'Inside Job' firm in its core beliefs

Guy Zimmerman's "The Inside Job" at least has the courage of its own presumptions. It wastes no energy arguing the points it takes as foundational truths: Soulless corporate crooks are our true rulers, the Enron scandals presage a lawless republic ruled by brute force, and Texas is evil's hell mouth.

Zimmerman simply imagines -- in the bleached, arid, often haunting manner we've come to recognize as the Padua Playwrights style -- a cool, matter-of-fact apocalypse, reflected by three of its unwitting but all-too-willing handmaidens.

Actually, one of the three knows more about what's afoot than she first lets on. Heidi (Holly Ramos), a frosted-blond urchin in black boots and tiny dress, emerges as the unlikely nexus among Max (Barry del Sherman), a disgraced but unrepentant white-collar plunderer; Victoria (Jessica Margaret Dean), his icily grasping wife; and the offstage Renner, a murderous tycoon ardently feared and admired by the others.

In a series of portentous blackout scenes punctuated by Robert Oriol's eerie sound cues (Oriol also designed the stark lighting, Jeffrey Atherton the primary-color set), Max chatteringly plots a comeback, Victoria alternates between catatonia and calculation, and Heidi knowingly manipulates both, to enigmatic ends.

Zimmerman's direction is sure and supple, his text tight, teasing and self-contained, and his cast strikingly in tune with his unblinkingly bleak vision.

The opening night audience seemed similarly attuned, particularly to such observations as, "Stupidity in foreign affairs is the mark of a great power; only the truly powerful can afford to be stupid," or, "These people never admit they're wrong -- they just declare victory and move on." If that's your cup of iced tea, it is served crisply here, without sweetener.

-- Rob Kendt

"The Inside Job," presented by Padua Playwrights Productions at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 7. $20. (323) 692-2652. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

*

A 'Traviata' best viewed by fans

"The Lisbon Traviata" is a pirated recording of Maria Callas' 1958 Sao Paulo appearance in Verdi's immortal tear-jerker. This legendary performance hadn't yet seen commercial release in 1984, the era of Terrence McNally's operatic tragicomedy of gay triangulation amid the Callasians.

Ben Pablo's suave soundtrack follows McNally's specs, with a needle scratch as downbeat for the "allegro" Act 1. This trivia-heavy exchange between Callas-worshipping Mendy (David Goldyn) and fellow acolyte Stephen (Gregory G. Giles) conceals roiling passions beneath a witty, vitriolic surface.

Flamboyant, recently divorced Mendy masks his crushing loneliness and unrequited love for his crony behind diva adulation. Closeted book editor Stephen, more clear-eyed about Callas, uses placid acerbity to bury his obsession with estranged lover Michael (Tony Maietta). This erupts full-formed in the "largo" Act 2, as Stephen baits Michael's new boyfriend, Paul (the eponymous Jason), then Mike himself, with the conclusion a wholesale lift from "Carmen."

McNally knows his Founder's Circle terminology like few living playwrights, and director Michael Van Duzer approaches it with microscopic calibration. This, however, is counterproductive, though the intelligent, courageous actors represent apt casting. Giles charts Stephen's feral pathology with clinical precision, Jason's naked interloper is uninhibited and the sensitive Maietta is an eloquent find. Goldyn, less brazen than celebrated predecessor Nathan Lane, nails the pathos beneath Mendy's grandiosity.

But the beats and tempos defeat conversational realism and spontaneity, just as Lew Abrahmson's set mixes stylization and representation with indeterminate results. "Lisbon Traviata" is certainly a gay staple, witnessed by the Internet buzz engendered by this week's long-awaited London premiere. Yet it remains an ornate sudser with La Divina flourishes, recommendable to first-timers, fans of the property and EMI Classics buyers.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Lisbon Traviata," Actor's Lab, 1514 N. Gardner St., Los Angeles. Thursdays - Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 23. Mature audiences. $15-$20. (323) 769-6261. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

*

Few new tricks up this 'Act's' sleeve

All entertainers are messed-up head cases running from squalid, unloving childhoods into the unquestioning embrace of the audience.

Sound familiar? Then "Disappearing Act," a flimsy evening of warmed-over magic tricks and pop psychology, has no breaking news, and scant entertainment value, to offer.

Micah Cover stars as Sonny Aquinas, a twentysomething magician whose act, or what we see of it, is engagingly new-school and conversational. He pulls off some striking feats with an empty paper bag and what look like shifting hot coals.

But the tricks are few and far between, and they're poorly integrated into a perfunctory narrative: Nubile psych grad student Molly (Jennifer Chu) is writing her thesis on magicians. Before you can say "shazam" she's hopped into Sonny's bed, though to her frustration physical intimacy is all he has to offer. How to get him to open up about his painful past? And while we're at it, what is Molly hiding?

As tiresomely simplistic as Peter Fox's script is, his direction is just as inept, with the callow Cover playing scene after scene with his head turned upstage. Seasoned trouper Jeff Doucette provides some matter-of-fact pathos as a blarney-spouting, iron lung-toting coot who claims to be Sonny's long-lost father.

Joel Stoffer's simple, striking set works best for a lyrical, low-lighted magic sequence -- incidentally, one of the few times the magician's secretive art gets some eloquent words that actually relate to Sonny's personal "issues." There's also a lovely scene in which Sonny describes his first encounter with magic, as an altar boy at Mass.

Mostly, though, "Disappearing Act" has its heart on its sleeve rather than having any tricks up it.

-- R.K.

"Disappearing Act," presented by Jenine Smith (producer) at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $15-17.50. (323) 960-7789. 2 hours.

*

Sweet 'Dream' has split personality

Perhaps best known for creating the TV series "Bewitched," veteran writer Sol Saks brings his comic chops to bear in "A Dream of Butterflies" at Theatre West.

If anything, Saks gets points for sheer longevity. His play, however, seldom rises above the level of a pleasant diversion. That's not such a bad thing. Saks knows how to craft convincing characters and situations, and director Stu Berg fashions a reasonable entertainment out of his material. The problem is that "Dream" is also diverting in another sense of the word: Act 2 veers so radically from the tone that it seems a separate play linked only by characters peripherally referred to Act 1.

Act 1 concerns the lifelong romance between She (Claire Partin) and He (Rod Damer), seen in two "what if?" versions of their relationship. In some scenes, She and He pursue separate marriages and careers, but their longing for each other is evident in their infrequent, bittersweet encounters. In other overlapping scenes, they are married, sometimes fractiously so. Of course, there are downsides to each path not taken, but the act culminates, sweetly, with a poignant affirmation of marriage and commitment.

While Act 1 toys with parallel realities, Act 2 launches Saks into full absurdist mode. Here the emotionally charged interactions are all part of some cosmic play, complete with a long-suffering director (Jack Kutcher) hard-pressed to contain his temperamental cast. It's an abrupt and baffling segue that even particularly fetching turns by Sheryl Nieman and Adam Conger cannot smooth.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"A Dream of Butterflies," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd W., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 30. (Dark Thanksgiving Day.) $20. (323) 851-7977. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday November 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction Photo credit -- A photo accompanying a review of the play "Disappearing Act" in Friday's Calendar was mistakenly credited to Kevin Merrill. The photo was by Robert Neches.
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