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‘Montana Tales’ by Pacific Ensemble; ‘Barbie and Ken’ at Cast; ‘Best Wishes’ at Courtyard Playhouse; ‘Breakfast’ at Chamber; ‘Singles’ Guide’ at Shepard

The Pacific Theatre Ensemble’s storefront space in Venice has served many useful purposes--as the stage for Jamie Baker’s engrossing family dramas, as a murky arena for “Slaughterhouse on Tanner’s Close"--but never before as a campfire ground.

In “Troy Evans’ Montana Tales and Other Bad Ass Business,” there is no actual campfire. But performer Evans gives us the campfire experience, the essence of being caught on the hooks of a genial storyteller who knows he has the best yarns of anyone in the group, yet isn’t about to make a big deal about it. With the friendly atmosphere, and the glow of such a gentle voice emitted from such a burly body, no one is about to put Evans to a tall-tale contest.

That isn’t what he is about in any case. Evans is unashamedly autobiographical, as ready to depict himself as the goat in a story (especially the ones in which he’s the bartender/owner of a rough Montana saloon) as the good guy. This dilutes what at first seems to be some humor done at the expense of down-home Montana folks--all the men wear Wrangler jeans, and a typical pot-luck contribution is a huge slab of beef.

Evans genuinely likes them, while--despite being a Montana native--fascinated at the larger-than-life culture, the way a journalist might be. Now a busy actor, Evans is of these people, and apart from them. This is why his show feels so balanced.

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Evans happens to have been lucky enough to live through some wild adventures, then live to tell the story. Aside from a finale as indulgent as he fears it may be when introducing it, he paces his tales so that they harmonize rather than compete with each other. It’s only late into this campfire session that you realize how many awful and life-threatening passages Evans says he has survived.

Anything for a story.

At 705 1/2 Venice Blvd., Saturdays, 10:30 p.m., through Aug. 5. Tickets: $10; (213) 422-3665.

‘Barbie and Ken’

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What a difference a year makes. Justin Tanner’s 1988 play, “Red Tide,” was stuck in the doldrums of most teen movies.

Tanner’s new comedy takes more risks, and swims much further. A play titled “Barbie and Ken at Home” immediately suggests cartoonish black comedy (which it is), but at the Cast Theatre under Tanner’s adroit direction, it is also endowed with a melancholic undercurrent. It’s easy to laugh at Barbie (Adrienne Stout) for working graveyard shift at a doughnut shop, drinking gallons of coffee and making dinner out of Hamburger Helper and Ritz crackers, but we also worry for her. As with Dan Teachout’s Ken, there’s a better person that got lost since high school days 10 years ago.

Tanner hasn’t quite worked out the means to, and results of, bringing matters to a head (the agent of change, Jon Amirkham’s affecting and uncliched nerdish salesman, amusingly holds a deus ex machina --a vacuum cleaner). But his twisting of the action as the salesman gets enmeshed in a domestic nightmare helps the play find its moral voice. The casting is outstanding, as Stout and Teachout go at each other like pent-up creatures inches away from pure barbarism. Andy Daley’s set instantly establishes things--an apartment for trash, not people.

At 804 N. El Centro Ave., Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m., until July 27. Tickets: $12; (213) 462-0265.

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‘Best Wishes’

Too much American theater is stuck in the kitchen sink or the living room. And though Bill Barker’s play, “Best Wishes,” is very much in the living room, it is an example of how a good play can still take place there.

A good play, not a great play.

Harold H. Dershimer’s revival of this Kansas family drama at the tiny Courtyard Playhouse is not even remotely near the passion of the Gnu Theatre’s staging in 1985, and more than a few areas (including Dershimer’s set and Melinda Messenger’s and Tom Stellar’s lights) are at the community theater level. This tends to expose a play’s warts: after the strong emotional rise of Act I, the second act nearly runs off course until the central sibling rivalry of Elda and Dorie restores direction.

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“Best Wishes” is a play in which that overused term arc really has meaning; thus, the actors have to see through to where the family fights are leading, while remaining in the moment. Mel Donnelly as the elder brother and Jean Jordan’s Vera, a woman full of unrealized good intentions, follow their arcs. Linda Hurst as Dorie and Madeline Hall as Elda--both miscast, not looking remotely like the rest of the family--fall into easy sniping behavior without suggesting the underlying love revealed at the end. The play’s concluding happiness is both adult and well-earned, something lost in this production.

At 550 Deep Valley Drive, Palos Verdes, in the Courtyard Shopping Mall (third level), Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m., through July 23. Tickets: $5-$7.50; (213) 544-6555.

‘Sunday Breakfast’

Wrapped in a Freudian maze of dream imagery, symbolism and half-baked notions of feminine self-abuseP. O’Connor’s “Sunday Breakfast” at the Chamber Theatre looks like a premature birth, a first draft unthinkingly submitted to public scrutiny.

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More than the play (which has some very clever and/or gripping passages in the first act), what requires scrutiny is the reasoning behind giving it a full production before it is ready. The tricky text, in which a drunk housewife lives with visions of her runaway boy while a friendly burglar and her bullying estranged husband alternately invade her domain, has gone almost completely unexamined. The actors (Cyndi Strittmatter’s wife, Erik Fredrickson’s husband, JP Hubbell’s burglar, Kris Newquist’s boy) seem mystified by the crude absurdist action and walk zombie-like through their roles. For a setting that’s specifically “an old apartment building somewhere in Hollywood,” Dawn R. Ferry’s ersatz impressionist-cubist set is out of a different universe.

A show so at odds with itself is not serving the young playwright’s young play. Let it start to walk; then show it to us.

At 3759 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Studio City, Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m., through July 23. Tickets: $12; (213) 472-0525.

‘The Singles’ Guide’

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Had Richard Polak made Adam Slade, radio deejay and soliloquist of singles’ laments, a central character of his new work, “The Singles’ Guide” at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, he might have found some kind of anchor for his play’s observations. As it is, Slade (Jeff Hanley) intones like a burned-out Greek chorus (“How much love do we have left?” is a repeated rhetorical chant) and coolly ushers in the seven skits that make up this “Guide.”

His comments suggest something more profound than anything that develops in these facile, superficial scenes. Slade vicariously absorbs other lonely people’s sadness while not quite concealing his own. No one in the sketches--not the boorish lout (Neil Kevnik), nor the less-than-sensitive friend (Earl Johnson), nor the paranoid frequent dater (Lillian Byrd)--seems capable of such sadness.

The slick glibness, combined with the sense of between-commercials brevity, is an ‘80s update of “Love American Style.” Patricia Yasutake has unfortunately directed to reinforce this feeling.

At 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $10-$12; (213) 466-1767.

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