Dangerous. From British playwright Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation to the 1988 movie starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' famous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) has been adapted many times. Playwright Tom Smith's version transports the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, two rival aristocrats who use sex as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others for kicks, to modern-day gay San Francisco. Marcus (Javier Galitó-Cava) and Alexander (Donald G. Emmerich) play the Merteuil and Valmont roles, respectively, with bitchy panache. Strutting about in form-fitting designer outfits (a costume change marks their almost every entrance), the two are evenly matched when it comes to promiscuity, deviousness, and good fashion sense. Coquettish performances from all cast members under Clay David's agile direction make the most of the manipulative sexual power games between Marcus, Alexander, and their various exploits, such as the young priest Trevor (Mike Fallon) and the wealthy and avuncular Rosemonde (Richard Ryan). Yet Smith's overwrought, exposition-riddled plot and cheesy dialogue often make Dangerous feel more like a daytime soap than a play. Through Sept. 25 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 7.
Doing Good. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carré-style thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, whose aim it is to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy. Despite some snappy one-liners and the bombastic live musical accompaniment, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message. Through Oct. 2 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.
Nicholas Nickleby. California Shakespeare Theater's Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by British playwright David Edgar, manages to wrestle the audience's attention away from rustling picnics and the rising moon through ingeniously theatrical staging and an alacrity of pace that makes you almost forget you've been sitting on a cold seat for more than three hours. Dickens' novel -- which follows the seesaw fortunes of the 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate, in the wake of the death of their kindly but bankrupt father -- was initially adapted by Edgar for a 1980 London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Cal Shakes' two-part production, with its 24 actors and 6-1/2-hour running time (both parts together), is a "miniature" version of the original, which employed 48 actors and ran close to nine hours. Edgar himself pared down his RSC text for Cal Shakes. Nickleby owes much of its magic to the combined creativity of directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels. Edgar's adaptation, which swings back and forth between different locations, is fluidly rendered through seamless physical and emotional changes. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, but the general high pitch of the performances, in which every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke, backfires in a number of ways, such as undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top. Through Sept. 18 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway (just off Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 27.
The Overcoat. Gogol's short story "The Overcoat" -- in which an office clerk agonizingly scrimps together enough money to buy a new cloak, only to have it stolen from him the very next night -- is a dark social comedy about an ordinary man's battle to survive in a pitiless landscape full of unintelligible systems and hierarchies. Wendy Gorling and Morris Panych's adaptation of Gogol's story for the stage seems less concerned with the struggles of the Regular Joe than it is a perturbing and brilliant depiction of an introspective artist who, in a moment of madness, chooses to flaunt his true colors to the world. Set entirely to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the story unfolds wordlessly through the gestures and movements of the large ensemble cast, the contrasts of light and shadow, and the manic expressiveness of the Russian composer's bewitching melodies and harmonies. Just as Shostakovich's music veers between tonal and atonal realms, so the protagonist in The Overcoat, delicately personified by the gangly and sprightly haired Peter Anderson, inhabits a world where surface realities give way to nightmarish, internal impulses. Through Oct. 2 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-80; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 7.