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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The American Dream. There's a definite absurdist quality to Boxcar Theatre's production of Edward Albee's The American Dream. Artistic directors Peter Matthews and Nick Olivero originally wanted to perform it in the living-room section of an IKEA store. Instead, they opted to cram four actors and 16 audience members into actual living rooms throughout San Francisco. The night I attended was at "Carol's House," and the stools were uncomfortable, elbow room was nonexistent, and the actors were practically sitting on my lap. Perhaps it's apropos staging for Albee's off-kilter absurdist drama that is an unsympathetic examination of the modern human condition, attacking complacency and artificial values. Written in 1960, Dream introduces us to a perfect American family with characters named simply Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma, but soon a nightmarish undercurrent kicks in, with allusions to a dead and mutilated son. The script feels like an awkward attempt to get at themes (cruelty, emasculation, resentment) Albee covers with much more impact in his 1962 follow-up, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Boxcar's unique staging offers audiences an inspired, voyeuristic look into family dysfunction, but fails to establish itself as a drama or comedy. This lack of cohesive tone leaves us ungrounded in Albee's absurd reality. Through Dec. 20 at rotating S.F. locations. $25; call 776-1747 or visit www.boxcartheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 10.

The Arabian Nights. Mary Zimmerman's theatrical retelling of narratives from the ancient Middle Eastern story cycle also popularly known as The Thousand and One Nights is all about the power of riveting stories to bring the hidden to light and resuscitate long-dormant truths in society. Concealment is a running theme throughout. It's there in the main plot concerning the ruthless King Shahryar, who, in revenge at having caught his wife in the arms of another man, vows to murder every virgin in the land. But the wily Scheherezade manages to staunch his bloodlust by telling him a series of incredible stories that distract him from killing her. Eventually, Scheherezade helps the king rediscover his buried compassion. With the help of dozens of brightly colored Persian rugs, a canopy of hanging lanterns, and 15 versatile ensemble performers who match vivid characterizations with flamboyant musical, dancing, improvisational comedy, and storytelling skills, Zimmerman creates a multilayered world. This visually and intellectually captivating production reveals a deep connection between a civilization and its heritage, no matter how buried beneath the sands of war-torn time that cultural legacy might be. However, as universal as Zimmerman's approach to her material appears on the surface, its political subtext, concerning the imminent destruction of the Middle East, feels passé. Through Jan. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-$71; call 510- 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 10.

Evie's Waltz. The Magic Theatre's new artistic director, Loretta Greco, has hit a second solid home run with Evie's Waltz. It takes about half an hour before you realize how enthralling and complex Carter W. Lewis' new drama really is. At first, it seems to be a rather clichéd struggle of ideals between "crazy dangerous" teenager Evie (for whom everything is "lame") and her boyfriend's disconnected suburban parents (everything is better with alcohol and denial), but after the second gunshot, all this changes. Lewis constructs an unrelenting crucible set on the parents' back porch, placing their son (who never appears) up the hill, watching the action through the telescopic sight of a loaded hunting rifle. On one level, Waltz is a multilayered look at family dysfunction in which every character has inflicted painful psychological damage on the others. On another, it's a far-reaching commentary on the highly volatile disconnect between well-meaning parents and the teenage search for identity. The tension between the sarcastic, alcoholic Gloria (Julia Brothers) and her happy-go-lucky, lying husband, Clay (Darren Bridgett), could be a thrilling drama itself, with all the fire of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But throw in the young, righteous, and destructive Evie (Marielle Heller), and this play explodes into a thought-provoking Columbine-esque Romeo and Juliet. Through Dec. 21 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina and Buchanan), S.F. $40-$45; 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Nov. 26.

The Great Puppet Bollywood Extravaganza. An idea brimming with as much ambition as wackiness never jells in this latest offering from the Un-Scripted Theater Company. True, the show changes every night — that's kind of the thrill of a completely improvised two-hour Bollywood-style puppet musical comedy. But the uneven improv instincts of some of the performers, who fall back on pensive silence or who lack the chops for the intricate Indian singing style, doesn't bode well for any location and theme audiences might throw at them. There will still likely be some great moments of puppet comic relief — you might get treated to a romantic lead who looks like a mop with eyeballs, or a slo-mo invisible sword fight. And you'll be impressed with how the cast and director Mandy Khoshnevisan have created a coherent and even surprisingly touching story by night's end. But the group brought together for this show has yet to find the rhythm and punch needed to make the whole night sing. Through Dec. 20 at SF Playhouse, Stage 2, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $10-$20; call 869-5384 or visit www.un-scripted.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Dec. 10.

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