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Exploring Muslim identity

Talk about the many sides to a complicated subject: Only a few blocks from the Mark Taper Forum, where Tony Kushner’s gripping “Homebody/Kabul” probes the deep chasms between fundamentalist Islam and the West, Cornerstone Theater Company sets out to bridge cultural fissures with a lighter, closer-to-home touch in “You Can’t Take It With You: An American Muslim Remix” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

The sixth project in Cornerstone’s faith-based play cycle, Peter Howard’s contemporary adaptation shrewdly uses Moss Hart’s and George S. Kaufman’s cheerful, breezy war horse to illuminate and humanize its subjects. The update transposes the original’s comic clash between two families with very different value systems, in the process slyly demolishing stereotypes.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 22, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater review -- A review of “You Can’t Take It With You: An American Muslim Remix” in Friday’s Calendar section incorrectly identified the actor who played a lawyer as Amir Hussain. The actor’s name is Avner Garbi.

First to crumble is the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity, as the Arab American Abd-ul Rahmans, a clan of quirky bohemians who live in Exposition Park, lock horns with the Khans, stiffly conservative Pakistanis from Orange County, over the Romeo and Juliet-style romance between their daughter Salmah (Sondos Kholoki-Kahf) and Ajmal Khan (Omi Vaidya). A freewheeling exiled Moritanian aristocrat (one of multiple characters by versatile Cornerstone regular Adina Porter) provides an African Muslim perspective. Without preaching or hand-holding, the play presents Muslims as diverse as the populations of any worldwide faith.

Where “Homebody/Kabul” relies on traditional finely honed performances, Cornerstone’s signature approach achieves a different kind of authenticity by recruiting much of its cast from the Muslim community, and the result is always moving regardless of the variance in acting skills. By any standard, the hilarious turns by Shishir Kurup and K.T. Thangavelu as the bewildered Mr. and Mrs. Khan are show-stealers.

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Remapping the source material is sometimes a stretch, and the convoluted narrative creaks in spots, but the play weathers the transition remarkably well. When the lawyer-turned-hedonist patriarch (Amir Hussain) invokes the Koran verse “All that is on earth will perish” as an inspiration to enjoy life, this elegant, poetic equivalent retains all the original title’s whimsy and celebratory spirit.

-- Philip Brandes

“You Can’t Take It With You: An American Muslim Remix,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $20 or pay-what-you-can. (213) 613-1700, Ext. 33. Running time: 3 hours.

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Couples in close quarters

“Black comedy” usually refers to darkness in the material, not the race of the artists. Both connotations apply to “The Offering,” Gus Edwards’ perversely fascinating 1977 play about two couples confined to a small New York apartment. While owing a debt to Pinter, Albee and even Bunuel, Edwards (“Louie & Ophelia”) has a curious, acerbic theatrical voice all his own.

Indeed, the originality and unpredictability of Edwards’ writing is the best reason to see this imperfect production, the first by NoHo’s Riprap Studio Theatre. Director Charles Weldon heads the cast as Big Bob Tyrone, a former grifter now retired to catatonic TV watching and monosyllabic exchanges with his sullen wife, Princess (Sandra Maria Nutt). We never find out what put these two into such a funk; even when visited by glad-handing Martin (Christopher Warren), a former protege in crime, and his Vegas showgirl squeeze (Katia Bokor), Bob and Princess act like zombies.

Or like vampires. Soon the older couple warily awakens to the newcomers, and the game is on. Things twist and turn into absurdities that are nearly implausible but always compelling, and often shockingly funny.

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The turns could be a lot sharper. Some of the would-be Pinter-esque pauses feel more like the dead air of soap opera close-ups; some scenes that should simmer to a boil just evaporate. Warren and Nutt share an intense, enigmatic standoff, and Weldon neatly embodies the play’s strange appeal as an old-timer who’s somehow both funny and frightening, both unsympathetic and utterly watchable.

-- Rob Kendt

“The Offering,” Riprap Entertainment in association with Alumni of the Negro Ensemble Company, Riprap Studio Theatre, 5755 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 7 (no performances Nov. 27-28). $20. (818) 990-7498; after 6 p.m., (818) 763-8345. 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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Workshop opens with ‘Vinegar’

Noteworthy fervor accompanies “Vinegar Tom,” now playing the Electric Lodge in Venice as part of EdgeFest 2003. This inaugural production of the newly formed Workshop 360 attacks Caryl Churchill’s feminist deconstruction of the 17th century Essex witchcraft trials with fierce aplomb.

Churchill, acclaimed for such plays as “Cloud 9,” “Top Girls” and “Fen,” is one of England’s leading proponents of politically skewed dramaturgy. This describes “Vinegar Tom,” first performed in 1976 by the women’s collective Monstrous Regiment.

Its focal point is Alice (the arresting Tasha Ames), introduced post-coitus on set designer Mia Torres’ wood-slatted central platform. This unrepentant rural hussy yearns to follow her anonymous seducer (Ben Messmer) to London.

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The tryst comes back to upend Alice, as does her friendship with married, unhappily pregnant Susan (Azizah Hodges). They seek out “cunning woman” Ellen (Mary Beth Manning), whose ministrations raise the stakes.

So does Alice’s acid-tongued mother, Joan (L. Zane, who also directs), in conflict with former crony Margery (Tracy Winters) and Margery’s husband, Jack (Time Winters, alternating with Doug Tompos). Candace Johnson, John Srednicki, David Weidoff and Arroyo Lloyd complete the cast.

Churchill’s arcane narrative builds to its kangaroo tribunal using modern dance, film and Brechtian rock commentary (courtesy of music director Dave Crocco and lead vocalist Cela Scott). It ends with an academic summation by Manning and Zane as pompous dons.

