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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Now and at the Hour. Calling it just a "magic show" doesn't seem quite right. Christian Cagigal's Now and at the Hour is part sleight of hand, part personal revelation, and part straight-up creepiness. Some magicians look and behave as if they belong on used-car lots, but not Cagigal — he's rumpled and affable, and it's a pleasure to let him snow you. At a recent performance, he chose me to participate in his first trick, a mind-reading exercise in which he seemed to pluck a fairly random and startlingly specific memory from my brain. I don't know how he managed to do it, but the appearance of occult powers was strong enough to leave me feeling unsettled and slightly violated for the rest of the evening. Between each bit of magic, he tells stories of growing up with his father, a Vietnam vet who suffered from schizophrenia; by show's end, you get the sense that learning the art of illusion was young Cagigal's way of exerting power over a messy reality. Magic is a lonely discipline, full of secrets — but here, at least, is a performer who managed to put all of his childhood loneliness to thrilling use. Through Aug. 15 at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), S.F. $15-$25; 673-3847 or www.sffringe.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed July 8.

The Unexpected Man. "Bitter" may be the first word spoken in Yasmina Reza's ruefully comic strangers-on-a-train duet, but the lasting aura is of disarming geniality. Reza's text, as translated from the French with characteristic mellifluousness by Christopher Hampton, makes superb fodder for Spare Stage cofounder Stephen Drewes' mission-specific presentation: All it requires are two people, two benches, and two pools of light. He is a weary, aged novelist, and the author of the book she happens to have in her purse; she is the thoughtful, loyal reader he's always wanted and never really expected. En route from Paris to Frankfurt, they take turns talking to themselves, spilling banalities and profundities alike from parallel streams of consciousness, and we wait for the golden moment when finally they'll talk to each other. Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, both quite obvious veterans of intimate dramatic simplicity, make as much with silent moments as they do with their respective inner-life soliloquies. Their choices seem singular and organic enough to elasticize the play's conceptual austerity. Bitter it isn't, but instead highly gratifying — both a literary and a theatrical affirmation. Through Aug. 15 at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), S.F. $20-$30; 673-3847 or www.sparestage.com. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed July 29.

A View from the Bridge. A View from the Bridge is the most Greek of Arthur Miller's tragedies, featuring an intractable hero (Richard Harder) whose hubris lies in the delusion that his house is his castle — a delusion that leads only to jealousy, betrayal, and revenge. Off Broadway West has a tendency to select large ensemble dramas that exceed the depth of the company's ensembles; as a result, its productions always offer a few strong lead performances accompanied by much weaker supporting casts. This is especially problematic in a high-tension drama requiring a fair amount of dialect work, since even the strongest moments tend to falter when the wrong performer stumbles onto the scene. The company (now in its third season) might make better use of its obviously limited resources by choosing plays with smaller casts, giving dynamite actors like Harder more of a chance to control the stage. It might even be a good idea to let Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, and Tennessee Williams fend for themselves, and opt instead for more contemporary scripts by lesser-known playwrights. That's how Off Broadway West can begin making a more vital contribution — and avoid the risk of becoming just another middle-of-the-road community theater. Through Aug. 22 at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), S.F. $30; 510-835-4205 or www.offbroadwaywest.org. (C.J.) Reviewed July 22.

Aaron Trotter and the Incident at Bikini Beach: The Thunderbird Theatre Company catches a wave. Starting July 31, Mondays, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 15. EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 931-3847, www.theexit.org.

Actors Reading Writers: Popular local actors read modern and classic short stories. First Monday of every month, 7:30 p.m., free. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, 510-848-7800, www.berkeleycityclub.com.

BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage. Sundays, 7 p.m., $5-$8, www.improv.org. Bayfront Theater, 16 Marina (at Laguna), 474-6776, www.improv.org/shows/bayfront.htm.

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. Now with Rod Blagojevich! Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m., $25-$80, www.beachblanketbabylon.com. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15-$20, www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100, www.sheltontheater.com.

Crisis Hopkins' Improv Soapbox: Improv from the San Francisco troupe. Tue., Aug. 4, 8 p.m., $5, www.crisishopkins.com. Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 263-0830, www.climatetheater.com.

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