Virtue is still its own reward in 'Hero'

Much like its slacker protagonist, Kenneth Lonergan's 2001 play "Lobby Hero" is much smarter and stronger than it first appears. This single-set four-hander initially seems quite content to hunker down in real time with twentysomething security guard Jeff as he aimlessly passes night shifts in a seedy New York hotel, doing crosswords or shooting the breeze with anyone who drops by.

Eventually the play thickens and Jeff stirs to action. And true to its title, "Lobby Hero" emerges as a casual, unforcedly old-fashioned portrait of everyday virtue.

The Odyssey Theatre's new production nails the virtue but fumbles the casual part. A laid-back late-night mood is essential to the play's seemingly formless accumulation of detail. But director Kenneth Alan Williams appears afraid we'll be bored or distracted if the themes aren't signposted from the top, or if his Jeff (Aaron MacPherson) doesn't work overtime to ingratiate.

Indeed, MacPherson plays Jeff with a naked neediness that ultimately proves affecting. But he can't touch the character's dry sarcasm or suggest the quasi-Zen detachment Jeff uses to transcend his job's monotony, as Kevin Corrigan did definitively in South Coast Repertory's 2002 production.

Darren Law has some authentic, bracing moments as Jeff's upstanding boss, but he overplays the character's torment and quashes some of his jokes. As a pair of bickering NYPD cops, Amy Pietz and Scott Cummins effectively walk away with the show; every moment they're onstage the play's signature mix of humor and horror locks beautifully into place. The fuzz are packing the real heat in this "Hero."

-- Rob Kendt

"Lobby Hero," the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 12. $10 to $25. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

*

Musical with a murderous bent

Stephen Sondheim and his writing partners have long used the theater as a social laboratory in which to study complex and even creepy impulses. In "Assassins," he and John Weidman pushed still further, only to scare people outright. The original 1991 production quickly faltered, and the current New York revival will close Sunday, despite its haul of five Tony Awards.

This musical refuses to be silenced, however, because courageous performers, such as those at the Hunger Artists Theatre, continue to lend it their voices.

Set designer David Scaglione takes the audience inside an amusement arcade and its patriotically decorated shooting gallery, an otherworldly gathering place for the nine would-be and successful assassins of U.S. presidents. Here, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Palkoner) tries to make history understand his alternate vision of America; Leon Czolgosz (Sean F. Gray) and Giuseppe Zangara (Jeremy Gable) stew over social inequities; Samuel Byck (Howard R. Patterson) contemplates the nation's deep political divisions; and, in a concession to comedy, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Courtney Maureen Moon) and Sara Jane Moore (Karen D. Merrill) fire their mouths more skillfully than their guns. Meanwhile, a sweet-voiced Balladeer (Michael Parillo) tries to assure us that "angry men don't write the rules, and guns don't right the wrongs."

In this push and pull, we see how easily the love for America -- and enjoyment of its freedoms -- can flip into hate.

The sole accompaniment at Hunger Artists is provided by P. Matthew Park at the piano, which suits the 19th century styles written for such figures as Booth but proves inadequate for more contemporary numbers. Worse, the penultimate "Something Just Broke," sung by a chorus of mourning Americans, is undercut by weak voices.

In all other respects, though, director Shannon C.M. Flynn and her cast -- which also includes Steven Hulsey and Christopher Spencer -- present this material with clarity and empathy. Yes, that's scary, but also revelatory.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Assassins," Hunger Artists Theatre, College Business Park, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Fridays, Saturdays and July 26, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 1. $18. (714) 680-6803. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

*

Existential setup done in triplicate

The time in "Life x 3," receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Elephant Asylum Theatre in Hollywood, is always now, with infinite variables. Yasmina Reza's tripartite existential study of modern domestic dishabille runs one situation through alternative courses, a chaotic comedy of ideas.

Its setting is current-day Paris, though Rossano Galante's original music and Ross Copeland's lighting suggest BBC-TV. Astrophysicist Henry (Bowd Beal) and corporate lawyer Sonia (Amanda Melby) are introduced, post-supper.

Six-year-old Arnaud hollers from offstage (voiced by Renie Rivas), resisting his bedtime. His parents' subsequent debate hints at yawning fissures in their union.

The doorbell announces research hotshot Hubert Finidori (Bill Hutton) and his embittered wife, Inez (Anastasia Zavaro). They have arrived for tomorrow's dinner party tonight, Sonia's bathrobe, Henry's misgivings and Arnaud's yowls notwithstanding.

Reza, best known for her Tony-winning "Art," circles this scenario thrice, subtly shifting its elements, from a snagged stocking and halo physics to Cheez-Its and marital discord, with evident, erudite skill.

Yet, Christopher Hampton's bloodless translation does not supply Reza's string theory theatrics with anything like significance. Nor does Richard Alan Woody's direction offer much more than brisk scene changes. The accrued viewpoints lack caustic detail, which mutes both comic and serious payoffs, and there is insufficient sophistication of tone.

Thus, the stalwart cast, more intelligent than inventive, has little to illuminate beyond beats, though such aspects might improve as the run continues.

Intellectually curious audiences must decide on their own whether this clinical exercise is deep or just adept.

-- David C. Nichols

"Life x 3," Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 1. Mature audiences. $20. (818) 434-4763. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

*

The ambivalent astronomer

If knowledge is power, its guardians must be politicians of a sort. That's the compelling premise of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," in which the 17th century astronomer proves ill equipped to lead the scientific revolution he unleashes.

