It's Oscar night in Beverly Hills. Self-absorbed auteur Bruce Delamitri prepares for the annual glad-handing orgy. Gallingly, Bruce's estranged wife, Farrah, won't reschedule their next-day property settlement session, as she informs him while collecting their nymphet daughter, Velvet.
Bruce's caustic producer browbeats him over the PR nightmare that his nominated film, "Ordinary Americans," has caused. Bruce's latest emotionless art-house shocker follows a thrill-killing pair who cut too close to real-life serial killers Wayne and Scout, currently terrorizing four states.
Bruce returns home with both Oscar and his presenter, ex-centerfold Brooke Daniels. This pragmatic assignation ends when the Mall Murderers appear, having broken in during the awards. The pair eschew money, escape or tabloid idolatry: Their intent is determining cultural responsibility for their disaffected crimes.
This collision into collusion makes up Ben Elton's "Popcorn" at the Rude Guerrilla Theatre in Santa Ana. British stand-up Elton's dramatization of his 1996 satirical bestseller scores wicked points by targeting a consumer society's inability to discuss its own culpability.
Certainly, director-designer Jay Fraley and company understand the game.
Vince Campbell's quasi-Tarantino antihero unravels with aplomb, approaching Harvey Keitel. The ever-amazing Ryan Harris and the priceless Jami McCoy are outrageous, unpredictable sociopaths. Erika Tai's Brooke is fearless, drolly asserting her "actress" status while bleeding out. Karen Harris, Jennifer Cadena, Sharyn Case, Tony Gilbert and Keith Bennett complete the redoubtable cast.
Ironically, Elton's exposed argument works against the dark comic tension, slashing to read, but unabashed didacticism in action. That needn't deter socialists, cineastes and industry pros from attending this sardonic film-in-waiting.
Less esoteric tastes might find that "Popcorn's" climactic polemic suits page more than stage.
-- David C. Nichols
"Popcorn," Rude Guerrilla Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Also April 15, 8 p.m. Dark April 11. Ends April 18. Mature audiences. $12-$15. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 2 hours.
A world according to John Irving
"My father worked for the Austrian Tourist Bureau. It was my mother's idea that our family travel with him when he went on the road as a Tourist Bureau spy."
So begins an enigmatic visit to "The Pension Grillparzer." John Irving's short story, a key inset from "The World According to Garp," crystallizes that landmark 1978 novel's heartbreaking hilarity, approaching literature's great miniaturists. This spurs Mollie Boice's stage adaptation in its Southern California premiere by the Company Rep. Plying reader's theater tactics and nontraditional energy, director-set designer Boice transcribes Irving with notable invention.
"Grillparzer's" cracked postwar ethos lands through effective stylization (barring the jarring plastic folding chairs). Period luggage becomes an automobile. A chalked-in floor plan and mimetic gambits evoke the title bed-and-breakfast. Luke Moyer's lighting reveals shadowy figures lurking overhead and upstage, Max Kinberg's music recalls Anton Karas, and Esther Blodgett's costumes have quiet wit.
The ensemble is beautifully interactive. Irving's narrator (Brandon Ford Green) provides the fulcrum for Father (John Edwin Shaw), Mother (Karen Reed), young Robo (Chase Morgan) and widowed grandmother Johanna (the superb Leslie Simms). Herr Theobald (Tony Burton) greets them from an actor-formed counter. Steve Shaw makes a deadpan water closet. Theobald's circus kin (Tony Edwards, Philip McKeown and Bobbi Stamm) are intrepid, Khamara Pettus' final coda is apt, and Jon Bastian's bear and Matt Ryan's hand-walking man own the house.
However, Boice's narrative parsing, though clever, is problematic. The incessant dispersal of voices blunts the lunacy and sorrow, denoting its own adroitness more than it suspends disbelief. Otherwise, "Grillparzer" is charming family fare, and Irving fanatics must check in.
"The Pension Grillparzer," the Company Rep at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 25. $15-$22.50. (818) 506-7750. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Cataclysms await young Dubliners
Irish-born playwright Mark O'Rowe laces his play "Howie the Rookie," now at the Celtic Arts Center, with gallows humor of a peculiarly Irish sort.
Not that O'Rowe's characters are in on the joke. Life is a serious business indeed for these impoverished, uneducated and unemployed young Dubliners, mired in hopelessness and always teetering on the edge of violence.
