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Vibrant Revival of ‘Balm in Gilead’ in Burbank

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Balm in Gilead,” Lanford Wilson’s graphic collage of outcasts, dopers and whores hustling one another in an all-night coffee shop, rings with veracity in the debut production of the Road Theatre Company in Burbank.

The denizens are already slouching about the diner on Gotham’s Upper Broadway when you enter the theater, and the impression is like watching a mural on the side of an industrial building spring to life.

Director Gino Cabanas recreates the requisite drama verite, updating the play from the ‘60s to the ‘70s and, happily, keeping the material timely. Instead of ‘60s jukebox numbers, as in previous productions, a forlorn guitarist strums between the swirling dramas in this essentially plotless play.

Wilson’s goal was style, character, and movement, and on this level the 25 cast members give rhythm to the whirlpools of interlocking, overlapping scenes. At times the actors fail to modulate the verbal intricacies, shouting over one another so fiercely that you can’t hear anybody. But there’s a startling 20-minute monologue by Taylor Gilbert as the diner’s resident innocent lamb that is the high point of the evening and underscores the promise of this company.

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The bums and hustlers, such as Patrick F. Kline’s savvy but foolhardy drug dealer and Mark Arthur Miller’s haunting junkie, are sympathetic in their desperation. But the emotional arc of the post-midnight squalor is horizontal, spread across a mercifully wide stage, and can get repetitive.

Designer Jerry Cabanas’ diner set is the real thing, but keeping dim house lights on the audience during the show is a mistake. This world is better viewed in the dark.

* “Balm in Gilead,” Road Theatre Company, 10741 Sherman Way, Burbank. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. $10-$12.50; (818) 503-7792. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

‘Nature Talks’ Explores Shifting Relationships

Cupid’s broken arrow wings into a mythic realm in “Nature Talks,” three one-acts by David Mamet, John Guare and Wendy Wasserstein at the Tamarind Theatre.

The production lacks urgency but has sustained style and control, mixing a Grimm fairy tale (Mamet’s “The Frog Prince”) with Chekhovian sensibility (both Guare’s “The Talking Dog” and Wasserstein’s “A Man in a Case” rework short stories by Chekhov). All three plays explore men and women grappling with love. What’s unique is the fablelike, whimsical “Into the Woods” tone under the sure hand of director Ferdinand Lewis. Vivid hanging tapestries from set designer Ramsey Avery cloak the stage with a Russian pastoral ambience.

In “The Talking God,” Michael Garrick and Shawn Modrell are hang-gliders challenging the perils of love, while “A Man in a Case” finds Donald Robinson Gordon and Katharine Noon coping with their differences in century-old rural Russia. The post-intermission piece, “The Frog Prince,” flavorfully costumed by Todd Roehrman, features Gordon’s Prince and Modrell’s stooped peasant woman hurtling us into a mythical forest.

It’s a gentle curiosity.

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* “Nature Talks,” Tamarind Theatre, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $10-$17; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

‘Rattlesnake’ a Slice of Grungy America

A man is alone in a bunkhouse, or is it a jail cell? He doesn’t seem quite free to leave. His faded denims have huge holes in the knees and when he describes being a Kentucky doctor who left his wife and practice for the life of a cowboy in the West, we’re caught in the noose of a romantic’s dream come true.

The one-man “aria” by Frank South, “Rattlesnake in a Cooler,” in the upstairs “lab” theater at Stages in Hollywood, is a lean, spare slice of grungy America.

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A gentle, resigned, scruffy Joe Deese makes an impressive West Coast performance debut as the cowpoke on “a greased path from the womb to the grave.”

The evocative material is impeccably directed by Blanche Sindelar with flavorful musical counterpoints by offstage musician John Bishop. In contrast to many other solo performers, Deese has a mellow Middle America sensibility, and he effortlessly segues through 14 quirky characters in animating his character’s misadventures.

South’s script, originally staged at L.A. Actors Theater 10 years ago by film director Robert Altman, is deceptively lulling, building to violence and danger that’s almost offhand. A minute sense of place is fashioned here, despite a sterile, uncredited set design.

* “Rattlesnake in a Cooler,” Stages Theater Complex, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Sept. 28. $8; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour.

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