'One Last Ride' Looks Like a Sure Bet

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"One Last Ride" is a hardboiled, naturalistic play about compulsive gambling at the Melrose Theatre. The production stars the playwright, Patrick Cupo, who catches the rush and the depths of addiction in a kitchen sink drama that races along under a nice, little compulsion of its own.

Of all the addictions, excluding sex and shopping, gambling has the most dramatic edge if only because the addict is not in a stupor. Cupo's gambler, based on the playwright's real-life cousin, is a small-time hustler in New York's Little Italy, up to his neck in threats from his loan shark and frantically fighting to salvage his marriage.

Stories of compulsive behavior are so familiar that a good one is distinguished not by its subject or its theme but by its texture, and it's here, in the heat and squalor of obsession, that "One Last Ride" makes its mark under director Mark Blanchard.

The casting is uniformly strong, from Cupo's deceitful, frantic horse player to anguished Anita Barone as his pregnant wife to Tony Curtis look-alike Grainger Hines as a dapper, suave, intimidating gangster. But the show-stealer is rumpled Emilio Borelli as the protagonist's slow-witted neighborhood pal. Borelli's absorbing performance makes this resident fool's loyalty to his destructive buddy heartfelt.

The race track and a truck heist are flavorfully captured in short bursts of action sharply embellished by designers Andrew Yeater (sound) and Ken Booth (lights).

"One Last Ride," Melrose Theatre, 733 N. Seward, Hollywood, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends March 15. $10-15. (213) 666-8587. Running time: 2 hours.

'Amorphous George' a Tasty Diversion

A frisky comedy about five wildly diverse characters sharing a communal house in San Francisco, Glen Merzer's "Amorphous George" launches the new Hudson Theatre.

The play is a tasty diversion, but it wasn't the most daring or original choice for the opening of what may be the sharpest theater space on Santa Monica Boulevard. The spiffy refurbishment and expansion of the former Figtree Theatre gives a real touch of class to the local theater district. Adding to the ambience is a darkly arty, cozy cafe accessible from the lobby.

Director Gary Blumsack draws flavorful performances from his lively ensemble, and set designers T. Baker Rowell and Kristin Coppola fill the stage with a bright, double-leveled interior that illuminates the characters' private and public lives.

Basically, the premise is the formulaic combustion that comes from throwing disparate personalities together under one roof. The strongest characters (both in the writing and the playing) are the deliciously flaky, pony-like Teri Hatcher who's favored with a cover girl face, the dryly wry resident jester Jack Kenny, and the eccentric Darryl Henriques (whose crazed glare and antic comportment are hard to resist).

In this vivid company, the two nominally serious characters--Cecilia Peck's dictatorial, humorless house leader and Steven Culp's entitled, sexually amorphous new arrival--are rather clouded, bland figures who never quite fit into the nuttiness. Culp's transvestism is flat and banal rather than comical or empathetic, and Peck's authority figure lacks any warmth until the requisite meltdown at the fadeout. But for those who ever endured communal living, this show should feel at home.

"Amorphous George," Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends March 22. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours.

Housewife on a Tear in 'Shirley Valentine'

For the sheer prowess of its writing, Willy Russell's "Shirley Valentine"--an odyssey of a plain, middle-aged, middle-class British housewife who dumps her husband and finds romance on a Greek island--is worth a trip to the Fountain Theater.

But there's much more, specifically Freda Norman's raucous, touching monologue in American Sign Language, in an L.A. premiere produced by the Deaf West Theatre Company at the Fountain Theatre. Ed Waterstreet, who launched Deaf West's residency at the Fountain last year with a solid "The Gin Game," helms a mesmerizing solo act that gives feminist theater some of its best humor yet.

Audience members who don't understand sign language are equipped with ear phones plugged into a vocal actress in a sound booth who delivers a live audio of Norman's sign language. And it's here, at least for the hearing, that a second star floats into range: Maggie Peach and her delectable English accent.

Russell also wrote "Educating Rita," and "Shirley Valentine" should be seen as a continuation of the adventurous Rita character.

The production is ambitious, with detailed domestic and Grecian isle sets by Stephen Bennett, and artful lighting by Ken Booth.

"Shirley Valentine," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 3 p.m. Ends March 22. $12-$15. (213)) 660-8826. Running time: 2 hours.

'Eat Your Heart Out' All Style, No Subtext

The actor-as-waiter cliche is ripe for a sendup but not for a full-length play. The romantic comedy "Eat Your Heart Out" at the Court Theatre follows the antics of an out-of-work actor doing a number over his customer's menus.

Waiter, please, the check.

The production isn't bad by sketch standards. Jon Kean as the waiter in various restaurants is affable and charming--particularly in his effort to materialize as each of his many head shots for an unimpressed casting director.

Roxanne Rogers' direction is tinged with some bite, and the shifting decors, menus and patrons are nominal fun. The breakdown is in the terribly thin dramatic text by playwright Nick Hall.

William Dennis Hurley is a standout in dual roles, and Tom Keefe, Cindy Ballou and Melissa Rivers lend competent support.

"Eat Your Heart Out," Court Theatre, 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinee, 3 p.m. Ends March 15. $15-$18. (213) 466-1767. Running time:1 hour, 30 minutes.

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