The company shows great promise, its accomplished actors digging into Churchill’s text and Kate Hutter’s choreography. Zane oversees a smart execution, especially Cori Uchita’s lighting and Gayle Baizer’s costumes.

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The problem is those interludes, marred by self-conscious visuals and blurred intelligibility. Since Churchill’s sardonic statement emerges via these segments, this is a vexing distraction. It doesn’t prevent “Vinegar Tom” from being worthwhile, but it certainly dilutes the spell.

-- David C. Nichols

“Vinegar Tom,” Electric Lodge Performance Space, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. Mature audiences. $15. (310) 578-2228 Running time: 2 hours.

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Sinking into domestic abyss

The title character of Angus MacLachlan’s sobering drama “The Dead Eye Boy” is Soren, a 14-year-old sociopath.

His behavior isn’t surprising -- he was conceived during the rape of a 15-year-old North Carolina girl, who unfortunately decided to rear him on her own. Then she became a drug addict, which hardly improved her maternal skills.

As the play opens, Shirley-Diane (Lindsay Frame), now 29, is hopeful. In an addicts’ support group, she has found Billy (Jonathan Kehoe), an ex-Marine who loves her and proposes marriage. But his arrival on the scene is no panacea.

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This MetaTheatre Company production, staged by Anthony Meindl, is a sometimes harrowing look into a domestic abyss. Not only do these people have to sort through their troubled pasts and their mutual present, but they’re at the edge of poverty. Shirley-Diane and Billy have vulnerable, low-paying jobs. Their addicts’ group is their only apparent support system.

Frame and Kehoe plunge into their roles with visceral passion. Frame catches the desperation of a woman whose own youth was cut short. Kehoe is especially impressive not only in his character’s authentic voice but also as Billy briefly dons a phony personality to sell vacuum cleaners.

As Soren, Paul Hovermale is appropriately menacing. But he looks older than 14, and his more boyish scenes are a stretch, particularly two flashbacks in which he’s supposed to be 9. Scenes in which he suddenly tickles his mother to disarm her rages would be more convincing if he looked younger.

Key details of the climax take place offstage. While not spelling everything out may make the writing a bit more graceful, it also raises questions about exactly what happened. Generally, however, the play’s unabated astringency is a valuable reminder that not every lower-middle-class family has the option of thrashing out its problems on a daytime talk show.

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-- Don Shirley

“The Dead Eye Boy,” Third Street Theatre, 8140 W. 3rd St., L.A. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. $20. (323) 993-7113. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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Police drama, as seen on TV

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A cop is bending the rules. Internal affairs is asking questions. Will anyone in his department break the code of silence?

Find out on this week’s episode of “Blue Silence.”

That’s the title of a new play being presented by Theatre 40, but there isn’t much in it that couldn’t be seen in any given episode of a television police drama.

Written by James McLure (whose credits include the short plays “Lone Star” and “Pvt. Wars”), the story focuses on Boyle (Gavin Glennon), a veteran New York City police officer recently assigned a rookie partner, Dewey (Drew Wicks). Boyle’s idea of mentoring is to pummel a local tough guy, explaining, “This reestablishes who’s who on the street.” He accepts money for overlooking certain miscreants’ activities, and he has a pact with a powerful drug dealer. Dewey, meanwhile, says things like: “I want to be one of the good guys.”

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McLure goes to pains to present a full picture of police officers’ underpaid, overstressed lives. He’s careful to indicate that not all of his officer characters are crooked, and his investigators are morally compromised in their own way.

Director Stephen Tobolowsky crisply and artfully stages the 95 minutes of action, and even the smallest of the 22 roles is fully and believably rendered. Still, it’s hard to buy any of this as “a drama that works the same way as the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles,” as Tobolowsky claims in his program notes.

-- Daryl H. Miller

“Blue Silence,” Theatre 40, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. $18-$20. (310) 364-0535. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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Keeping party going through war

The weekend after Sept. 11, 2001, the Evidence Room did some brave counter programming: a silly, disjointed romp, “Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem,” which alternated elliptical two-character sketches by Charles L. Mee Jr. with wild dance pieces by Ken Roht. It was about as far from a response to the attacks as you could get, but it had a strange, unsettling resonance. Could we really boogie and chatter while the world burned?

Two years later, the company has revisited both impulses in light of world events: Roht’s recent full-length dance show, “He Pounces,” was considerably grimmer and more aggressive than his Imperialists bits, and Gordon Dahlquist’s new one-act, “Messalina,” has three couples drinking, talking and flirting -- only now their irrelevance is italicized by the apparent world war raging outside while they party.

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Dahlquist is a deft, droll writer with a knack for inspired non sequiturs and simmering, sneaky subtext, and Bart DeLorenzo’s suggestive, unsentimental direction is an ideal match. Soon, though, the artful indirection and decadent diversion are lashed to a metaphor invoked by the play’s title, as a bookish writer (Leo Marks) pitches some lurid stories culled from the late Roman Empire to a glib agent (Bruce McKenzie) and a lush Italian starlet (Dorie Barton). Joining the Rome-is-burning parlor game are a conscience-stricken woman (Ames Ingham), a loopy medical researcher (Lauren Campedelli) and a Eurotrash hanger-on (Rhys Coiro). All that’s missing is a fiddle.

Ultimately Dahlquist’s central premise -- that in tumultuous times our choice is either to be entertained and oblivious or “tense and questioning,” as one character puts it -- feels contrived, even inhuman. Theater artists, above all, should know that we’re more complicated creatures than that -- particularly theater artists with the stones to put on a silly romp while Ground Zero still smoldered.

-- R.K.

“Messalina,” Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. $15-20. (213) 381-7118. 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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