O'Rowe's play consists of two solo monologues separated by an act break. The first monologue is delivered by the Howie Lee (Mark Byrne), an inarticulate but strangely profound young man who is bent on a ludicrous mission of vengeance. It seems that a distant acquaintance, the Rookie Lee, unintentionally gave Howie's good mate a raging case of scabies. Now, Howie's out to redress the wrong by tracking down and beating up the Rookie Lee.
It's an absurd situation, but sufficient to galvanize tragedy. The second act, a monologue by the Rookie Lee (John O'Callaghan), is also firmly rooted in the preposterous. While ferociously itching his scabies, the Rookie Lee blunders into a tank of Siamese fighting fish owned by a local mobster, who demands a huge sum for the gaffe. However, the Rookie Lee finds an unlikely champion in his former nemesis, the Howie Lee, who is reeling from his own devastating loss and has nothing to lose.
Both monologues end cataclysmically, but director Natalie Van Doren's effectively muted staging largely mitigates the excesses of O'Rowe's sometimes overwrought plot, while the intense Byrne and the comical/tragical O'Callaghan both unearth the underlying humanity in their gritty losers.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"Howie the Rookie," Celtic Arts Center, 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. through April 10. Also April 8, 15, 16. $20. (818) 760-8322. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
The almighty dollar's currency
Cody's Henderson's world premiere play "Cold/Tender" launches the first full season at the handsome new Boston Court facility in Pasadena. Directed by the theater's co-artistic director, Jessica Kubzansky, Henderson's stylized and sprawling show traces the progression of a single dollar bill through the decades in an attempt to say something profound about American "empire," Third World suffering and the creeping downside of the capitalist system. Although the characters are well-wrought and consistently diverting, the play's actual point gets lost in the general long-windedness.
Susan Gratch's minimalist scenic design delineates the play's diverse locales, which include present-day Havana, where journalist Dan Baines (Hugo Armstrong) is vacationing with his hyperliberal girlfriend Julie (Casey Siegenfeld) and his gal pal Kate (Ashley West Leonard). Seen in 1962 Miami, three teens -- gawky and cerebral San Francisco (Mandy Freund), her precociously sexy best friend Rhonda (Amanda Troop), and their mutual admirer Wesley (Johnathan McClain) -- take refuge in a bomb shelter while the Cuban Missile Crisis rages. In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Russian immigrants Vlad (Alex Veadov) and wife Sasha (Ann Stocking) minister to their clients at an upscale California spa while waiting to hear if their relatives near the meltdown site are alive or dead.
Kubzansky's staging is characteristically crisp and the actors are terrific, but in the end we sense that the play intends us to embrace a sweeping sense of American culpability and shame. However, the fact that the white male American characters are mostly clueless, while the immigrants are saintly and the females sage, seems blatant stereotyping that undermines the intended rationale.
"Cold/Tender," the Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 2. $25-$30. (626) 683-6883. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Canted with a tin ear for pitch
With feminism like this, who needs misogyny? The heroines of Colette Freedman's five playlets, under the misleadingly weighty title "Deconstructing the Torah," are all tinny caricatures of feisty womanhood, with their putative Jewishness garnering little more than an obligatory glance.
Or a gawk: We first glimpse Shoshanna (Jamie Mann), the most devout of the bunch, lighting her Shabbos candles clad in simple black bra and panties. Either she belongs to the Victoria's Secret wing of the Reform movement -- or director Alexander Yannis Stephano just thought we might enjoy a little eye candy.
Freedman does have some decent sketch ideas here: a schlubby spermatozoa (Jim Blanchette) wooing a mistrustful egg (Trena Jean Custer); the "Heathers"-esque revenge fantasy of a gawky nerd (Elizabeth Kouri) against a ditzy shiksa troika; even the ridiculously ideal Jewish man, Schlomi Finkelstein (Jack Sundmacher), who springs to life as an embodiment of Shoshanna's mother's highest hopes.
But their comic potential is too often squandered in the callow obviousness of Freedman's writing, especially in a series of interstitial "debates" in verse between a corporate suit (Daniel Gibbons) and a ranting activist (Megan Williamson) whose ire is directed at -- are you ready for this, America? -- Starbucks, Wal-Mart, SUVs and, like, the government.
The evening's climactic piece, "Diamonds Aren't Forever," is a screechingly unfunny romantic comedy set in a funeral home, but it does have a pricelessly irreverent opening involving an alternative use for a coffin. That the evening's best, most inspired moment is wordless is, unfortunately, very telling.
-- Rob Kendt
"Deconstructing the Torah," Circus Theatricals at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Apr. 20. $15. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.