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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Coronado. Dennis Lehane is the current go-to guy for gritty drama soaked in family tragedy. He wrote books that were adapted for the screen for Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. In 2004, he joined the writing staff of The Wire, HBO's brilliant and critically lauded crime drama. As for his theater work, Lehane wastes no time getting down and dirty. Within the first five minutes of Coronado, we're drawn into a world of missing diamonds, bullets to the head, blackmail, and murder. On an absolutely stellar set (with SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English doing double duty as set designer and actor) depicting a rundown bar on the edge of a desert, a group of stories unwind and intertwine, linking each character to a heady world of adultery and deception. Stacy Ross is electric as a woman trying to forget her past ("There are worse crimes than murder") while simultaneously blackmailing and carrying on an affair with her therapist. Lehane's script and Susi Damilano's direction give this production a slick, sexy cinematic vibe but don't ignore the haunting undercurrent of transgression and regret. At its dark, twisted heart, Coronado is a reflection of the crossroads we encounter, the (sometimes disastrous) choices we make, and the regret we're forced to live with. This is heavy stuff, but this skillful production makes it all eminently pleasurable to watch. Through April 26 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-$65; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed April 2.

Fences. August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play gets a moving production from the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Alex Morris deftly captures the pride and the fury of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball star now, in 1957 Pittsburgh, a garbageman fighting to raise his family the way he deems best. There are moments in the almost-three-hour production where there doesn't seem to be a whole lot happening on Robert Broadfoot's handsome set, such as when Troy is shooting the breeze and polishing off a flask with his old friend Bono (a charming Vernon D. Medearis). But Wilson makes good on all the small seeds he sows, and director Stanley E. Williams gets compelling performances from Elizabeth Carter as Troy's dedicated, hard-working wife, and Axel Avin Jr. as Troy's youngest son, Cory, a talented football player yearning to become his own man. By the end of the night you feel as if you have been on a deep, satisfying journey, as Troy and his family struggle to make the best lives they can. Through April 20 at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $18-$32; call 474-8800 or visit www.lhtsf.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed April 9.

Mrs. Warren's Profession. Approaching the plays of George Bernard Shaw as if they were typical 19th-century drawing-room dramas is like tying a lead weight to your foot before jumping in the pool. Sure, your swimming or theatrical talents might eventually get you to the other side, but the journey won't be nearly as enjoyable as it could be. Alas, such is the case with Shotgun Players' production of Shaw's rumination on the ups and downs of the world's oldest profession. Aside from some nice half-doors, director Susannah Martin and set designer Steve Decker's faithful detailing of the nooks and crannies of the Warren summer home adds little to the drama, and a lot in the way of obstacles and cumbersome rotating pieces to hamper the action. Martin gets good work from her actors, who are mostly game and do their best to liven up the piece. Emily Jordan as Vivie Warren and Joseph O'Malley as her would-be lover Frank are particularly winsome, embracing Shaw's language and rhetoric with gusto. But ultimately the production, weighed down by its devotion to the drawing-room style the playwright himself was subverting, never lets Shaw's intellectual flights of fancy get off the theatrical ground. Through April 27 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr.), Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (M.R.) Reviewed April 2.

Strange Travel Suggestions. Jeff Greenwald has a mantra when embarking on one of his many treks to far-flung global destinations: "May all of your travels make a fool of you." In the return of this sublime 90-minute night of improvised storytelling, Oakland resident Greenwald, a best-selling travel writer, ponders the primal nature we take with us on journeys and the soulful adventures to be had when veering off a planned itinerary. His stories are different each night, and solely dependent on the spin of a beautiful wheel covered with hieroglyphics placed center stage. On the night I attended, the wheel stopped at "oracles," "meals of misfortune," and "magicians," and rip-roaring tales were told with Nepal, Iran, and Northern India as their backdrops. While Greenwald often finds himself in dangerous or awkward situations (such as trying to smuggle an endangered snow leopard to safety in Katmandu), he has a deep knowledge of local religions and customs, which keeps this from being a clichéd evening about bumbling tourists in strange lands. While indeed improvised, these stories are beautifully formed and truly riveting. The legendary and neurotic New York monologuist Spalding Gray always dreamed of moving to Northern California to become more of a wizened, worldly sage. If he had, he might have become the wonderful Jeff Greenwald. Through April 26 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$35; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (N.E.) Reviewed April 9.

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