They walk in beauty, but don't envy them

Revealingly attired women ponder the perks and privileges of being gorgeous in a series of autobiographical monologues at Raleigh Studios. Don't hate them because they're beautiful. Physical perfection can be a heavy burden to bear.

Don't throw rotten tomatoes just yet. The show, "Pieces of Ass," which comes to L.A. fresh from its recent New York run, has its undeniably meretricious moments. It can be strident, sophomoric and overly cutesy. However, it can also be quite sweet and moving, if you stop gritting your teeth long enough to listen.

A Raleigh studio space has been handsomely reconfigured to accommodate the production, which boasts pre-show cocktails and a bikini-topped female DJ who spins platters throughout the evening -- all part of the hip, club scene atmosphere.

The monologues have been written by the cast members based on their own experiences. Slides of famous quotes about beauty, interspersed with short films, punctuate the proceedings.

Creator-director Brian Howie's staging features a gluttonous serving of cheesecake. The actresses, most of whom sport sky-high heels and gravity defying push-up bras, range from the striking to the inarguably beautiful.

When it comes to discussing their "affliction," a few are surprisingly touching. Particularly poignant is Jana Speaker, a young woman with learning disabilities and a memory disorder who must refer to cue cards as she explains how her beauty salvaged her ravaged self-esteem.

Guest celebrity Lori Heuring ("Mulholland Drive") does a wry parody of a sexist studio executive. Also effective is Chelsey Crisp, who gives a chilling account of her experiences with a determined stalker. Rachel Hollon hilariously reprises her humiliating experience in a "Hot Legs" contest. And the luminous Aya Sumika fittingly sums up the evening in her poetic monologue about female sexuality and the universal longing for love.

-- F. Kathleen Foley


"Pieces of Ass," Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Blvd., Hollywood. Mondays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 25. $40. (800) 595-4849. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This 'Butler' does it for Orton

The measure of any production of Joe Orton is how well it moves, both through time and space. By that measure, director Sean Branney's crackling new production of "What the Butler Saw" is a winner.

If it does sound and look a bit rough around the edges -- strained diction here, a miscast actor there -- Branney's "Butler" does manage to build to a second-act crescendo of nihilistic chaos that's debilitatingly, inexplicably funny.

By the time it reaches this particular point of no return -- with people in various states of undress and intoxication slamming doors, screaming in shock and running about brandishing firearms -- the show has thoroughly won us over to its brand of mutually assured dysfunction.

Heading the cast with grimacing good humor is Matt Foyer as Dr. Prentice, the psychiatrist whose relatively innocent attempt to get into the pants of a secretarial applicant (Carolyn A. Palmer) leads to a mountingly perverse series of misunderstandings, misdiagnoses and assorted misbehavior.

Matching him in aplomb is McKerrin Kelly as his bed-hopping wife, who manages to alternate bouts of credulous surprise and knowing cynicism without losing track of her character.

Except for the beguilingly wide-eyed Palmer, the rest of the cast isn't quite up to this level. As Dr. Rance, the voice of unreason from Her Majesty's Government, Noah Wagner is a shade too grinningly conspiratorial and his accent gives him trouble. Josh Thoemke makes an acceptably deadpan hotel page and John Jabaley a sternly slow-witted copper.

Not even slow wits can stem this production's headlong momentum. Orton's world is always mad, bad and dangerous to know. Presented this vigorously, it's also a revealingly guilty pleasure.

-- Rob Kendt

"What the Butler Saw," Theatre Banshee at the Gene Bua Acting for Life Theatre, 3435 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 7. $15. (818) 628-0688. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.


Grappling with father-son issues

For Larry Levin, the very secular narrator of Richard Krevolin's "Boychik" at NoHo's Actors Forum Theatre, career success and middle age have not brought the calm detachment he'd hoped for -- at least not where his late Orthodox Jewish father is concerned.

In this updated version (formerly titled "Yahrzeit" in its L.A. debut a decade ago), Krevolin's monologue, performed with finely tuned authenticity by Richard Kline, explores the personal and cultural dimensions of Jewish father-son conflicts.

For an engineer who builds bridges, Larry is remarkably inept when it comes to bridging his severed links to his own heritage. He married a Gentile, hasn't set foot in a synagogue since his bar mitzvah, and has managed to repress his resentments against his bookish, devoutly religious dad -- until a year after the latter's death, when the discovery of a secret safe deposit box filled with emotionally charged mementos brings all his unresolved issues to the forefront.

Larry's journey follows a predictable (and precariously sentimental) narrative arc of painful reconciliation -- too little, too late -- but Kline proves far too skillful an actor to become mired in mawkish goo.

His Larry remains caustically funny and sharply articulate throughout, all the while ramping up the emotional intensity to a moving finale. An overreliance on unnecessary sound cues disrupts the momentum at times, however.

Also adept with a range of voices, Kline cleanly differentiates Larry's tragically inflexible father, his amusingly husky-throated busybody aunt, and other characters, which helps thaw the static solo perspective that so many monologues are heir to.

At its best, "Boychik" captures universal truths about the shifting kaleidoscope through which children view their parents, who go from omniscient giants, to fierce adversaries, to imperfect objects of compassion once we finally see their lives in a human context separate from our own needs.

-- Philip Brandes

"Boychik," Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Ave., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. $18. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.