"Free research has its dangers," proclaims a powerful cleric threatened by Galileo's findings, and it's hard to know whether a complicated character like Brecht -- haunted by Hiroshima and swayed by Marxist collectivism -- entirely disapproved of this sentiment.

Director Michael Holmes' new production, staged in Glendale's Brand Park, buries most of the author's fascinating ambivalence in stiff costume-drama pageantry; a spirited cast of 23 spends all too much time milling about on the grass in front of a starry sheet, accompanied by severe drum rolls.

John Beckman plays the great man as an ironical Falstaff, rolling his eyes at adversity, dancing a jig in triumph and finally wallowing in regret. Indeed, Beckman seems to be playing Charles Laughton -- who translated the play with Brecht and originated the role at L.A.'s Coronet Theatre in 1947 -- more than Galileo.

Galileo's nemeses -- craven Venetian merchants, paranoid church authorities, oppressive nobles -- are mostly nuance-free heavies and fools here, with Clive Rees cutting a particularly unforgiving figure as the Cardinal Inquisitor and Tom Moses amicably chewing the scenery as a flustered businessman.

The show's highlight is an exchange between Galileo and a curious monk (Matt Van Curen), who passionately defends the church's care for its downtrodden flock against Galileo's lofty appeals to reason. If more of this "Galileo" had such a dialectical spark, we might feel the pull of its ideas rather than merely observing the motion of its bodies.

-- R.K.

"Galileo," Glendale Summer Theater Project, the Action/Reaction Theater Company, at Brand Park, 1601 W. Mountain St., Glendale. 7:30 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. July 24-25. Free; suggested donation $10. (818) 786-1045. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

*

'Mama' recalls bygone comedies

One-liners abound in "Mama From China," premiering at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood. C.Y. Lee's culture-clash comedy has sufficient quips to sustain Norman Lear and Neil Simon for a decade.

The Clinton-era setting (impressively designed by Michael Vaccaro and director Mike Rademaekers) is the Westwood home of the Greens. Ambitious producer Ralph (Warren Hall) pursues development-deal green lights while ignoring everything important, including his editor wife, Mary (Heidi Mages).

Their houseguest, collegiate Ling (Kristin Pesceone), announces the arrival of the titular Moo Lan (Deborah Png, alternating with Cici Lau), who embraces the Greens' hospitality with pragmatic opportunism. Armed with Lee's pithiest syllogisms, this cagey post-Mao maven -- "Positive thinking is my capital" -- insinuates herself with Mary, hernia-afflicted writer Walter Goldbaum (Eric Campbell), the readers of Mary's magazine and Ralph's hoped-for "fat cats," including financier Charles Martin (Steve Howard).

Complications and accelerating outbursts erupt via the short-fused Ralph, but all resolves in time for an upwardly mobile ending.

This pertly done sitcom carries clear echoes of the venerable Lee's bestselling "The Flower Drum Song" (source of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical).

Png has ripe deadpan chops, and her colleagues are competent, though Hall's miniature Ed O'Neill attack wears thin quickly.

Not as swiftly as the pat boulevard structure and wholly constructed dialogue, though. The situational exigencies and cracked fortune cookie wisecracks recall 1950s trifles, with social comment and spicy language dropped in, like an egg in soup. Fans of populist formula may be sated, and Asian American audiences elated, but "Mama's" gentle fun is sorely dated.

-- D.C.N.

"Mama From China," Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 1. $18. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

Coward's style no walk in the park

Some dated sensibilities notwithstanding, Noel Coward's 1925 comedy, "Hay Fever," is still nothing to sneeze at. Its dialogue still oozes with the urbane, slyly subversive wit that made Coward an overnight celebrity at 23.

Alexander Wells' modest -- and free -- alfresco staging by the Culver City Public Theatre sports committed performances, and its park setting is well-suited to Coward's breezy weekend-in-the-country farce about romantic trysts spiraling out of control. Nevertheless, this semiprofessional production frequently overreaches in attempting to revive the sophistication of a bygone era.

To fully realize Coward's signature delight in upending the conventions of polite society, the center of the action is -- or should be -- an ongoing game of one-upmanship from a wealthy bohemian couple, actress Judith and novelist David Bliss (Terra Shelman and Jack Winnick), as they try to top each other's outrageous behavior. To that end, each has invited a potential paramour -- a prizefighter (Markus Cummings) and a ditsy flapper Kyra Lin) -- to their home for the weekend. Not to be outdone, their grown children (Rissa Brutus, Corey Scott) have lured their own prey (Dean Edward, Erica Frene), setting up an elaborate round of sexual musical chairs.

Shelman's Judith is an appropriately campy stage diva who transforms the most mundane aspects of daily life into high drama, and Edward is convincing in his character's befuddlement. In general, however, the performances are glacial and stilted in their attempt to grapple with period British accents and mannerisms.

Even within its modest ambitions, the production misses opportunities.

Wells' nontraditional casting of the Bliss children could have gained some dramatic effect by making their parents an interracial couple. On a purely scenic level, it was a curious choice to completely block out the park backdrop with a set of painted flats, when it could have been so easily incorporated with a picture window.

-- Philip Brandes

"Hay Fever," Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park, Motor Avenue and Braddock Drive, Culver City. 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Ends July 25. Free. (310) 712-5482. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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