Utopia's not within reach for these folks

In John Guare's quaintly disturbing, utterly unpredictable period drama "Lydie Breeze," characters strut and fret around a Nantucket beachfront property, circa 1895, and inflict a painful past on one another in a series of wordy, almost formal confrontations.

Suicide, syphilis and above all compromise were the downfall of the island's onetime utopian commune, of whose charter members only the widower Joshua Hickman (John Ross Clark) remains. A fellow ex-idealist, spoken of but unseen, is now a senator in the pocket of William Randolph Hearst.

Others in this failed social experiment died unnaturally, leaving confusion and recrimination as legacies to their children and other innocent bystanders: Hickman's daughters (Jane Longenecker, Tish Terrasini), their maid (Jessica Ires Morris) and the odd son (David J. Wright) of Hickman's late rival.

That such grim material proves as compelling, even entertaining, as it does in the play's West Coast premiere at the Open Fist Theatre is a tribute to Guare's nervy narrative virtuosity. Under Dietrich Smith's stark, unblinking direction, the play comes off like an unholy marriage of O'Neill and Albee -- a thick New England chowder of determinism and dysfunction.

The women dominate the evening, though in a disconnected way: The brusquely citified Terrasini, the blankly haunted Ires Morris and the mercurial scamp Longenecker each seem to be from a different play.

The men could be from other planets: Ross Clark, who gives a sly, wizened performance despite seeming young for the part; the stiffly gothic Wright; the letter-perfect James Brandon, as a boyish neighbor; and Babbitt-y Jonathan Winn, in an eleventh-hour walk-on that epitomizes Guare's perverse yet often persuasive playmaking.

-- Rob Kendt

"Lydie Breeze," the Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 4. $18, Sundays pay what you can. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

*

A sprawling look at '80s Philippines

What a difference a rewrite makes. "Dogeaters," a panorama of the turbulent Marcos-era Philippines in the early '80s, was a mess at La Jolla Playhouse in 1998, when Jessica Hagedorn adapted it from her novel.

Hagedorn then dumped the play's awkward flashbacks to 1959. The result is a much more coherent portrait of a society approaching a nervous breakdown.

The L.A. premiere is at the intimate, arena-style SIPA Performance Space at the Temple Gateway Youth & Community Center in Filipinotown.

The script still covers too much, but at least it moves faster than the soap operas it sometimes spoofs. Near the end, the narration abruptly switches from a glitzy showbiz couple (Gil Bernardi, Liza Del Mundo) to a Filipina (Elizabeth Pan) who now lives in the U.S. but has returned home for a visit. She's a remnant of a more developed character in the original version, but her connection to the play's events is too tenuous.

Still, many scenes strike sparks. Most of the 22 actors play more than one role. The pivotal characters, a beauty queen turned rebel (Esperanza Catubig) and a junkie (Rodney To) who witnesses an assassination, are in good hands. Ivan Davila plays a vivacious drag queen, Gino Aquino polar-opposite young men, Dana Lee a creepy pimp, Natsuko Ohama a steely Imelda Marcos, Dom Magwili a brutal general and Christine Avila his fervidly religious, troubled wife.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera uses the entire room and maintains clarity throughout.

-- Don Shirley

"Dogeaters," SIPA Performance Space, 3200 Temple St., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $20. (213) 382-1819. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

*

Her dream gets the death penalty

Kay, a pro-death penalty lieutenant governor, plans to announce her candidacy for the top slot. Kay invites the attorney general and a New Age guru to an intimate cocktail party to test-run her run. Vexing her vetting are obstacles like America, her ex-hippie neighbor. More annoying is Kay's super-paranoid husband, Pat, who with fellow activist Pentil has accidentally killed Kay's boss while pleading for convicted killer Billy the Goat. They have stashed the gubernatorial corpse under the Murphy bed in the living room.

This death by accidental dissidence opens "Capital," which winds up its Gem Theatre run in Garden Grove on Saturday. Things get nuttier once the escaped Goat arrives. David Hogan's comedy about the ironic illogic of killing people who kill people suggests "Saturday Night Live" sketches on steroids.

