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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Clean House. Hot young playwright Sarah Ruhl is on a roll. Still only in her mid-30s, she has won a MacArthur Genius Award; her recent production of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), produced at Berkeley Rep, is about to open on Broadway; and this play, The Clean House, was a 2005 Pulitzer finalist. She deserves all the accolades — her writing feels fresh, entertaining, and important. The Clean House covers a lot of ground, delving into the complex relationships among sisters, lovers, and even the hired help. Carolyn Power is dynamite as Ana, the Argentine whirlwind who enters the somewhat unhappy and stuck lives of the other characters. There's a touch of South American magical realism and Jewish mysticism at work here as they tap into their deeper longings. It takes a delicate balance and commitment to make this script work, and certain amateurish acting choices and production values threaten to undermine it at times. But Ruhl's writing accesses some beautiful and profound places in the heart, and that shines through in this production. Through Oct. 24 at Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster ), S.F. $15-$25; 510-420-0813 or (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 14.

First Day of School. In Billy Aronson's raucous comedy — making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse — well-to-do parents attend to their six-year-old children's prospects with a ferocity arising from barely repressed sexual frustration. We've seen this before, but Aronson adds an ingenious twist: His soccer moms and dads end up planning an annual swingers' party that feels less like a gangbang than a slightly off-kilter PTA function. Unfortunately, as with too many farces, the setup is more involving than the chaos that follows; the carefully modulated tone of the first act can't be sustained throughout the sexual shenanigans of the second and third. Still, the playwright offers a few dazzling speeches for his characters along the way, and all of the actors in director Chris Smith's sharp production relish the intense cleverness of the play's smartest passages. It's too bad that Aronson felt the need to include a blandly comforting ending — at its best, First Day of School is pretty devilish stuff, and it deserves a conclusion with more ironic punch. None of this is to say that you shouldn't see it. An ambitious new comedy is always worth checking out, even if its rewards don't quite negate its shortcomings. Through Nov. 7 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $40; 677-9596 or (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Oct. 14.

South Pacific. There are so many wonderful songs in South Pacific that it's almost impossible to experience a revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1949 musical set on an exotic island during World War II without humming along and tapping your feet. The national tour of the 2008 Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher in some ways provides the perfect setting for maximum enjoyment of hits like "Bali Ha'i," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Happy Talk," "Younger than Springtime," and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy." Set designer Michael Yeargen's simple, almost dowdy-looking island backdrops, Catherine Zuber's period costumes, and Donald Holder's warm, sunset-tinted lighting design are all calibrated to create a balmy, old-fashioned atmosphere without upstaging the music and performers. There are no complicated or flashy scenic effects. Unfortunately, the audience's enjoyment of the singing is hampered by two major details: fussy, extraneous movement by background characters during the production numbers and a lack of any really strong voices onstage. Through Oct. 25 at Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), S.F. $30-$99; 512-7770 or (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 30.

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Under the Gypsy Moon. Storylines don't really matter in a Teatro ZinZanni production; they just provide a loose framework for the circuslike acts everyone comes to see while they enjoy a fancy five-course meal. In the group's latest three-hour show, the Spiegeltent is invaded by thieving gypsies (so much for political correctness), who, in addition to being skilled swindlers, are also (surprise) skilled blues singers, jugglers, and acrobats. As one would expect, the trapeze work is impressive, especially the comic rope-play by Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr, who manage to fall over themselves without falling down. The evening's most satisfying moments, however, happen on the ground. A juggling number set to Prince's "Kiss" is simple but delightful, and Mat Plendl dazzled the audience with his mastery of the hula hoop. Unfortunately, too many of the cabaret's comedy bits are lame. Punny punchlines delivered by a Henny Youngman-like character played by Geoff Hoyle (the original Zazu in the Broadway production of The Lion King) are especially groan-inducing. Those cheesy moments leave a bad taste in your mouth, as does some of the food, which is passable but not stellar. While Under the Gypsy Moon does deliver some magical moments, unless you've got a lot of disposable cash, it's an evening perhaps best left to the tourists to enjoy. Through Jan. 17 at the Spiegeltent, Pier 29 (at Battery), S.F. $117-$195; 438-2668 or (Will Harper) Reviewed Sept. 30.

Bald Soprano: Eugène Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece about dinner. Starting Oct. 23, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 22. Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 931-3847,

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.; Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m.; Fridays, 6:30 p.m., $25-$80, 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, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100,

Brain-Dead Alive: The Primitive Screwheads bring the blood. Sat., Oct. 24; Thu., Oct. 29; Fri., Oct. 30; Sat., Oct. 31. Great Star Theater, 630 Jackson (at Kearny).

