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Political parable still stings

The invisible expanse that divides actor from audience stretches even further in “The Fourth Wall” at Theatre/Theater. A.R. Gurney’s revised 1992 political comedy posits the proscenium as metaphor for American isolationism, and theater as fulcrum for true progress.

Gurney conceived his narrative as a two-act play in response to the first Bush presidency. After the Clinton era, during which “Fourth Wall” became a steady regional item, Gurney gave the property a one-act makeover, which played off-Broadway in 2002.

Suburban homemaker Peggy (an involved Sarah Brooke) is convinced the current administration is spying through her living room wall. In protest, Peggy has realigned her furnishings, which include a player piano partial to Cole Porter standards, to face the eavesdroppers, eliciting neighborhood harassment: “Redecorate or die.”

The situation, let alone the symbolism, disturbs Peggy’s husband, Roger (Tony Pasqualini, drolly befuddled). Her best friend Julia (the hilarious Jennifer Taub), an acerbic New Yorker, thinks it all histrionics sans plot.

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Enter community college professor and walking dramatic thesaurus Floyd (Tom Beyer, skillfully underplaying). The ensuing bipolar parable suggests Christopher Durang transcribing John Cheever on a Greenpeace laptop.

Although his skinny premise aims for depth beyond its means, Gurney’s WASP wit retains its sting. Stan Roth’s efficient staging chortles along to Peggy’s apotheosis. Production designer Zale Morris’ team attains acceptable, albeit spare, results, and the actors make ingratiating archetypes.

Facile, if hardly subtle, “Fourth Wall’s” message nonetheless seems apt today. Its pliable players carry this affable revival.

-- David C. Nichols

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“The Fourth Wall,” Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., fourth floor, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 24. $15. (323) 930-1050. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

*

A deli-eye view of L.A. history

“The History of Fairfax According to a Sandwich” is an excellent model for other neighborhood-themed plays. The Fairfax area might be more colorful than most neighborhoods -- but maybe it just seems so because of the skill of playwright Leon Martell and a chameleonic cast at Greenway Court Theatre.

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The play takes us from the prehistoric days of the La Brea Tar Pits to the present, when would-be rock stars hang out amid the traditional trappings of Canter’s Deli. But Jon Shear’s staging avoids bloated pageantry. Ten actors, each playing many characters, whisk us through a series of chronologically arranged scenes, wearing Karyl Newman’s many costumes, on a simple set.

The “sandwich” in the title refers to Billy Gray, a comic at a local ‘40s nightclub who was memorialized by a chopped liver sandwich on the Canter’s menu, thereby providing an affirmative answer to the question “What am I, chopped liver?” He’s our tour guide.

After the prehistoric scene, in which the actors play animals, they portray humans in the area’s history from 1814 onward. Especially prominent are the Gilmores, who converted a dairy into oil fields, then built a stadium and the Farmers Market.

The text notes that most Angelenos identify Fairfax as a Jewish area. Martell approaches the area’s Jews from oblique angles, showing how a local rabbi commissioned composer Ernst Toch to write Passover music in 1937 and how gangster Mickey Cohen provided arms to Israeli guerrillas, despite the disapproval of more moderate Jews.

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Such recent phenomena as the L.A. Free Clinic and the initial opposition to plans for the Grove shopping center also are covered. This inherently episodic play isn’t consistently terrific, but it’s lively and funny enough to warrant a visit by anyone interested in L.A. history.

-- Don Shirley

“The History of Fairfax According to a Sandwich,” Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 7. (323) 655-7679. $20. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

*

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Iran-Contra parody hasn’t aged well

Although it can ensure short-term success, topicality can shorten the shelf life of a play. Such is the case with “Mastergate” at the Actors Group Theatre. Written in response to the Iran-Contra hearings, Larry Gelbart’s 1989 farce is rich with sardonic double-talk but otherwise sadly dated, a moldy leftover from the Cold War era.