Man, what outrageousness

A middle-aged man receives the diagnosis that he will live for years. That doesn't satisfy archetypal Man, so he throttles his physician. Next, Man envisions the Messiah as dentist: "Jesus saves teeth." This gonzo gambit initiates "Panama" in its West Coast premiere at Cal Rep in Long Beach. Mike Folie's absurdist dissection of American fixations is a gut-busting agitprop fracas.

The fugitive Man grabs his Amazon June Cleaver of a Wife, revs up their abstract auto and makes his getaway. En route, they encounter a hitchhiking pair of Gen-Xers. The detached self-entitlement of these counterparts vexes Man, who, after all, "lived through the Depression!" "Like, we've never been depressed?" shoots back Young Woman. The quacking quartet swings by Arizona to collect Grandpa and Grandma, who are rehearsing Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" for the Geriatric Players. The entourage sets forth for eternal life, enjoyment, and/or asylum, at the Beckett-inspired theme park "Happy Days."

The frenzied Craig Fleming and marmoreal Maria Mayenzet make excellent retro-maniacs, and Rory Cowan and Tannis Hanson are expert techno-slackers. Scene-stealing honors are divided among Gary Grossman's and Zoe Saba's devastating cross-gender seniors, Wesley Hunt's reconstituting Christ and Gavin Hawk as Everyone Else.

Jim Anzide's direction attains uninterrupted insanity, aided by the top-flight designs of Jeffery Eisenmann's setting of coffee-house-art platform and salvage-yard jalopy, Gayle Baizer's cracked costumes, George Cybulski's lunatic lighting and Mark Abel's kitschy-kooky soundscape.

Folie is lavishly gifted, firing off nonsequiturs and references like Eugene Ionesco rifling through Al Franken's mail, but the bullet-like trajectory eludes genuine enigma. Despite the outrageous occurrences, the text is more facile than savage, its impact fading with the fade-out. Nonetheless, "Panama" delivers a knockout for its duration, plus Cheese Whiz-laden crackers for sustenance as you stagger to your car.

-- David C. Nichols

"Panama," Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Nov. 15, 22, 2 and 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 22. Mature audiences. $15-$20. (562) 432-1818 or (562) 985-7000. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.


'San Andreas' has its faults

Writer-director Andy Mitton blurs the line between camp and melodrama in "The Graves of San Andreas" at the Century City Playhouse.

The plot's basic structure is engagingly gothic: A group of modern-day Hollywood hopefuls, including one established star, have a wild, "get the guest" party in the star's luxury flat -- the same apartment where a famous murder-suicide took place in the 1930s. During the course of the party, one young actor vaults back and forth in time to befriend the self-same ghost who killed himself and his wife some 70 years before.

Mitton structures his story around familiar Hollywood prototypes -- young innocents, big bad Hollywood wolves, with a fawning agent thrown in for good measure. The premise is promising, but Mitton never settles on any recognizable style. Dialogue ranges from retro repartee reminiscent of "The Thin Man" to confessional spewing more suited to a psychodrama workshop.

The effect is bafflingly digressive, particularly since Mitton seemingly has difficulty distinguishing between primary and secondary characters. With little regard to the furtherance of the plot, virtually everyone is allotted an agonized monologue. Even a novel, Zelig-like character (Crispin Freeman, in the best performance of the evening) breaks out of his robotic mold for a histrionic scene. It's all very democratic, but tonally, it's a mess -- a melange of warring styles that tries our attention and our patience.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"The Graves of San Andreas," 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 15. $10. (310) 393-1995. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.


Telegraphing a tragic ending

Sometimes a set piece can say too much. Trefoni Michael Rizzi has constructed a doozy for this revival of Brian Friel's "Translations": an oversized map of the Northern Irish region where Gaelic speakers are about to face forced Anglicization by edict of an awakening empire.

Unrolling over most of an otherwise naturalistic barn set, where the O'Donnell family runs a renegade "hedge school" -- essentially a more erudite version of home-schooling, circa 1833 -- Rizzi's map makes for a disconcertingly abstract playing area.

Worse, it over-determines the play's tragic destination. Characters may talk dreadfully about fate, but even with a tragedy an audience needs to suspend disbelief that there's a fighting chance against it.

This defeated tone infects the rest of an otherwise fine, mostly well-acted production. Friel's mythical town of Ballybeg is the sort of place where a child christened in the first act will have a wake by the third -- and where the Greek-quoting headmaster, Hugh Mor O'Donnell (Jack Conley), will use both occasions as an excuse to get roaring drunk.

Standing in the face of such crushing odds are Hugh's sons, saintly farmhand Manus (a touching Scott Damian) and glad-handing Owen (Jarret LeMaster), who's on the British payroll as a translator. Owen brings with him a romantic English cartographer (engaging, Roddy McDowall-ish Matt Lutz) who falls in love with Ireland -- or, more specifically, with milkmaid Maire (Maria Lay). And what good can come o' that, I ask ye?

In short, Friel's elegiac play would benefit from a less elegiac, awe-struck production. Director Marianne Savell's loving care is evident in every painstaking detail -- Carolyn Lancet's rustic costumes, Bill E. Kickbush's overachieving lighting. What's missing is a sense that this lost, lamented Gaelic world is more than a doomed relic. The map says: Forget about it.

-- R.K.

"Translations," Actors Co-Op, 1760 N. Gower, Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 14. $22. (323) 462-8460. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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