Breve: An abbreviated version of Under the Gypsy Moon, for lunch. Saturdays. Continues through Nov. 21, $73-$94. Teatro ZinZanni, Piers 27 and 29 (Embarcadero & Battery), 438-2668,

Creature: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from the perspective of the monster. Starting Oct. 23, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 7, The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081,

Dogsbody: Theatre of Yugen's adaptation of The Iliad. Oct. 22-24, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third St.), 978-2787,

The Future Project: Sunday Will Come: A collaboration between Sean San Jose and dancer Erika Chong Shuch, among others. Through Nov. 7, 8 p.m., $15-$25. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311,

Goldfish: A comedy by John Kolvenbach. Through Nov. 8. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina & Buchanan), 441-8822,

Halloween in the Castro: New horror opera. Oct. 23-31, 8 p.m., $20-$40, Metropolitan Community Church, 150 Eureka (at 18th St.), 863-4434,

Hamlet: Performance by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival; actors discuss the production afterward. Sat., Oct. 24, 2 p.m. Glen Park Branch Library, 2825 Diamond (at Bosworth), 355-2858,

Hasheesh Eater: Fritz Hugh Ludlow's play set in old San Francisco. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through Oct. 31, Mama Calizo's Voice Factory, 1519 Mission (at Van Ness), 690-9410,

Heidi Chronicles: Wendy Wasserstein's award-winning play. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Oct. 24. The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), 333-6389.

Her Naked Skin: A performance by the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through Oct. 31. Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320,

Hold Me Closer Tiny Dionysus: A retelling of Euripides' The Bacchae, with Ms. Trixxie Carr. Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through Oct. 24. Mama Calizo's Voice Factory, 1519 Mission (at Van Ness), 690-9410,

I Heart Hamas: Tragicomic solo show by Jennifer Jajeh, about the Middle East. Thursdays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through Oct. 24, $20, Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 820-1656,

I Prefer Fur: Victoria Doggett's play about a man, a woman, and a cat. Sun., Oct. 25; Sun., Nov. 1; Sun., Nov. 8; Sun., Nov. 15. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 820-1656,

International Czech Theater Festival: Visiting Czechs join the Flying Actor Studio for new physical theater. Oct. 21-28, $15-$35. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Jekyll & Hyde: The Gothic Musical: Presented by the Royal Underground Theatre Company. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through Oct. 31. Fort Mason, Laguna & Bay, 345-7500,

Little Dog Laughed: Douglas Carter Beane comedy, directed by Ed Decker. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 8. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972,

Loveland: A solo comedy by Ann Randolph. Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through Nov. 14. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Meet the Samsas: Inspired by Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, directed by Sarah Beth Parks. Through Oct. 24. Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Sixth St.), 776-1747,

Monday Night Marsh: On select Mondays a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others takes the stage at this regular event that's hosted local celebs like Josh Kornbluth and Marga Gomez in the past; see for a lineup of future shows. Mondays, $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Mrs. Whitney: John Kolvenbach's comedy about heartbreak. Oct. 21-Nov. 22. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822,

New Works at the Marines: The first show in the ongoing series is Rick Reynolds' Love, God, Sex (and other stuff I don't have). Mondays, Tuesdays. Continues through Nov. 17. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900,

Night of the Living Artist: A benefit for Climate Theater with a host of performers, including John Gilkey, Tim Barsky, The Miscreants Cabaret, and Pi Clowns. Sat., Oct. 24, 9 p.m., $20. Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 263-0830,

Not a Genuine Black Man: Brian Copeland's solo show opens once again. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through Nov. 22. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 820-1656,

November: David Mamet's comedy about President Charles Smith and his bid for reelection. Oct. 23-Nov. 22. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228,

Pearls Over Shanghai: Thrillpeddlers brings back the Cockettes. Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through Jan. 1, $30. The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 377-4202,

Point Break Live!: The boys are back in town again. Starting Oct. 23, Fridays, Saturdays, 9 p.m. Continues through May 1, Metreon, 101 Fourth St. (at Mission), 369-6000,

Rabbi Sam: Charlie Varon's solo show about a rabbi who wants to reinvent American Judaism. Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through Nov. 22. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Reckless: San Francisco Free Civic Theatre's production of Craig Lucas' comedy. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through Oct. 25. Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood (at 18th St.), 831-6810,

Shocktoberfest!: Grand Guignol terror plays. Thursdays, Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 31, 11:59 p.m. Continues through Nov. 20, $25-$69. The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 377-4202,

Shopping! The Musical: Songs and sketches about shopping. Fridays, Saturdays, $23-$29, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100,

Stateless: A Hip-Hop Vaudeville Experience: A multimedia collage by Dan Wolf and Tommy Shepherd. Starting Oct. 22, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Dec. 6. Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 292-1233,

Tales from the Dark Room: New tales of terror each weekend. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through Oct. 24, $20. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987,

Theatresports: Clash of the Heroes: Performances by BATS Improv. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 1, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-6776,

The Who's Tommy: Ray of Light Theatre takes on the rock concert. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 7. Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (at Capp), 863-7576,

Wicked: Meet the witches of Oz. Through Jan. 3, 2010. Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 551-2000.

The Woman in Black: A classic ghost story set on England's bleak coast. Starting Oct. 23, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 14, The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Post), 989-0023,

Zombie: A New Musical: Playwright and director Anthony R. Miller's brain-eating tragicomedy. Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through Oct. 31. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 931-3847,

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