Sports radio talk show host Jim Rome, who is based in Sherman Oaks, calls it "Smack"--the art of verbally attacking your opponent--keeping the other team off-balance with your rapier wordplay. It's been called "trash talk" in the NBA, but "Smack" is a better term, and the one Shakespeare would have used to describe the wordplay of some of his most delicious characters. Hamlet and Lady Macbeth and Iago are grandmasters of Smack. But no one touches the warring Beatrice and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," now getting a respectful staging at the Lionstar Theatre.
"Nothing," of course, is about more than nothing--above all, it's about the war between the sexes, which gets really nasty when the warriors are evenly matched. That's why the sexual tussle here is infinitely more fun than the uneven one in "Taming of the Shrew," where Shakespeare's comic wheels fall off the wagon. Under Rajan Dosaj's straight-arrow direction, we can see how funny and assured "Much Ado" is, and how the road to love can be gleefully littered with Smack.
Dosaj has two actors who can deliver it--Joanne McGee's Beatrice and Carl J. Pfeifer's Benedick. Beatrice prides herself on being above love games, yet from the start she is unconsciously playing one herself. Benedick says that his ideal woman doesn't exist and that bachelorhood is life's highest calling.
McGee and Pfeifer don't have the kind of chemistry that is known to make the Beatrice-Benedick sparring toward love such heady fun, but they're very good at expressing their characters' sheer smarts. If the brain is the biggest sex organ of them all--and "Much Ado" is a kind of celebration of that--then these two heads have a full-frontal romp.
A lot more goes on here at the early-19th-century estate of Leonato (Allan Styer), ranging from the roller-coaster wooing by Claudio (the wide-ranging Gary Onassis) of Leonato's daughter Hero (Jane Longenecker), to jealous Don John's (Dosaj) plot to destroy the match. The ultimate test of any production of "Much Ado" is in making sure that all the play's different parts--from the nonsense comedy of hapless sheriff Dogberry (John Serembe) to the treachery of Don John--stay afloat and don't cancel one another out. This version doesn't spring a leak.
But uniformly terrific choices are not always made, either. Dosaj, for instance, chooses to have lighting designer Allen Quinton bathe his Don John in red light, spoon-feeding us what we already know, that this isn't a nice guy. (Another bit, with sound designer Bill Reilly turning up thunderclap sound effects at every Don John entrance, becomes a comic gag that doesn't work.) Curiously, Dosaj also chooses to cut Don John's final comeuppance--and the final bit of closure on this comedy's internal drama.
* WHAT: "Much Ado About Nothing."
* WHERE: Lionstar Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday. 4 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.
* HOW MUCH: $14.
* CALL: (818) 761-0312.