The Heidi Chronicles. This bittersweet comedy is considered a modern classic for good reason it's smart, heartfelt, and has deep human resonance. It's Wendy Wasserstein's masterpiece, and one of the few great American plays to emerge from the 1980s (it won the Pulitzer). The Heidi Chronicles follows art historian Heidi Holland through four decades of personal upheaval. Her journey provides an interesting counterpoint to the social and political spirit of the times, whether the revolutionary fervor of the '60s or the confused capitalist compromise of the '80s. Wasserstein, who died on Jan. 30 at age 55, found in Heidi a clear-eyed tour guide through recent history as well as a witty and pleasurable protagonist. The piece takes place in the New York that anyone who's ever loved Woody Allen's movies imagines, in which everyone has the sharp wit and intellect that makes for good company and killer dialogue. Director Brian Katz hones in on the distinctly East Coast rhythms of Wasserstein's language and makes the words dance. The cast is a mixed bag, but even when the technique falters the enthusiasm is obvious. Leah S. Abrams brings an appealing Everywoman charisma to Heidi, David Fierro knocks his Scoop Rosenbaum out of the park, and Fred Pitts has a lovely, moving turn as Heidi's best friend. It's a distinct joy to watch an excellent script performed with passion. Through Aug. 12 at the Custom Stage at Off-Market, 965 Mission (between Fifth and Sixth sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 896-6477 or visit www.custommade.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 19.
Hunter Gatherers. When Richard and Pam, a middle-class, urban married couple in their mid-30s, prepare for a dinner party with their friends Tom and Wendy by slaughtering livestock on the living room carpet, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled from under its feet. What begins as an elegant soiree featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. The rules that govern modern-day living soon cease to apply, as playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive. Much of the animal force and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate the tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's riotous comedy shows that the distance between 21st-century city slickers and Paleolithic cave-dwellers might not be so great after all. Through Aug. 20 at Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 5.
Killer Joe. Marin Theatre Company's sold-out production of playwright Tracy Letts' Killer Joe has moved to the Magic Theatre, and reactions couldn't be stronger. It's essentially a hillbilly noir set in a Texas trailer park, in which members of the white-trash Smith family (giving new meaning to skid-marked tighty-whities and greasy wife-beater tank tops) hire a contract killer with "eyes that hurt" (a sinister Cully Fredricksen) to kill the dim-witted dad Ansel's ex-wife in order to cash in on a $50,000 insurance policy. But Lee Sankowich's directorial pacing is erratic, and the performers use vastly different styles. The hilarious Howard Swain (as Ansel) appears to have fallen out of a Cheech & Chong movie, while Stacy Ross (as Ansel's new wife, Sharla) is superb in her adulterous realism. The first act ends in a beguiling, slow seduction between the killer and the virginal underage daughter (Anna Bullard); after intermission the show cranks the violence up so high that it rivals the most gleefully disturbing moments of a Tarantino flick. But the excruciating and titillating difference is that this is live theater, not the relative safety of celluloid. Killer Joe's visceral punch to the privates may explain the two outraged audience walkouts on the night I attended as well as the miniÐstanding ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through Aug. 13 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $30-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.killerjoesf.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 21.
The Legendary and Fabulous Passion Play. In El Gato Del Diablo Theatre Company's playful reimagining of the Passion play (a dramatic representation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus popular in medieval times), the disciples are a bunch of born-again queers, and the Son of God a transsexual. When four twentysomethings find themselves shunned by their friends and families for falling in love with the wrong people, they turn to Jesús Esperanza, a streetwise drag queen with a maternal streak and a serious migraine problem, for guidance. Featuring a disco-dancing competition (slickly choreographed by Wendy Marinaccio), a double gay wedding, and choruses from members of a sinister religious cult, Shawn Ferreyra's fluorescent comedy is as Messianic as a Mexican soap opera. Nevertheless, the show's message about marital equality is delivered with such sass by the cast of five that the violently tacky Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence-meets-John Travolta aesthetic works. Norman Muñoz makes for one of the most deliciously sensual transsexuals to have sashayed across San Francisco stages in recent years. And even though the dialogue is as thin as a communion wafer, you've got to give credit to actors who pull off lines like this conversation between two characters: "I believe in the boogie." "But does the boogie believe in you?" Through Aug. 19 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 664-5276 or visit www.elgatotheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 2.
ORBIT (Notes From the Edge of Forever). Combining live and recorded music, choreography, spoken text, video projections, televised images, and an interactive set, Erika Shuch Performance Project's latest, and very beautiful, movement theater piece is all about humanity's frenzied and largely frustrated attempts to forge connections with worlds beyond our own. References to scientific principles from the mnemonic used by astronomers to remember the arrangement of stars according to particular spectral characteristics to the RGB color model are batted about on stage like the pixilated ball in a game of Pong. But like this early computer game, most of the show's scientific content is goofily low-tech. As references to Ridley Scott's 1979 movie, Alien, and Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) suggest, the world of science-fiction fantasy is a more powerful means for forging links with the cosmos than empirical science. Just as two lovers, portrayed by Danny Wolohan and Erika Chong Shuch (who also choreographs and directs), orbit around each other, rarely able to bond, the production reveals humanity's frenzied and largely frustrated attempts to forge connections with those we love most. Through Aug. 12 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th sts.), S.F. Tickets are $9-20; call 626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 26.
Putting It Together. Though it's essentially a revue of more than 30 Stephen Sondheim songs from his classic musicals (such as Follies, Company, and A Little Night Music), Putting It Together still tells the somewhat coherent (if thin) story of the intoxicating rush of new love juxtaposed against the ruts, infidelities, and boredom of an older relationship. Set at a ritzy cocktail party, the show is introduced by the tuxedoed usher (an infectiously entertaining Brian Yates Sharber), who instructs us via song to turn off our pesky cell phones, and pleads melodically, "Please don't fart. There's very little air, and this is art." This is Sondheim, of course, whose lyrical witticisms don't shy away from the wonderfully lewd and carnal. Mary-Pat Green stands out as the love-jaded older woman; sparks fly as she verbally clashes with the beautiful yet dim ingénue (Kate Del Castillo), with barbs such as, "She cannot sew, or cook, or read, or write her name but she's lovely." Through the tunes we experience the seduction, chase, war, and eventual desperation that romantic love can induce. The ensemble of five, rounded out by Michael Brown and Jeff Leibow, lacks the chemistry required for a show that's this lean on plot; fortunately, we still have the irresistible intellectual wordplay of one of musical theater's greatest lyricists. Through Aug. 14 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Aug. 2.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.
A Chorus Line Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.
GodFellas Golden Gate Park, Peacock Meadow, JFK Drive (between McLaren Lodge & Conservatory of Flowers).
Insignificant Others New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Kiss of the Spider Woman New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Lady Day In Love The Fellowship Church, 2041 Larkin (at Broadway), 776-4910.
Light in the Piazza Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.
Li'l Abner Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.
Love, Janis Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900.
Love, Sex, Death and Art New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Otherwise The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.
Release the Kraken New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth St.), 626-5416.
Killing My Lobster Graduates Second Grade Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.
Talk Is Cheap ... Dreams Are Priceless Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Trip to Bountiful Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.