Anybody who thinks the theater is an escape from reality hasn’t scanned the stage listings in a while. This week’s productions suggest that theaters all over Southern California are grappling with the very questions debated on the news and social media.
In Santa Barbara, “The City of Conversation” examines the right-left divide in American politics. In Pasadena, “Henry V” takes on nationalism, war and what it takes to lead a country. In La Jolla, “The Cake” takes on religious divides and respect for difference. And in Hollywood, “4play: Sex in a Series” suggests, just in time for Valentine’s Day, that everybody else's sex life is just as confusing and awkward as yours.
‘City of Conversation’ in Santa Barbara
The essentials: Anthony Giardina’s political drama “The City of Conversation” traces the growing divide between liberals and conservatives in Washington, D.C., from 1979 to the present day, as it is played out among family members in an elegant Georgetown brownstone.
Why this? Not only does this sharply observed 2014 script seem to grow more pertinent to current affairs as it ages, but it also offers layered, complex roles for women. Two beloved stars best known for their TV roles, Sharon Lawrence ("NYPD Blue”) and Meredith Baxter (“Family Ties”), share the stage in this Ensemble Theatre Company production directed by Cameron Watson.
Details: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 25. $20-$70. (805) 965-5400 or etcsb.org.
‘Henry V’ at A Noise Within
The essentials: For an actor in his early 30s, Rafael Goldstein has already played an impressive number of Shakespeare’s juiciest roles — Hamlet, Mark Antony, Mercutio, Edgar — primarily at A Noise Within in Pasadena, where he is a resident artist. Now he’s taking on the lead in the company’s first-ever production of “Henry V,” the Bard’s circa-1599 forerunner of the action movie.
Why this? Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot, the company’s artistic directors, approach classics with bracing energy and playful contemporary touches, drawing out the connections between long-past eras and our own. In an L.A. Weekly article about A Noise Within’s 2012 “Hamlet," Steven Leigh Morris wrote, “Goldstein’s commitment to craft is a marvel, his mining of the text an eye opener.” The character arc of the young Henry V — who transforms himself from a bad boy to one of England’s hunkiest heroes over the course of five action-packed acts — should give this fearless actor plenty of grist for his mill.
Details: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. In repertory; check website for schedule. Ends April 6. $25 and up. (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org
‘The Cake’ at La Jolla Playhouse
The essentials: Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake,” in which a Southern Christian confectioner wrestles with the morality of baking a cake for a lesbian wedding, earned rave reviews in its premiere last year at L.A.’s Echo Theater Company. For those who didn't get to enjoy that first slice of “The Cake," or for fans who want to see how the work gets translated to a major stage, here’s your chance: The La Jolla production is directed by Casey Stangl and stars Tony-winner Faith Prince as the baker.
Why this? Brunstetter approaches what could have been a preachy “issue play” with refreshing humor, even-handedness and insight. In an era marked by rigid antagonism on both sides of social questions, “The Cake” offers a taste of hope for mutual understanding and acceptance. Also, it’s funny.
Details: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends March 4. $20-$65. (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org
‘4Play: Sex in a Series’
The essentials: The itinerant theater company trip. (yes, the period is part of the name) has been performing its sitcom-style relationship comedy for years in various small theaters, first in New York, then Chicago. Now that it has relocated to L.A., we get to find out what the buzz is about.
Why this? The intersecting love affairs of various couples, gay and straight, offer relatable and timely quandaries along with plenty of fourth-wall breaking to distract audiences from their own romantic problems. (The show opens on Valentine’s Day.) Time Out praised the Chicago run for "endearing characters,” “honest and playful performances” and “credible chemistry."
Details: trip. @ The Actors Company, 916-A N. Formosa Ave., Los Angeles. Opens 8 p.m. Wednesday; performances 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays; ends March 17. (800) 838-3006 or www.tripnyc.org
The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our team of reviewers — people with more than 75 years of combined experience tracking local theater — shortlists offerings with an emphasis on 99-seat theaters and other smaller venues. Some (but not all) recommendations are shows we've seen; others have caught our attention because of the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast. You can find more comprehensive theater listings posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.