The shadow of David Mamet looms over writer-director Greg Suddeth's "Very Cherry and Extra Clean" at the Cast Theatre. The signs are everywhere: the setting is a dog-eat-dog Chicago-area car dealership, the men are basically predatory shysters and the language is patented Mamet--patented in that the filigreed cuss words and the rest of the dialogue is too close to the original for Suddeth to make it his own.
What is strikingly missing are the color and fire of Mamet's world. Only the veteran salesman, Ding (John Pappas), brings a grungy yet seductive charm to his basic monstrousness, an internal combustion machine that makes him the salesman he is but also threatens to blow him apart. As he sees the new guy, Louis (Robert Romanus), go from non-conformist malcontent to king of the lot, Ding's own fall becomes inevitable.
It's an inevitability, alas, that isn't in the least interesting, save the sheer will Pappas brings to the role. Alice (Kari Lizer), the dealership secretary falling out of love with Ding and into love with Louis, is meant to give these rise-fall dramatics some dynamic interplay. The dynamics are lost, though, since she is ultimately too malleable with whichever male she is close to at the moment.
Barry Livingston's general manager plays a funnier and more affecting middle person between the two salesmen; he's a man above all moral problems, blissfully self-centered, freely roaming the free market. Suddeth would do well to explore this, the one fresh variation on Mamet in his play.
At 800 El Centro Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. (dark Easter Sunday), until April 23. Tickets: $12; (213) 462-0265.
'Webster Street Blues'
For all its raw, first draft feel, its unformed emotional arcs and a persistent falling back on cliches, Warren Sumio Kubota's "Webster Street Blues" suggests the budding voice of a genuinely humanistic writer. The sadness that tinges Nobu McCarthy's production at East West Players is less what happens on stage than the fact of the young Kubota's passing away last August. Kubota was clearly a playwright who had to work his way through the thicket of his own life before mastering the art. It's a terrible shame that we'll never witness that fruition.
At the center of his world is Dean (Yuji Okumoto), a street tough who dominates "J-Town"--San Francisco's Japantown--more in his mind than in reality. Chuck (John Miyasaki), Kubota's alter-ego, is Dean's pal and admirer. But Chuck is also a college boy, who has taken a very different path than Dean.
The refreshing aspects of Kubota's narrative are the complications he infuses in his women characters. Gayle (Susan Haruye Ioka) evolves from a romantic revolutionary and dogmatic leftist (of the Leninist variety) to someone touched by Chuck's soul. Sheri (Marilyn Tokuda), who runs the local cafe with Gayle, is a more traditional, manipulated woman who begins to learn to stand up for herself.
If this all sounds fairly schematic, it is. Dean is particularly mannered in his "street-wise" lingo, and is too obviously set up for misfortune. The characters, for all their subtle changes of course, follow a generally predictable path. Thus, the louder Gayle complains about Sheri dating only white guys, the more we're sure that Gayle will eventually marry one herself. An awkward epilogue--set in the late '80s, 15 years after the main action--confirms this and more.
McCarthy, while giving fair weight to the women's conflict, hasn't encouraged a youthful energy and impetuosity that would give the play meaning and life. Too, four actors with no extras for a play about a vibrant urban community make things seem awfully bare (Rae Creevey's crude set doesn't help). Okumoto and Tokuda zero in on Dean's and Sheri's contradictions, but Miyasaki and Ioka make little of two young minds discovering emotional truths.
At 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m., through April 23. Tickets: $12-$15; (213) 660-0366.
It's hard to take vampires seriously anymore. From "Love at First Bite" to the new spoof at Richmond Shepard Theatre, "Veins," the subculture of nocturnal bloodsuckers has become the stuff of spoof rather than horror.
As spoof, "Veins," by writer-director Dave Bryant, is about as inconsequential as possible. Less than an hour, it plays on the now-tired notion of the vampire's burdensome immortality.
In this case, his name is Brand (David Warick), stuck in the middle of writing a misanthropic magnum opus. His carefree, stressless pal Busby (Arne Andersen) thinks Brand needs a fresh kill, rather than another night of sticking the frozen blood pouch in the old microwave. Meanwhile, Sheila (credited as Somebody Surly in the program), a Transylvania-accented espionage hotshot, has other plans for Brand.
The complications pile up like a bad comic book (the production's collectively designed cubistic set and lights recall the atmosphere of underground comics), but are too ludicrous given the cast's utterly unsure grasp of spoof style. Strong comic actors, able to run roughshod over nonsense, could inject something special into "Veins."
At 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., until April 9. Tickets: $10; (213) 466-1767.
'The Pet Show'
The seemingly endless obsession by some American playwrights on the breakdown of the American family is having diminishing returns. In the latest variation on this theme, Mitch Giannunzio's "The Pet Show," at Santa Monica Playhouse, the parents (Kenneth Tigar and Bibi Besch) not only talk to their two cats and two dogs, they speak the pet's imagined responses as well. Their visiting daughter (Barbara Whinnery) wants to "help" them, but is all broken up and drunk over her husband leaving her. Nobody's in any state to do much of anything.
Which is one nasty trap for any playwright to set for himself. The one angle that Giannunzio could have explored to theatrically heighten the situation and to lend it the air of mythos was the father's former post as a professor of ancient Greek (he's now unemployed). Oddly, very little is made of it, outside of a phone conversation that is merely a pause in the story. If the Greek connection is meant to make us think of tragedy, then Lawrence Osgood's production and cast have a long way to go to fulfill those requirements.
Incidentally, the pets are mimed on the tiny Playhouse stage (on which Timothy Chadwick has used every square inch for a very respectable set): wise from a practical standpoint, and suggestive of domestic derangement.
At 1211 4th St., Santa Monica, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 9:30 p.m., until April 22. Tickets: $13.50-$17; (213) 394-9779.