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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Helluva Night: No Exit and Tape. This is one lopsided double bill. Expression Productions' Helluva Night offers two plays that have almost nothing in common in treatment or tone; the only vague similarity is that each offers a vision of something like hell, where remorse is pretty much meaningless. Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit is the better-known of the two, but here it suffers from broad performances and sluggish pacing. Avoid it. Stephen Belber's Tape, however, is gripping stuff. Set in a grimy Motel 6 in Lansing, Michigan, the play concerns a burnt-out drug dealer (Tim Meehan) who secretly records his friend (Don Keenan) confessing to date rape, then calls up the victim (Melissa O'Keefe) for an impromptu reunion. Tense, funny, and unpredictable, the play benefits from a pair of beautifully realized performances. Meehan is hilarious and a little heartbreaking as a stoner out of his depth; O'Keefe is even better, the sort of actress who can command attention with a smirk. They're well served by a clever, insightful script that packs a fair number of reversals within its 60-minute running time. That maybe doesn't qualify as a "helluva night," but at least it's one hell of a one-act. Through Aug. 15 at Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa (at Harrison), S.F. $25 per show, $40 double bill; 621-8277 or (Chris Jensen) Reviewed July 29.

Maidrid's Bow. In this quirky and amusing fantasy, heterosexual couples have to fear the wrath of a society that believes the sexes should mix only once a year. It's a world inspired by Amazon lore, where women are warriors and men swoon at fine jewelry. Playwright Morgan Ludlow and the cast and crew do a good job of setting up the aura and rules of this world — perhaps a little too good, as much of the show's two and a half hours are taken up explaining all the details of how this society works rather than on the developing relationship between the hotheaded Maidrid and her wistful suitor, Fars. Yet there is still much to enjoy, including beautiful masks and costumes created by Elise Barley and a delightfully hammy performance from Jason Jeremy as the local soothsayer, Mighty Magora. Even as we titter at the bizarre local customs, such as the mating dance performed the only time the sexes are allowed to intermingle, they also serve as a sly reminder of the bizarreness of some of our own laws about which people can marry and which can't. Through Aug. 9 at Stage Werx, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $12-$24; 302-9182 or (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed July 29.

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 (C. J.) 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 (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed July 29.

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