FLAMING SIN: London's Grand Guignol. The most enticing aspect of Thrillpeddlers' latest Grand Guignol theater spectacle is the way it messes with our emotions. The first of the evening's entertainments, a recently rediscovered one-act by Noël Coward, is anything but a lightweight domestic farce. Set in the home of a wealthy, unhappily married woman, the narrative deals with her attempts to force her superficially dashing and upright husband to get in touch with his dark side. The work feels utterly contemporary for its unconventional views on marital relationships, drawn out by Eddie Muller's tight direction and nuanced performances from Alice Louise and Jonathan Ingbretson. Next on the bill is a macabre drama by Christopher Holland, adapted from a seminal French Grand Guignol play. Unraveling in a lunatic asylum, the story concerns an innocent young inmate's ghastly fate at the hands of three delusional old crones. With their lumpy bosoms and frazzled wigs, the titular hags are truly creepy. Powerful sound and lighting effects help to heighten the drama's slow-simmering build toward its inevitable gory conclusion. The emotional rollercoaster continues with a series of bite-sized plays and demented cabaret acts. Anyone left standing thereafter can stay on for a screening of Thrillpeddlers' fascinating Grand Guignol documentary, a special feature on the Tim BurtonSweeney Todd DVD. Through May 10 at The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), S.F. Tickets are $20-34.50; call 377-4202 or visit www.thrillpeddlers.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 23.
Monkey Room. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commissioned this play as part of an initiative to explore the worlds of science and technology through theater. The result feels a bit like a hybrid of medical science documentary and soap opera, with a little of the racing-against-the-clock of Kiefer Sutherland in 24. Set in a meticulously detailed HIV-vaccine research lab (designed by James Faerron), Monkey Room is a peek into the behind-the-scenes drama of one scientist named Ava (the excellent Lauren Grace) desperately trying not to have her funding cut while working on a potential breakthrough HIV vaccine. Playwright Kevin Fisher is an HIV vaccine researcher himself and does his best to mine the inherent drama of this high-stakes field, but there is an odd combination of elements at play in this drama. An awkward romance is written in, and this is also meant to be a bit of comic relief, but it dilutes the pressure-cooker plot. Ava insists her employees work all through the night because the research is paramount, yet then has no trouble spending the evening getting down on the couch. While the acting is top-notch and some questions brought up with the author's insider's view are intriguing — and most certainly current — there doesn't seem to be any new insight shed on this important topic, and that's too bad. Through May 4 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Building D (Laguna at Marina), S.F. Tickets are $20-$45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed April 23.
7 Sins. Halfway through James Judd's entertaining 75-minute solo show at Theatre Rhinoceros' studio, it dawns on you: Who the hell is this guy and why am I laughing so hard? While autobiographical one-person shows are nothing new, it's one thing to keep an audience's attention when you're someone famous like Carrie Fisher (whose run at the Berkeley Rep just ended), and quite another when you're a nobody. Judd, the nobody in question here, gets the audience to root for him as he recounts his life's not-so-serious struggles, from his ill-fated attempt in the fifth grade to be honored for giving the best book report (he unwisely chooses My Search for Patty Hearst) to his stint as a stand-up comedian working in sleazy Las Vegas hotels. Along the way, he always manages to say something during his misadventures that, in retrospect, he knows he probably shouldn't have. When, for instance, a man sitting next to him on the ski lift boasts that his woman is waiting for him at the hotel, Judd, who is gay, retorts that his boyfriend is at home doing his taxes. "I'm going to get a blow job and a refund," he gloats. 7 Sins began years ago as a group show; Judd later adapted it for himself and kept the title, which is somewhat misleading. The deadly sins play, at most, a marginal role in his personal stories. The second half of the show wanders some and could be tightened, but this is a minor gripe. In the end, you'll still leave with a smile on your face. Through May 17 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $10; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (Will Harper) Reviewed April 16.
Thrill Me. In 1924, two bright and privileged young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, killed a boy because they believed they could get away with it. As Loeb, actor William Giammona is riveting in songs such as "Roadster," where he lures their young prey into their car with simple temptations like "I'll let you honk the horn." Creator Stephen Dolginoff wastes no time in this 80-minute piece, deftly using sweeping melodies and pointed lines like "If we killed my brother John, he'd never touch my things" to pull us into the power struggle between these two young men. The love story between Leopold and Loeb doesn't quite come off — mainly because expediency requires Leopold (a sweet and needy Ricardo Rust) tell us directly how he feels about his partner in crime rather than us discovering it in the fullness of time. But once we get to the murder plotting, and the twist Dolginoff throws in at the end about who really is the superior of these two, both the story and the songs carry you along. Through May 4 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $22-$34; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed April 23.