Hogan has intelligent intent and talent with the quips, but he leapfrogs over satire directly into sitcom, everyone speaking in one-liners when not shouting in symbols. That a high-ranking politico has a Murphy bed in her apartment living room and a goldfish that expands on painkillers gives you a clue to "Capital's" dinner theater reality.

Kevin Cochran's thankfully brisk direction gets most of its laughs from business, of which there is much. The players are staunch (Terri Homberg-Olsen's Kay, Anthony Palermo's attorney general), outsized (Vince Cefalu's Pat and Rick Batalla's escapee) or jaw dropping (Jeana Blackman's flower child, Frank Simons' zealot, Meleney Humphrey's fake mystic). Satirizing the death penalty debate is a valid notion, to which this wildly contrived effort administers a lethal injection.

-- David C. Nichols

"Capital," Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Ends Saturday. $23.50 and $25.50. (714) 741-9555 or www.gtc.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

*

Belfast 'old Girls' who persevere

Scottish-born playwright Rona Munro taps a rich vein of Irish gallows humor in "Bold Girls," now at the Matrix.

The play is set in 1990 Belfast, when British raids and retaliatory bombings were near-daily occurrences. The characters, spunky Irish women, soldier on in the absence of their menfolk, mostly dead or incarcerated.

Munro artfully mingles the pedestrian and the profound in her slice-of-life drama, which is alternately wrenchingly funny and just plain wrenching. A few transitional blips -- abrupt segues in scenes and tone -- lend the piece an occasionally jolting, episodic quality, but director Lisa James and her stellar cast vault over those irregularities with dexterity and grace.

As with all Matrix offerings, the production, in repertory with Martin Crimp's "Dealing With Clair," is double-cast. Kirsten Potter (who shares the role with Kitty Swink), is Marie, the moral center of the piece, a widow who idealizes the memory of her slain husband in defiance of reality. Unvarnished and matter-of-fact, Potter effectively underplays her stalwart character, who is shortly due for a rude awakening.

In the most visceral turn of the evening, Julia Campbell (alternating with Marguerite MacIntyre) shines as Cassie, Marie's best friend, a desperate yearner whose fantasies of escape have led her into sordid compromise. Hilarious yet rigorously truthful in her portrayal, Jenny O'Hara (alternating with Amelia White) nails Nora, Cassie's mother, a feisty survivor whose wishes for the future don't extend beyond her plans for new draperies. Tough yet effectively tremulous, Stephanie Childers (alternating with Kerrie Blaisdell) plays Deirdre, the mysterious woman-child who, in concert with Cassie, finally puts the lie to Marie's obdurate illusions.

Intrepid travelers through the valley of the shadow, the women shore up their tragically disrupted lives with tea, booze and female bonding. Despite its sometimes desultory nature, Munro's is a bold, timely play, and James is a formidable interpreter whose staging never falters.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Bold Girls," Matrix, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. Ends Dec. 17. $20. (323) 852-1445. Running time: 2 hours.

*

In 1832 France, a telling encounter

"Do I have any alternative this evening, except my honesty?" condemned murderer Theodore-Frederic Benoit asks, addressing us from his cell in 1832. His question is both telling and suspect. While the cholera epidemic and republican revolution rages outside, 22-year-old Benoit fears for his soul in solitary. He may or may not have killed his mother and his male lover, but one thing is sure: At dawn, Benoit meets Madame Guillotine.

His torrential struggle with reality drives "Hyenas" at Stages Theatre Center. In its English-language premiere, Christian Simeon's cellblock monodrama is a fascinating existential showpiece, though not without some discrepancies.

Based on historical events, the work recalls Jean Cocteau's "The Human Voice" in its emotional acuity and sly perversity. Simeon pens his narrative with neutrality about Benoit's guilt, up to the chilling final description of the next day's itinerary.

