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‘Siberia’: Alan Mandell in a Compelling Solo Work

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The venerable Alan Mandell is one of those rare actors who can transform a text, or at least make it seem like more than it is. Case in point: his solo turn as a survivor of a World War II POW camp who is now ensconced in a nursing home, in Felix Mitterer’s “Siberia” at the Complex. The poignancy, make no mistake about it, is in the performance.

Although he’s billed as Austria’s leading playwright, the work seems to have lost a lot in the translation (by director Louis Fantasia with Joel and Margit Kleinman). Either that or he is really fond of prosaic prose and clunky dramatic devices. All the seams show in this text, which resorts, for example, to having its protagonist, a.k.a. the Old Man, ask a series of invisible guests rhetorical questions--and to having him parrot what they’ve supposedly just said--so that he can answer his own queries. It’s no way to drive a narrative.

The play picks up steam in the last few sections, when the Old Man moves from domestic concerns to his past. The central analogy between the conditions of the home and the prisoner of war camps is strained and artlessly made, though. “This is a death camp” is how he describes the home to his unseen daughter-in-law.

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Yet the sight of Mandell in a hospital bed made into a cage, and of the images he conjures, will linger after the curtain falls. Mandell’s physical metamorphoses alone--we watch him seem to age, shrink in stature, grow more gaunt and feeble of voice--put a compelling face on an often ignored population.

As a persona who voices the plight of senior citizens, one could ask for no finer a thespian than Mandell. His work alone makes “Siberia” theater that ought to be seen, and the crack production team does him justice too. One could, however, ask for a more eloquent text.

* “Siberia,” the Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 14. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Conceptual, Stylistic Woes Trap ‘Seagull’

Chekhov’s lake folk have always been confused, but director Stephen Sachs has made their Twister game of unrequited loves even more tangled in his “The Seagull” at the Fountain.

He’s tried to emphasize the comedy, but the yuks aren’t there. And, unfortunately, neither is the equally important pathos.

The problems are both conceptual and stylistic. For starters, the actors in Sachs’ staging of Robert Brustein’s spare adaptation seem to be in different plays: Some in farce, some in period naturalism and some in Neil Simon. Without a unifying vision, and with several truly tacky turns in the mix, you end up laughing more at the poor actors than at the characters.

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Elegant Salome Jens manages not to embarrass herself as Arkadina, but Bud Cort is a shallow Medvedyenko and the usually sturdy Phillip Baker Hall is simply in the wrong play. Richard Grove’s Trigorin is a dull cad. Susan Merson’s boorish, cigar-chomping Masha is an offensive one-liner. Saxon Trainor’s Nina is unforgivably wooden. And as for Konstantin (the wan Matthew Letscher): If you were stuck with all these doofs, you’d go for the pistol too.

* “The Seagull,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. (No show Nov. 25). Ends Nov. 28. $20. (213) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

‘Evening’ Looks in on New York Folk

“An Evening at 312 W. 48th Street” at the Tracy Roberts Theatre pairs two one-acts that could take place in the same Big Apple apartment. But it’s a double shot of West Coast premieres that our Golden State could have done just as well without, thanks much.

Jonathan Levine’s “Unpublished Letters” is a cloying playlet about two siblings who meet only when their famous, and of course nasty, dad buys the farm. The missives of the title refer to the old man’s estate, but it’s this text that ought to remain out of the public eye. Mark Laska and Monica Lundry’s cutesy performances don’t help.

William Mastrosimone’s self-congratulatory “A Tantalizing” is about a prissy woman who takes a semi-crazed homeless man into her apartment (oh, sure). It’s narrowly worth sitting through, but that’s only because of Jered Barclay’s yeoman performance in a pip of a dumb role and Harvey Perr’s often astute direction.

* “An Evening at 312 W. 48th Street,” Tracy Roberts Theatre, 141 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 7. $12. (213) 683-3955. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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A Passionless ‘Blood Wedding’

The clash between social convention and sexual heat seems like one of those things that a play either captures or it doesn’t. But then you have productions like A Noise Within’s “Blood Wedding” in Glendale. It’s got a few thoroughly visceral performances smack in the middle of a staging that otherwise has the zest of a Pop Tart.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s sensual verse tragedy about ill-fated lovers, unevenly directed by Stephanie Shroyer, shows off the considerable talents of ANW’s Geoff Elliott (Leonardo) and Julia Rodriguez Elliott (the Bride), the putative Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson of Glendale. Hisa Takakuwa, also a staunch ANW regular, is both reserved and volatile as Leonardo’s pained wife.

But the rest of this “Blood Wedding” isn’t for those who like it hot. Shroyer keeps the traffic flowing all right, but her grasp of the passion driving the tragedy is tenuous, even prim. It’s not that this is a bloodless “Blood Wedding,” but you could herd bulls in the space between the three gut-honest portrayals and the quaint bigger picture. Blame it on a surfeit of perky peasant panoramas or the stiff, almost comic, overplaying by Joel Swetow (the Bride’s Father), Deborah Strang (the Mother) and others, but it’s all too nicey-nice.

* “Blood Wedding,” A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Nov. 11, 17, 20, 26, Dec. 3, 9, 11, 8 p.m.; Oct. 31, Nov. 14, Dec. 5, 7 p.m.; Nov. 21, 27, Dec. 4, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 11. $15. (818) 546-1449. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Talent Weds Tedium in ‘The Fantasticks’

Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mediocre marvels began to go and go like a plague of mutant Energizer bunnies let loose on the Western stage, there was “The Fantasticks.” The longest running musical ever, it’s now in its 35th unctuous year in New York. And it’s just as namby-pamby a show at the Egyptian Arena Theatre, although this slick outing’s got a more talented ensemble than the material deserves.

“The Fantasticks” is the story of the Boy, the Girl and their Fathers, who scheme to get the pair wed. It’s got one decent song--the once-popular “Try to Remember”--and a lot of tedious business, including an uncool rape number that’s been toned down to a mere “abduction” in this staging.

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Director Ken Page’s cast tries gamely to make it seem as though this ditty doesn’t belong on the dinner theater circuit, but they can only do so much. Jennifer Leigh Warren (the Girl) and Mark Ivan Morales (the Narrator) bless their cardboard roles with Broadway-quality pipes, and Peter Van Norden (the Boy’s Father) and Don Garner (the Old Actor) ably inject humor where there isn’t any.

* “The Fantasticks,” Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 7. $22. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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