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‘Whole Banana’ ripe for bigger bowl

Poor Fran. A struggling Manhattan artist, she is ending an inert long-term relationship, yet though neither her creativity nor furniture is returning, her ex won’t stop showing up. Furthermore, Fran has quit smoking, creating cravings so crazy-making that she licks light bulbs. She has purchased enough of these to illuminate Radio City Music Hall, plus sufficient Bon Ami to scrub down every borough but keeps blocking on foodstuffs. Don’t even bring up dating.

In addled desperation, Fran turns to God, or her “higher power, or whatever.” “I need you to help me shop,” she prays. “Is that something that you do?” This invocation ignites others even quirkier, culminating in a titanic plea for love, on the highest plane. As in Mt. Olympus, whence Fran’s prayers are answered in the immortal flesh. Here lies the zany appeal of “The Whole Banana,” currently rattling the Court Theatre. Writer-performer Deb Norton’s fractured romantic fable of how Fran rediscovers herself through her divine interventionist is a hysterical post-feminist lark.

Director Kim Maxwell-Brown maintains a scintillating staging, and her designers follow suit. Julieann Getman’s lofty set, Gil Tordjman’s loopy lighting, Julie Ferrin’s zippy sound and Lisa V. Foley and Laura Stockton’s zesty costumes are apt and clever.

As Fran, Norton is a major discovery, Ellen DeGeneres cut with Polly Draper, and her scenes with Dwier Brown’s winning, mercurial deity are sidesplitting. Nealla Gordon’s best friend, Chris Nottoli’s boyfriend and Carol Locatell’s Maria Ouspenskaya-voiced catalyst offer convulsive support.

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Norton’s glib authorial voice is fertile, and “Banana” often seems the freshest urban fantasy since “Prelude to a Kiss.” What are still ripening are the seriocomic aspects. Their emergence and the citywide chaos of the hastily drawn climax feel almost arbitrary, and the moral isn’t exactly new-minted.

Such discrepancies hardly impede enjoyment. Norton should have packed houses aplenty before which to polish “The Whole Banana” while awaiting the development deal she and this tickling property so clearly deserve.

-- David C. Nichols

“The Whole Banana,” Court Theatre, 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. No performance tonight. Ends Nov. 23. $25. (310) 281-1152. Running time: 2 hours.

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*

Sentimental and ‘Wicked’ too

“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Ray Bradbury’s lushly sentimental parable of good and evil, produced by Bradbury’s own Pandemonium Theatre Company, arrives at the state-of-the-art new Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica just in time for the Halloween season.

The play, adapted by Bradbury from his classic novel of the same name, revolves around a satanic traveling carnival that threatens the citizens of a tiny Norman Rockwell-esque community. The adolescent heroes of the piece are Will Halloway (Grady Hutt) and Jim Nightshade (J. Skylar Testa), their names indicating their personalities: one “hallowed,” the other darker in hue. When a sinister carnival run by the mysterious Mr. Dark (Mark Aaron) arrives in town, the battle lines between the forces of light and darkness are drawn.

Bradbury’s kinder, gentler horror yarn manages to be alternately creepy and uplifting, yet certain freakish plot elements -- an eldritch carousel, an eerie hall of mirrors -- pose inherent production problems, particularly in a small theater.

Director Alan Neal Hubbs and his production team, including set designer John Edw. Blankenchip, lighting designer Chuck Wilcox and costume designers Nadine D. Parkos and Gelareh Khalioun, cope valiantly with the play’s challenges, as does sound and special effects designer Phil Flad, who really has his work cut out for him.

The result is sometimes cheesy, the performances overblown, yet it’s all consistently diverting in a playful, peeled-grapes-for-bloody-eyeballs kind of way. Spearheading the cast is the excellent Jay Gerber as Will’s wise father, whose acerbic goodness deflects some very nasty forces indeed. If you don’t feel like battling the traffic to Knott’s Scary Farm, you might try a whirl on this spooky carousel.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

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“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 8. $20. (800) 595-4849. Running time: 2 hours.

*

New script flawed but well-played

Issues of mortality, identity and enduring partnership underscore “Autumn Canticle,” receiving its West Coast premiere at the Celebration Theatre. John W. Lowell’s drama of longtime classical-music companions and the scholar who shifts their modalities is valiantly enacted and textually atonal.

Set in Croton, N.Y., circa 1972, the elegiac premise concerns celebrated composer Peter Billings (William McCauley), and his caustic, ever-musing muse, baritone David Williams (Alan Brooks). This fiftysomething pair, a Yankee edition of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, face career uncertainty as “Autumn Canticle” begins. Billings, recovering from open-heart surgery, is plagued by artistic blockage that dates back to a failed opera conceived for Williams, who discarded his own compositional aspirations at the Curtis Institute, in deference to his lover’s genius. These and other expository details surface for a Billings autobiography instigated by Walker (Seth Resnick), the duo’s graduate student houseguest. Complicating matters are decades of insulation erected between Billings and Williams and a clandestine affair.

