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‘Playboy of Western World’ at Celtic Center; Two One-Acts at the Cast; ‘Candle in Dark’ in Beverly Hills; ‘Sympathy’ at Burbank Theatre Guild

One of the odder aspects of the Celtic Arts Center has been its inability to convey a rich sense of things Celtic. Perhaps the center’s folklore and music offerings succeed where its theatrical efforts have failed, but this has generally been another poor small theater in a ratty section of Hollywood.

John Millington Synge to the rescue. So satisfying and full-blooded is Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World” that not even occasional miscasting and a truly ugly set by director Lawrence P. Goodman can stem the Celtic tide that sweeps over this show.

It wouldn’t seem possible from this theater, but the Gaelic-tinged language, uttered in thick accents, is nearly too authentic for American ears. Louis McCarten’s hapless Shawn, the alter ego of “the playboy,” Christy Mahon (Kevin Hurley), is especially thick, and a good portion of Synge’s sprightliest dialogue is simply lost.

Paradoxically, such loss is a kind of gain: This is how an American might feel in an Irish theater, and Goodman’s approach to the language brings us closer to the Irish mind Synge is exploring and gently teasing. It’s similar to the current craze in classical music for original instruments: You wouldn’t want to hear it all the time, but it sends you back in time.

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Hurley grows on us (like Mahon on the gullible villagers who are sheltering him) until we see a complex man--though hardly a looker for the women. Kate Harvey provides beautiful counterbalance as Pegeen Mike, who lets Mahon get the better of her tough heart. Claire McLiam suggests Widow Quin’s two-fisted nature, plus lots of tender backstory. Makeup, though, can’t hide Steve Gunning’s youth as Pegeen’s father.

At 5651 Hollywood Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m., indefinitely . Tickets: $6-$10; (213) 462-6844.

Double Bill of One-Acts

How would you like your ‘60s drama--twisted or straight? There’s a choice at the Cast Theatre, now staging Anna Theresa Cascio’s peculiar “June 8, 1968" and Greg Suddeth’s more conventional “Toe to Toe” in a lengthy one-act double bill.

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Of the two, Cascio’s is more interesting, because her piece seems fitting for a social milieu set into chaos by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The specifics of Cascio’s unabashedly mannered dialectic, though, keep us from entering her characters’ lives.

When a precocious teen-ager (a spunky Pamela Segall), sporting braces as outlandish as her way with words, faces off with an ex-pop star, now CIA agent (an uninvolving Pat Skipper), all sorts of possibilities come to mind. The ones Cascio decided on to resolve their dilemma (far too involved to reveal here) contradict everything we’ve learned about these people. Jonathan Emerson’s flat direction doesn’t help Cascio’s cause.

Ideally, Cascio should pick up on some of Suddeth’s solid dramaturgy, and Suddeth might learn from Cascio’s way with rhythm and style. “Toe to Toe” ponders to what lengths two fairly average Chicago suburban boys (Tim Ryan and Eric Larson) will go so they can avoid the Vietnam draft. They’re down in the basement poolroom, playing out increasingly ghastly bets, and Mom and Dad are upstairs.

Writer-director Suddeth and his two intelligent young actors make us feel the off-stage world, which is what the play is about. The story’s inherent rage, however, requires a more ferocious approach than ‘50s American naturalism.

At 800 N. El Centro Ave., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. ; through Oct. 30. Tickets: $12; (213) 462-0265.

Candle In The Dark

Another, utterly different view of America in the ‘60s is being given a difficult birth at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.

Curiously, “Candle In the Dark,” a new musical with a Beverly Gray book based on the novel “A Patch of Blue,” is less influenced by the sights and sounds of the ‘60s than it is by “Les Miserables” and “Nicholas Nickleby.” Like those two stage epics, everyone in “Candle” is indefatigably good or irretrievably bad (plus the odd misguided parent), set against a world of excruciating social injustice in which our heroes somehow triumph.

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There’s no doubt that Selina, a sensitive blind woman (Jennifer Rea), will escape the clutches of her evil mother (Betty Rae) and drunken Pa (Martin Clark) and find true love. It’s all a question of how. Gray has Selina fall in love with Mr. Right (Eugene Barry-Hill), only she can’t see that he’s black. Selina’s one and only fault is that she’s as racist as the rest of her white Boston neighborhood, and it gets her in nearly three hours of music-filled trouble.

Howlett Smith’s composing carries occasionally effective echoes of Henry Mancini. At other points, it is completely mismatched to the material (Old Pa’s pitiful world is no place for a rollicking jig). Triteness abounds everywhere, but Lennoy M. Ruffin’s lyrics unexpectedly avoid some of the worst cliches of Gray’s book.

Writing and playing Selina as if she’s in a bid for sainthood (Rea’s voice is heavenly)--with Barry-Hill’s Gordon a close second--surrounds the cliches in incredulity. Nothing more quickly unhinges a musical about adults learning tolerance than stage cartoons.

At 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m., through Oct. 30. Tickets: $15; (213) 477-1700.

‘Sympathy’

Dana Coen will be a playwright worth watching, if only because he has a good habit of letting characters be themselves. It makes sense that he would write a play titled “Sympathy.”

In its present form at the Burbank Theatre Guild under Coen’s direction, “Sympathy” isn’t the play it wants to be. We’re provided an admixture of large emotions and small stakes, so that it’s unlikely that the highly neurotic family depicted here will change much after the curtain. Barbara (Linda Bernstein) might, although we never doubt that she loved her just-deceased husband any less because he possibly fooled around with her sister (Valerie Landsburg). Landsburg plays the final catharsis more fully than the writing itself. Even with this, the play doesn’t feel complete.

That’s partly because of an aimless second act that loses the first act’s forward motion. We listen to this comedy about a Jewish family full of bickering in-laws as long as we’re interested in what’s behind the bickering (Magda Harout, for instance, plays the mother between the lines). But at this juncture, Coen seems to have the Neil Simon complex: The shtick and sideshows in “Sympathy” work directly against Coen’s best instincts as a caring ear.

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At 1111 W. Olive, Burbank, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; through Nov. 12. Tickets: $12; (818) 848-7791.


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