Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Censor. Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson's 1997 drama The Censor has the distinction of being the second Last Planet production in a row to feature a scene in which a woman takes a shit onstage. For all that, The Censor is actually a tender little play; disturbing perhaps, but not shocking. Telling the story of a blue movie director's attempt to persuade a government censor to pass her hard-core porn flick for screening, the work explores censorship at its most public and private levels. Over a taut, 80-minute denouement, the titular Censor (John Andrew Stillions), a self-described "repressed, anally retentive apparatchik," learns a thing or two about the difference between sex and love from porn queen Shirley Fontaine (Emma Victoria Glauthier) — and, in so doing, unleashes long-suffocated inner desires. Despite the monosyllabic performances, the humor and surrealism of artistic director John Wilkins' Vaseline-slick, intimate production thwart our expectations. Offending parts remain coyly concealed behind furniture and clothing, only limply echoed through the grainy footage of humping bodies projected intermittently on a floating scrim. We don't get to glimpse so much as a hint of flesh or feces, but there's plenty of love. Through Aug. 19 at Last Planet Theatre, 351 Turk (between Hyde and Leavenworth), S.F. Tickets are $15-18 (and two-for-one on Thursdays); call 440-3505 or visit www.lastplanettheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 2.

The Heidi Chronicles. This bittersweet comedy is considered a modern classic for good reason — it's smart, heartfelt, and has deep human resonance. It's Wendy Wasserstein's masterpiece, and one of the few great American plays to emerge from the 1980s (it won the Pulitzer). The Heidi Chronicles follows art historian Heidi Holland through four decades of personal upheaval. Her journey provides an interesting counterpoint to the social and political spirit of the times, whether the revolutionary fervor of the '60s or the confused capitalist compromise of the '80s. Wasserstein, who died on Jan. 30 at age 55, found in Heidi a clear-eyed tour guide through recent history as well as a witty and pleasurable protagonist. The piece takes place in the New York that anyone who's ever loved Woody Allen's movies imagines, in which everyone has the sharp wit and intellect that makes for good company and killer dialogue. Director Brian Katz hones in on the distinctly East Coast rhythms of Wasserstein's language and makes the words dance. The cast is a mixed bag, but even when the technique falters the enthusiasm is obvious. Leah S. Abrams brings an appealing Everywoman charisma to Heidi, David Fierro knocks his Scoop Rosenbaum out of the park, and Fred Pitts has a lovely, moving turn as Heidi's best friend. It's a distinct joy to watch an excellent script performed with passion. Through Aug. 12 at the Custom Stage at Off-Market, 965 Mission (between Fifth and Sixth sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 896-6477 or visit www.custommade.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 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 Aug. 20 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.

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 miniÐstanding ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through Aug. 13 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.

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