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 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. Through Sept. 3 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.

Happy End. Are Americans really just a bunch of gangsters and puritans? This uneven mobster musical definitely wants us to consider the possibility. Happy End follows the clichéd good girl/bad boy romance of Salvation Army preacher Lillian Holiday and notorious gangster Bill Cracker. It's easy to see why creators Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann disowned Happy End — slapped together in an effort to capitalize on the success of ThreePenny Opera, it steals liberally from George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara and the B-grade American gangster pictures that fascinated Brecht. More importantly, the play lacks the type of revolutionary intelligence that's coiled behind Brecht's best work. Happy End feels like a parade of insipid American archetypes — the hypocritical religious zealot, the gun-toting mol with a heart of gold, the vaguely mystical Asian mobster — according to Brechtian theory these stock characters are supposed to alienate us from traditionally effective modes of theatrical presentation and make us ponder more important social and political questions. But lacking any engaging intellectual concepts, we are just left with an unimaginative narrative and the type of hooting and hoofing you'd expect from a musical like Guys and Dolls. Every element of this high-gloss production is very competent. However, the cast, designers, and director seem to avoid any real sense of danger and debauchery and it's a shame because that's what truly brings the gangsters and puritans together. Through July 16 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $12-76, call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 5.

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 DragonsÐstyle 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.

Hunter Gatherers. When Richard and Pam, a middle-class, urban married couple in their mid-30s, prepare for a dinner party with their friends Tom and Wendy by slaughtering livestock on the living room carpet, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled from under its feet. What begins as an elegant soiree — featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment — gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. The rules that govern modern-day living soon cease to apply, as playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive. Much of the animal force and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate the tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's riotous comedy shows that the distance between 21st-century city slickers and Paleolithic cave-dwellers might not be so great after all. Through July 23 at Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 5.

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