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Our critics weigh in on local theater

It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play.Since premiering in 1996, Joe Landry's "live radio play" adaptation of the 1946 movie classic It's a Wonderful Life has become popular among theater companies around the country. But if Actors Theatre's enthusiastic though undercooked staging is anything to go by, the 1940s-style wireless take on Frank Capra's story about a despairing man whose life is saved by a guardian angel doesn't breathe new life into Capra's Life. In keeping with the cozy nostalgia associated with postwar radio broadcasts, this production features a couple of endearing conceits: We viewers are treated like members of a live studio audience. A stage manager holds up an "applause" banner every now and again, and the cast performs advertisements from the show's sponsors. Unfortunately, this Life isn't as wonderful as it could be, because the actors — eyes glued to their scripts — seem to forget that this is a stage play, too. Many of the performers have charismatic voices, and they certainly look the parts in their hairnets and suspenders. Yet the show lacks theatricality. It's entertaining watching Malinda Hackett as the stage manager grabbing at whistles, telephones, and wine bottles, sloshing her arms about in a bucket of water, and jumping up and down to open and close a door in an attempt to create the show's soundscape. But director Kenneth Vandenburg doesn't exploit the sonic potential as much as he could. The work remains as predictably tepid as a door-to-door rendition of "Silent Night." Through Dec. 23 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 345-1288 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 13.

Luminescence Dating. "Have you seen a 7-foot naked statue that seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth?" This is the central mystery driving ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff's new romantic thriller about three archaeologists linked in an obsessive search for the Praxiteles Aphrodite, a tall marble nude that aroused fixations in 5th-century B.C. before vanishing without a trace. When a disturbing burial ground of murdered children is excavated in Cyprus, the mystery of the missing statue deepens. Much of the play's dynamic tension comes from the characters' opposing professional ideologies. Driven by instinct, emotion, and (at times unethical) passion, Angela (René Augesen) clashes with former lover Nigel (Stephen Barker Turner), a military historian who has no patience for subjectivity in his research. Victor (an excellent Gregory Wallace) provides needed humor as the queer theorist caught between the other two. Perloff is too zealous in trying to link the past with the present, and her writing is sometimes unconvincing — for example, when the cranky old cleaning lady (Ching Valdes-Aran) starts to creep around as if channeling Aphrodite and growl out lover's advice, and when Nigel's personal life starts to mimic the final revelation of their archaeological dig. Beyond these glitches, however, Dating works wonderfully as a thrilling and intellectually stimulating Indiana JonesÐstyle puzzle. Through Dec. 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $31-40; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 13.

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.

Reckless. It's Christmas Eve, and Rachel, a loving mother and wife, has just discovered that her husband has taken a contract out on her life. This realization causes her to step out the window — literally — and into a new life, where the only permanence is impermanence and "home" is wherever she can find it. Reckless examines the nature of identity: What happens to someone whose life is defined by family when she loses that family? Playwright Craig Lucas examines how we construct our sense of self in a series of rapid-fire, increasingly surreal scenes with the soft, psychoanalytic feel of Marc Chagall paintings. Bill English's pastel set and Jon Retsky's dreamlike lighting help illuminate Lucas' themes and tell the story of Rachel's yearlong journey. The cast is strong and clearly believes in the script. Mark LaRiviere, playing both Rachel's husband and her son, brings a convincing, angsty charisma to the stage. Rod Gnapp reveals impressive technical excellence and adds subtle emotional layering to Lloyd, a stranger who becomes an adopted father figure. Susi Damilano, as Rachel, is both attractive and compelling, finding truth in all the shades of her character and reminding us that wisdom often lies just on the other side of hardship. Reckless is a holiday treat. Through Dec. 30 at S.F. Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $18-60; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Nov. 22.

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