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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Blessed Unrest. CentralWorks' latest collaborative deals with the history and emotions of the environmental movement, as brought to the limelight by Paul Hawken's best-selling book of the same title. The seamlessness of the production – including sound design by Gregory Scharpen and video design by Terry Lamb – underscores the call for all of us to join the mysterious woman who shows up at an international capitalist's home and make the world a better place. However, this call to action is undermined by the framework of the story, which seems stodgily stuck in an old paradigm. The Scroogelike moments when this white businessman is shown the error of his ways are beautifully staged, yet let the audience off the hook. They allow us to already feel more enlightened than this man – who among us in the Bay Area comes with a fondness for unrepentant capitalists? – and fail to challenge us to look at ourselves and what we could and should do. For all the simple pleasures of the production, it falls short of inspiring a desire to actually do something different with our lives. Through Nov. 23 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $14-$25; call 510-558-1381 or visit www.centralworks.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Nov. 5.

The Quality of Life. Set in suburban Ohio and the Northern California hills, Jane Anderson's play about coping with the loss of a loved one contrasts the existences of two very different Baby Boomer couples: churchgoing conservative Midwesterners Dinah and Bill (a warm JoBeth Williams and dogged Steven Culp) and agnostic, liberal left coasters Jeannette and Neil (a sprightly Laurie Metcalf and low-key Dennis Boutsikaris). Yet as different as they may be, the couples are united in one crucial way: They've both experienced a run of rotten luck. When we first meet Dinah and Bill, they're struggling to pull their lives together following the brutal murder of their daughter a year previously. Jeannette and Neil have also endured their fair share of recent hardship: Their house burned to the ground in a rampaging brush fire, and Neil has terminal cancer. Even though the play is entertaining and the production moves rhythmically, The Quality of Life feels stone cold in one important way. Instead of telling us a story, Anderson uses the medium of drama to test opposing theories about love, grief, and death. The stereotyped characters are symbols created to espouse conflicting viewpoints (Christian vs. agnostic; conservative vs. liberal) rather than full-fledged dramatic beings. Ultimately, it's hard for us to fully connect with these people and their pain. Through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $17-$82; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 12.

Shining City. A conventional ghost story would've been far less unsettling. Over the course of a few loosely plotted scenes, Shining City offers frightening insight into people haunted, both literally and figuratively, by varying combinations of ghosts, guilt, loneliness, and dread. The play — written by Irish wunderkind Conor McPherson and making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse — concerns a Dublin businessman (Paul Whitworth) who begins seeing a therapist (Alex Moggridge) after his wife dies in a car accident. McPherson's script is so subtle and so dependent on intricately constructed monologues that it would've been unbearable in the wrong hands. But here, directed with perfect restraint by Amy Glazer, the play quietly creates a world convincing both in its humanity and its bleakness, with patient and therapist mirroring each other's isolation and grief. And while the cast is strong, the greatest credit should go to Whitworth, who masterfully delivers a monster of a monologue that serves to anchor the rest of the play. Shining City generates enormous energy in slowly revealing its characters' failures and fears, and the play's final moment elicits something awfully rare in live theater — audible gasps. It's an ending liable to leave you as haunted as the people onstage. Through Nov. 22 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40; 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Nov. 12.

Victims of Duty. The moments that best capture the surreal zeal of this rarely performed Eugene Ionesco play come in the very last scene, when the ultracomfortable Parisian apartment of well-to-do couple Choubert and Madeleine is filled with knife fights and a seemingly endless parade of coffee cups. If you're not sure of the point of it all, well, that's kind of Ionesco's point, and that of the absurdist theatrical movement he was at the heart of. The play is designed to envelop you with such a rich and surprising juxtaposition of ideas and images that you might just begin to question your quaint worldview. Cutting Ball's production isn't quite up to that task. The actors in particular don't have the chops needed to tease out Ionesco's more subtle mind games, especially as we're descending down memory lane into Choubert's relationship with his parents. But this 85-minute production has enough of the true taste of the unsettling and very funny world of Ionesco to leave you wanting more. Through Nov. 23 at Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), S.F. $15-$30; 419-3584 or www.cuttingball.com. (M.R.) Reviewed Nov. 12.

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