"It's very dark and potent--but not gloomy," said Jack Bender of his "Under the Freeway Sign," opening Friday (under his direction) at Santa Monica's Powerhouse Theatre. "You better leave the kids at home for this one. It's somewhere between 'PG' and 'Blue Velvet.'

"I don't know why, but about six years ago, when the Hillside Strangler was running around, I started thinking about that Paddy Chayevsky film, 'Marty,' " Bender said. "In 1950, it was two guys talking about whether they should go to a dance. In 1980, two guys might be thinking about going out, picking up a hitchhiker and murdering him. I wanted to expose that border that some people cross over in their lives, that allows them to do those horrific acts. But it's not an expose of killers--not 'Belly of the Beast'--and doesn't pretend to be."

The story revolves around Lilly, her twin brother, and Lilly's best friend. Enter two men, Bill and Manny, who work in an auto body shop and "are going to do what they do every Friday night: Pick up someone and kill him. This time it's (Lilly's) brother who's under the freeway sign."

The writer-director believes that the deaths of his father and a dear friend last year "really kicked this play out of me: It deals with losing and loving people, separation, relationships and forgiveness."

Bender, who began his acting career as a spear-carrier at the Taper and made his television directorial debut on "The Paper Chase," refers to this piece as "basically my first play. I am a film director; that is what I do. But coming back to theater has been such a nourishing experience. In theater, you don't have to get it right every day. Like life, you can let it get lost for a while, let things evolve, let the piece tell you what it wants to be."

Playwright John Ford Noonan ("A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking") announces up front that he writes most easily about women. "It's because I understand them. I even act like a woman around men: I get giddy, silly and idiotic; the men just seem so dangerous. You know how a lot of bright women act like bimbos around men to get what they want? I'm the same way. I'm scared of what they're going to do to me."

Not surprisingly, issues of male/female power struggles are at the heart of Noonan's "Spanish Confusion," receiving its world premiere this weekend at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood. Its genesis, he said, was one day "seeing this Spanish woman and her boyfriend sitting in the park. She'd had five miscarriages--her cervix was weak. So I imagined someone knocks on her door and gives the woman money to have a cervical net put in."

The boyfriend thinks another man has made her pregnant, "so it becomes a study of jealousy," Noonan said. "When women get what they want, guys get weird."

The playwright, who's only recently settled in town, has nonetheless found a healthy interest in his work. In June, the Victory Theatre will present his "Talking With Chekhov," featuring John Larroquette of "Night Court." And he's also writing the screenplay for "Match Trick" for producer-actor Michael Douglas.

Why haven't we seen more of his work? "I haven't (had) many productions in the '80s," Noonan said. "I have 11 unproduced plays. It takes a lot more energy to mount them than to write them."

Heard any good Armenian poetry lately? Actor-director Gerald Papasian and wife Nora Armani hope to provide just that in "Sojourn at Ararat" (opening today at Ensemble Studio Theatre), a hit at last year's Edinburgh Festival.

"I was born in Egypt but educated in Armenia, so the poems are very close to my heart," said Papasian. "Over the years my wife and I have performed selections of Armenian poetry all over the world, but this is the first time we've done it in English. I really wanted to share these works with non-Armenian audiences. The poems--around 40 of them--are from different periods (pre-Christian to modern times), all done by different translators."

The story line?

"I call the theme 'Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Paradise Re-Sought,' " he said. "Two people meet, fall in love and experience things together: the genocide, deportation. They emigrate to a new land, grow old, return to the old country with joy--only to face the reality of present-day Soviet occupation. . . . That 'having, losing, regaining' theme is a very typical Armenian pattern. But you don't have to be Armenian to enjoy it; this is celebration of humanity . It ends with a poem called 'Prayer on the Threshold of Tomorrow,' which is a call for peace."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: A revival of Moss Hart's "Light Up the Sky" recently opened at the Ahmanson to responses running the gamut from cool, lukewarm, to hot.

In this paper, Dan Sullivan found the play about an out-of-town Broadway tryout very creaky: "There was a time when this was considered the last word in sophisticated backstage comedy, but now it plays like a rickety, overlong 1940s script with a few good laughs and no credibility at all."

Noting that "Ellis Rabb's cast does quite well under the circumstances," the Hollywood Reporter's Jay Reiner seconded Sullivan's opinion: "Although Hart intended his comedy to show us that big-time Broadway theater, beneath the vanity, the pettiness, the inflated dreams and backbiting reality, was actually one of life's more splendid endeavors. . . . What we see instead are the very attitudes and values that have reduced Broadway to a basket, if not a casket, case."

Also unimpressed was Daily Variety, who found Rabb's reliance on "the original style and setting makes for some wooden characters and unaffecting theater situations that have been played too many times since."

Drama-Logue's David Galligan labeled the show "a first-rate comedy being given a third-rate production," praising the author ("The laughs are fast and furious, funnier than anything being written today") and blaming director Rabb, "who has cast this piece very strangely. . . . His blocking is also atrocious, with actors constantly lined up across the stage, looking as though they're about ready to do chorus-line kicks."

On the other hand, Richard Slayton, in the Herald-Examiner, loved the show: " 'Light Up the Sky' proves to be an entertaining diversion for the general public, a rich history lesson for the dedicated theater-goer, and an eloquent demonstration for everyone of superb ensemble acting. . . . They don't write plays like this anymore, but maybe they should."

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