Production values are imposing, with Keith E. Mitchell’s verismo set, Milsa Watson’s era clothes and Andrea Housh’s modulated lighting all estimable. Brooks tackles his hyperbolic role with heroic elan, McCauley’s Norman Lloyd-meets-Isaac Stern quality is touching, and Resnick possesses sufficient ambiguity.

But the script they interpret fuses arid Terence Rattigan reveries to disinterred Terrence McNally sallies, which director Randy Brenner’s conducting can’t assuage. The overwrought writing focuses on shoptalky context while missing behavioral truth. By the ending, when Walker’s motive finally emerges, the irony lies in how Lowell’s structural measures have subverted his message.

Examining mature same-sex relationships with literate dignity is certainly admirable. Still, though knowing buffs may dig the references and well-researched parallels, this gallantly delivered “Canticle” is, regrettably, a pallid, palliative chanson d’amour.

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-- D.C.N.

“Autumn Canticle,” Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays -Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Nov. 29. Mature audiences. $20. (323) 957-1884. Running time: 2 hours.

*

Believable family, a too tidy peace

Evenhandedness is a virtue in diplomacy but not necessarily in playwriting.

Case in point, Alison Tatlock’s warmly crafted new dramedy “The Shore,” in which the grown children of an upper-middle-class New Jersey couple return to the homestead to argue, bond and take stock.

All four characters -- closeted gay son (David Wiater), bitter single sister (Laura Jane Salvato), terminally ill mom (Gates McFadden), laconic dad (Garrett M. Brown) -- get full-bodied portraits mixed equally with sympathetic and off-putting elements.

Under director Adam Prince, the actors rise to the occasion beautifully, giving each exchange resonant subtext, each flash of humor a pitiless sting.

The son’s inevitable coming-out scene is a crossed-wire classic, flawlessly played by Wiater and Brown. Together the four performers capture perfectly the painful closeness of people who know each other all too well and use that knowledge to manipulate as much as understand -- in short, they make a believable family.

Less credible is Tatlock’s pro forma back story of extramarital secrets and their terrible toll on the unknowing children. At best, the play’s unraveling revelations have the bittersweet irony of Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” in which characters oversimplify their parents’ motives.

But where Greenberg’s play gives ambivalence its full, disorienting due, Tatlock ultimately blesses all her characters with a kind of mutual rapprochement. For a play that unspools in doubled real time -- the first act in an immaculate downstairs living room, the second act, set during the same hour, in the candlelit refuge of the upstairs bathroom -- it’s a bit too tidy. If only every family could find such peace in an hour.

-- Rob Kendt

“The Shore,” Ensemble Studio Theatre -- The L.A. Project at Stage 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 8. $18-$20. (213) 368-9552. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

*

Lost connections -- and nuances

The white noise of a broadcast breakdown can be unnerving or soothing by turns. It is sometimes both at once in David Greig’s 1999 play “The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union,” in which every character is atomized and communication-impaired, from a pair of superannuated Russian spacemen (Peter Vance, Aaron Lyons) stranded in forgotten orbit to a mismatched middle-aged Scottish couple, Vivienne (Jennifer Pennington) and Keith (Dietrich Smith).

In the first of a series of fateful associations with which Greig tenuously binds together the play’s tragically transient world of airport lounges, hotels, strip clubs and suburban flats, Keith is having a joyless affair with the displaced daughter (Anna Khaja) of one of the cosmonauts, and Vivienne later befriends a French scientist (Benjamin Burdick) obsessed with contacting an unidentified orbiting object. Guess who’s in it?

Audiences will either find Greig’s daisy chain of thematic motifs precious, as if he’s somehow cheating at poetic significance, or stunningly perceptive, as characters with so much more in common than they know persistently, heartbreakingly fail to connect.

Open Fist’s intermittently brilliant but half-baked new production fogs too many of these nuances. Director Stefan Novinski has ignored Greig’s directive to double-cast key roles -- a crucial element, it would seem, of the playwright’s teasing parallel-realities conceit.

And apart from the cosmonaut’s claustrophobic capsule (set by Eric Hugunin) and a simple starlight effect (lighting by Dan Reed), the design is perfunctory; we have only the play’s uniformly strong performances -- particularly Pennington’s circumspect Vivienne and Bjorn Johnson as a chilly-turned-needy diplomat -- to create the play’s world. This is enough for us to connect with Greig’s unique voice, but there’s heavy static on the line.

-- R.K.

“The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union,” Open Fist Theatre Company, 1625 N. La Brea Ave. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 22. $15 (Fri.-Sat.); Sundays, pay what you can. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.


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