"Hats Off!" at the Variety Arts, is a showcase for street performers--"stars of the pavement palace," according to the subtitle. Many of them still belong there.

In Westwood or on Ocean Front Walk, they would add a charming, unexpected grace note. Pedestrians would feel free to come or go as they pleased; chances are they would go after five or 10 minutes.

Members of the "Hats Off!" audience can't exit as easily. They paid for their seats, so they're likely to stay for the duration--2 1/2 hours. It's too long.

The evening actually begins before curtain time. Several second-string performers do their acts on the sidewalk in front of the theater and in the lobby, before the show starts. They then unite as a ragtag chorus line, singing and dancing their way through an opening tribute to street acts--an expendable number that's notable mainly as the show's only opportunity for women to appear on stage.

Finally, emcee Larry Clark introduces the first of the evening's headliners, mime/kazoo player/balancing artist Ken Sonkin. His crisp and clever tomfoolery sets a standard for the show that only two other performers come close to matching: hula hoop virtuoso Mat Plendl, who would be equally admired on "Sesame Street" and Santa Monica Boulevard, and sword swallower Johnny Fox, who keeps his tongue in cheek, right next to the swords.

Plendl and Fox are in the show's first half, which is spoiled only by the Brunsons, a quartet of middle-American mariachis who look as if they just bought their matching black leather outfits. These guys may be fine trumpeters, but they insist on playing schlock, as loudly as possible, and repeating their own lame jokes. Bring earplugs.

The second act is on a much lower level than the first, and it seems to drag on and on. Comic bicyclist Bob Hunt just wasn't clicking the other night. Emcee Clark's own act consists of warm-up material that's more appropriate for a small room at the Magic Castle. The Raspyni Brothers are funny, but their juggling needs polish and a faster pace.

Several of the performers evoke the spirit of Penn (of Penn and Teller) in their willingness to talk about what they do (and a Raspyni also did a sight gag which I had just seen Penn do, a few nights earlier on TV). But their talk isn't nearly as fascinating as Penn's, and it's difficult to imagine any of them carrying an entire evening.

Performances are at 940 S. Figueroa St., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 through April 20, (213) 488-1456.

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