The storytelling is effortless, especially as Jordan slips in and out of the characters of various Southern eccentrics. "We don't put crazy people away in the South," he says. "We put them on the porch so everyone can enjoy them." Even as Jordan gets more introspective toward the end, touching on addiction and friends lost to AIDS, he never loses the joyous playfulness of telling a wonderful yarn. Through July 30 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $35-50; call 474-8800 or visit www.lorrainehansberrytheatre.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 14.

San Francisco Improv Festival. Most people shudder when they hear the words "improv comedy" — it's about as popular as a steak in Berkeley. Shaun Landry, the producer of the 2006 San Francisco Improv Festival, obviously doesn't care; she's determined to pull this series of shows off anyway. Last weekend ImprovBoston brought us !Ay Diego!, featuring Will Lurea and Zabeth Russell. The performers started off as Hispanic characters Juanita and Diego, then morphed into everything from a psychiatrist who prescribes a "pirate disguise" as a cure for shyness to a professional sock man who tells his customer, "Ma'am, I like you ... and I like your feet." In a few spots their rhythm was slightly off, but Lurea and Russell have an easy chemistry and a seemingly endless supply of funny material. Next on the bill was True Fiction Magazine, a group of five actors who construct noir comedy shows around titles called out by audience members. The rapport between these performers and the subtle keyboardist who accompanied them was impressive as they crafted a story out of the title "My Ass." This year the festival features improvisational talent from all over America: Keep your eyes peeled for Dad's Garage out of Atlanta; N.Y.C.'s I Eat Pandas, an acclaimed trio that improvises entire musicals; and L.A.'s The Group, under the guidance of veteran director David Razowsky. These acts give us the experience of watching the creation of something that's never happened before and will never happen again. Through July 29 at the Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (between Webster and Buchanan), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call 863-1076 or visit www.sfimprovfestival.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 21.

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