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Our critics weigh in on local theater

All My Sons. Arthur Miller's 1947 breakthrough play was a sort of proto–Law and Order episode. It was ripped from the headlines and elaborated into an existentially suspenseful and socially critical whodunit, complete with riveting last-act confession, subsequent emotional wallop, and sudden final curtain. But as its central figure insists, presumably on the playwright's behalf, "I want ya to see it human. Human! Ya know?" Actors Theatre's production makes good strides toward that end. The action takes place over the course of an August day in a Midwestern backyard. It involves an industrialist (Randy Hurst) alleged to have knowingly supplied defective engine parts to American planes in World War II, with his pilot son long missing and presumed killed; his wife (director Joyce Henderson), deep in denial; and their other son (Nicholas Russell), more comfortable inheriting his brother's fiancée (Nahry Tak) than dad's prosperous business. That the play looks so good for its age is a credit to its author and to actors who inflect their characters with just enough contemporary-seeming intangibles. With heaps of humanity provided by Henderson's wounded matriarch and Russell's disheartened scion especially, it's a lived-in and long-lasting parable of greed, guilt, and the ceaseless burdens of filial responsibility. Through June 25 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (at Mason), S.F. $10-$35; 296-9179 or www.actorstheatresf.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.

Giant Bones. By rights, the premiere run of Giant Bones is where everything could go wrong. Its structure is a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. It's a fantasy, filled with unfamiliar elements and species. It has a large cast whose characters are difficult to keep track of (one is frequently referred to as Blond Ingénue, another as Brown Ingénue), with each actor playing multiple parts. Intimidated? Better to be intrigued: It all works. Giant Bones is that rare play that does everything perfectly. The plot, a collection of fables woven into the story of how a theater troupe was banished from a city, is easy to follow. The script, based on short stories by Peter S. Beagle, is engaging, funny, and profound (in that order), and the actors have great fun chewing the scenery in the first act and turning in deft and nuanced performances in the second. The set is minimal but evocative; the sound cues are superb. Okay, the theater was too warm — that didn't go right — but everything else makes for a high-energy, thought-provoking show. I'd suggest keeping your programs so you can say you were there, but audience members get a free, limited-edition Beagle book as a memento. See? Giant Bones just nails it. Through June 19 at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Mason), S.F. $20-$30; 650-728-8098 or www.giantbonesplay.com. (Benjamin Wachs) Reviewed June 9.

Hot Greeks. To complement their wildly successful (and deservedly so) run of Pearls over Shanghai (running through August), Russell Blackwood and his merrily debaucherous Thrillpeddlers are simultaneously putting on the only other scripted Cockettes musical, Hot Greeks. It's a loose interpretation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (the women of Greece try to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their men), in which the soldiers are college footballers and the women are cheerleaders. Most of the actors are in drag (if in clothes at all), plenty of double entendres are involved ("Everybody's got a buddy on the front"), and exposed cocks are — often literally — flying everywhere. The plot is paper-thin, but the company's enthusiasm, the lush costuming, and some of the songs ("The Hot Twat of Tangier") are quite entertaining. The second act, hosted by original Cockette composer and actor Scrumbly Koldewyn, plays as a depraved history and cabaret performance of random songs from other 1970s Cockettes productions, including the hilarious "Journey to the Center of Uranus!" Greeks feels more like a B-side to the truly thrilling Pearls, but together they revive a sexy history and tradition that feels truly San Francisco. It's freakishly fun. Through June 27 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), S.F. $30-$69; 800-838-3006 or www.thrillpeddlers.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed May 5.

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In the Wake. As she did with her award-winning play, Well, the profoundly talented playwright Lisa Kron continues her exploration of the blind spots of the middle class. With In the Wake, she presents Ellen (the superb Heidi Schreck), a thirtysomething white, well-spoken liberal in a bubble of her own demographic — like many folks in the Bay Area. Set during the disputed Bush/Gore election of 2000 and through the start of the Iraq war — an "incomprehensible time," in Ellen's view — we meet a woman in intellectual and emotional crisis as chinks in her armor start to appear. She can see everyone else's weaknesses, but struggles to spot her own flaws. Kron writes all sides thoroughly and brilliantly; she has no political agenda except perhaps to show that interconnectedness is the key to understanding our experience. This play is a powerful statement that we must question everything and everyone — including ourselves. Through June 27 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. $13.50-$71; 510-647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org. (N.E.) Reviewed May 26.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The midshow sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on subpar sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. Open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. $25-$29; 800-838-3006 or www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14, 2006.

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