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'The Grapes of Wrath,' 'A Man's a Man,' 'Pin-Up Girls'

FamilyDeathNoHoWorld War II (1939-1945)

The unfortunate thing about revisiting "The Grapes of Wrath" is that John Steinbeck's Depression-era classic about a displaced Dust Bowl family does not merely conjure up the social ills of a distant historical chapter in a remote, informative way. Rather, it evokes a shadow side of the American Dream that isn't distant enough.

Timely urgency drives a committed Knightsbridge Theatre revival of Frank Galati's epic 1988 stage adaptation. Twenty-eight performers -- admittedly sporting fairly divergent levels of professional skill -- nevertheless bring unifying passion and clarity to the Joad family's odyssey from Oklahoma to the promised land of California. Beset by poverty, death, exploitation and the vagaries of nature, they endure out of the transcendent spirit of community that Steinbeck celebrated.

Against this sweeping cross-country tableau, characters are less defined as individuals than by the iconic roles they play in Steinbeck's overarching morality tale. Nevertheless, credit noteworthy portrayals of heroic personal redemption to David Stifel as the symbolically monikered Jim Casy, the ex-preacher turned labor leader, and Nikitas Menotiades as former convict and prodigal son Tom Joad. Both men find their true purpose in opposing the profiteering landowners and the quasi-militia enforcers who lure desperate Okies to do orchard work.

Marti Hale is a bedrock of stability as the Joad matriarch, and Virginia Newcomb closes the piece with an image of Madonna-like grace as she nurses a starving vagrant.

Carolee Shoemaker's staging makes efficient use of lighting effects, a spare stage and stacked crates to suggest the Joads' overloaded flatbed truck. The grim spectacle of jobless Americans played for suckers in a system fueled by unregulated greed is a cautionary reminder of the work the incoming administration has cut out for it.

-- Philip Brandes "The Grapes of Wrath,"Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 23. $20. (323) 667-0955. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

Troupe is bold, Brecht is didactic

In 1969, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble opened its first season with Bertolt Brecht's "A Man's a Man." Nearly 40 years later, artistic director Ron Sossi and his ever-intrepid company have revived this 1926 antiwar sketch comedy, and the result is a showcase for the ensemble's bold theatricality -- and a reminder that no playwright can wear out his welcome as quickly as Brecht.

This slapstick tragicomedy takes place in a mythical 1925 India, where British forces loot and whore their way across the Asian continent. Galy Gay (Beth Hogan), a Forrest Gump-like naif, heads to the market to buy a fish and runs into a unit of soldiers whose off-duty high jinks have left them one man short. A cigar, a few drinks and a lap dance later, Galy has been stuffed into a uniform and packed off to Thailand for the latest military surge, led by the ever-priapic Bloody Five (Will Kepper).

Sossi and his cast throw plenty of energy and invention at the story, using a range of performance styles that reference silent movies, Keystone Kops and burlesque (Elizabeth Huffman's costumes evoke the requisite Weimar sleaze). A foxy three-piece band, led by composer Michelle Toh, keeps the tempo brisk, and the songs are the evening's highlights. But Brecht's smart-aleck didacticism feels more exhausting than irreverent, nearly obscuring the eerie heart of his story -- the transformation of Galy from milquetoast to killing machine.

-- Charlotte Stoudt "A Man's a Man,"Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving Day. Ends Dec. 21. $15-$30. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Romance on the home front

Amid the backstage antics of the World War II-era burlesque hall depicted in writer-director Andrew Moore's "Pin-Up Girls," there's a tight little tenderhearted romance percolating somewhere. But coaxing it from this new play's ambitious but often muddled initial outing at NoHo's Avery Schreiber Theatre will take some doing.

Moore's nostalgic affection for the tough-talking gals of the 1940s is obvious. With so many men shipped off to fight overseas, the six well-delineated strippers of San Francisco's Hi Jinks club have no one but themselves to rely on. As Helen, the most fiercely independent of the bunch, Pamela Moore parlays experience in both theater and burlesque choreography into a thoroughly convincing portrait of hardhearted survival. Having recently contracted a venereal disease, Helen finds her past innocence colliding with her jaded present when her onetime lover, a disabled vet named Scotty (Seth Caskey), unexpectedly returns from the war, bent on rekindling their romance.

Their awkward reunion is a poignant reflection on relationships pulled apart by time and circumstance, further complicated by the fact that Helen's roommate and fellow dancer, Ruby (Sarah Cook), has long carried a secret torch for Scotty.

These sympathetic lead performances notwithstanding, the triangle at the core of the piece is overrun by too many subplots involving the other eight characters, some of which lapse into caricature.

The antique prop-laden set by Starlet Jacobs and Christine Guilmette's eye-catching costumes add a period feel, though it clashes with occasional anachronistic dialogue that begs for careful scrubbing.

-- Philip Brandes "Pin-Up Girls," Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 23. $20. (818) 849-4039. Running time: 2 hours.

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