As Benoit, Eric Szmanda has a boyish charm and disturbing intensity. This intriguing turn moves well past Szmanda's work on the TV series "CSI," his cracked wit turning sour without warning. Adapter-director Paul Verdier strives for esoteric restraint, black humor and blank detail in his translation. The designers are creditable, with Kathi O'Donohue working her usual lighting miracles on a franc.

Verdier's staging, though competent, has yet to knit all the beats into nonstop ambiguity. The transitions are overclinical; some ragged edges would help Szmanda keep the sudden shifts surprising. If, as Benoit says, "All encounters are a mutilation," then "Hyenas" doesn't quite rend us, but it still holds our uneasy attention.

-- D.C.N.

"Hyenas," Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Mature audiences. Ends Dec. 5. $18. (323) 465-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

*

Evil run amok on 'ngel Street'

"Angel Street," Patrick Hamilton's stage thriller, was the basis for the 1944 film "Gaslight," a vehicle for Ingrid Bergman, whose haunting portrayal of a wife being slowly driven insane by her husband earned her an Oscar.

Not the stuff of comedy? Apparently, Scott Damian, who plays the diabolical husband in Actors Co-op's new production of the play at the Crossley Theatre, thinks otherwise. Director Marianne Savell, inexplicably, lets him get away with it.

Instead of conveying coldblooded malevolence, Damian sparks laughter with pouts and petulance, foppish hair grooming and a pompous English accent overly reminiscent of Charles Laughton's Captain Bligh.

He dunks a cookie in a glass of milk, takes a bite, nearly swoons with pleasure, and it's sheer camp. It's unclear whether this is meant to cue the audience that Mr. Manningham, not his wife, is the insane one. But it's a regrettable approach that drains the play of its dark menace.

Playing against intermittent audience giggles, Nancy Little's deeply felt portrayal of vulnerable Mrs. Manningham is nothing short of heroic.

As police inspector Rough, obsessed with the killer who eluded him years earlier, Bruce Ladd has a few tics of his own -- a lurching walk, a suppressed hilarity -- that work well with his character. Remaining cast members Cynthia Sanders and Dana Molter do nicely as sympathetic maid Elizabeth and scheming maid Nancy, respectively.

The headliners, though, should be Renee Hoss-Johnson's lavish Victorian parlor, Paula Post's period costumes and lighting designer Bill E. Kickbush's deft touch with those gaslight sconces that are so pivotal to the plot.

-- Lynne Heffley

"Angel Street," Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 12. $22. (323) 462-8460. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

*

Employees who are resourceful

Veteran director Jules Aaron does his best to light up Laura Shamas' comedy, "Re-Sourcing," at the NoHo Arts Center, but the result is persistently murky.

Shamas has a point to make about the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to other countries, and she attempts to make it with comedy. There are funny moments -- such as when the workers improvise a "traditional" East Indian song during a conference call with a big boss. Mostly, however, the material is far-fetched, and an unfortunate air of didacticism drifts over the proceedings.

When disgruntled workers at a software company call center find that their entire department has been outsourced to India, they concoct a scheme to retain their jobs: The workers pretend to be India-based employees and reroute calls to their own phones in Arkansas. After studying Indian culture and adopting faux accents, they pass muster as the real article.

Why they would want to work for one-third of their previous salaries and zero benefits remains a bit unclear. Suffice to say that the architect of the hoax is Daubney (Paul Kouri), a fired supervisor who has a hidden agenda against company executive Selena (Margot Foley). Daubney's cerebral associate Reece (Erwin Stone, filling in for regular cast member K.J. Middlebrooks) participates in the scheme despite initial reservations. Other mysteriously willing conspirators include shy political activist Jimmie Alice (Corrina Lyons) and bawdy good ol' gal Melba (Andi Matheny).

To amp up the comic voltage, Aaron has his actors go over the top in broad comic turns that are precisely timed but strangely lifeless. In short, these call center workers are phoning in their performances. Ravi Kapoor, as the man who helps the fired workers launch the plot, invests his character with an impressively naturalistic quality that is a welcome contrast to the strained artifice.

-- F.K.F.

"Re-Sourcing," NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 21. $20. (310) 285-9467. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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