The story may be hoary, but the repartee is ripe, a parody of political jargon at its most obtuse. Although references to Gorbachev and “Commies” pall, there are enough echoes of the present-day political situation to keep things interesting. Gelbart, veteran Broadway and TV writer (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “MASH”), has a knack for sardonic dialogue, applied here to often bitter effect.

The action is set entirely in a congressional hearing room, where various members of a House select committee have convened to hear evidence regarding a CIA takeover of a major film studio -- a cunning cover for diverting illegal arms to an anti-Marxist regime. The question before the committee: “What did the president know, and does he have any idea he knew it?”

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Director Penny L. Moore does her best to fit her large cast onto a postage-stamp stage, but the result is generally cluttered. Performances range from shaky (some actors actually seem to be reading their lines) to authoritative. Particularly effective are Laird Macintosh as a spit-and-polish Ollie North clone, Dwight Hicks as the mind-bendingly evasive secretary of State, and Craig Patton as the oily veep. Seen only on a woefully substandard videotape, F. William Parker’s fine performance as a Machiavellian CIA head is largely lost.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Mastergate,” Actors Group Theatre, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., Universal City. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. (2 p.m. only on Oct. 31.) Ends Oct. 31. $15. (818) 506-4644. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

*

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Snidely Whiplash would approve

“The Hunt for Red Willie,” presented by Theatre Banshee at the Gene Bua Theatre in Burbank, is lighthearted, fluffy -- and just a tad belabored.

If you’re a fan of the mustache-twirling, damsel-in-distress school of melodrama, then Ken Bourke’s naughtily updated period comedy will appeal to you. Still, over the course of a couple of hours, the silliness wears thin and this “Hunt” loses its antic momentum.

The setting is 1829 Donegal, and the dread outlaw, Red Willie, is at large. Fardy (Josh Thoemke), a peasant lad, loves Bessy (Leslie Baldwin), a landowner’s daughter -- an uneven match complicated by Fardy’s secret identity as Red Willie.

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The exact nature of Red Willie -- actually an enchanted mask that transforms its wearer into a bearded creature whose very glance makes men drop dead of shock -- is confusing. Whether Red Willie is actually guilty of any crimes or just a somewhat bizarre plot device remains unclear. Suffice to say that the real villain is Captain LeBlanc (again, Thoemke), a scheming British officer with evil designs on Bessy.

Arthur MacBride’s scenic design -- a series of painted cloth backdrops that accommodate the many scene changes -- is both functional and ingenious. Director Sean Branney keeps the action breezy, with enough laughs to make this production generally worthwhile. The cast also includes Matt Foyer, John Jabaley, McKerrin Kelly and Noah Wagner. The actors play multiple roles -- all extreme opposites. (Here, the hero doubles as the villain, the lady as a bawdy peasant girl.) However, across the board, their characterizations lack the extreme differentiation -- that element of crucial caricature -- that would have better served the farce.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Hunt for Red Willie,” Gene Bua Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 31. $12. (818) 628-0688. Running time: 2 hours.

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*

Dorian Gray sings in the Big Easy

With its brew of mandatory hedonism and Gothic decay, New Orleans is an inspired setting for an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” We half expect the vampire Lestat to drop in at one of the all-night revels depicted in the new musical “Dorian,” except that he would likely find the blood a little thin in these parts.

In its L.A. premiere at the newly refurbished NoHo Arts Center, James J. Mellon, Scott DeTurk and Duane Poole’s tuner has a large, committed cast of variable talent straining heroically to convince us they’re part of something grand, clambering around Craig Siebels’ cluttered multilevel set, under Jeremy Pivnick’s exquisite lighting, in Scott A. Lane’s overstated costumes.

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But like the portrait that ages while its subject retains eternal youth, this alternately turgid and bland show isn’t quite ready for its close-up.

The chill heart of Wilde’s novel is its ambivalent embrace of youthful male beauty as a not-so-Platonic ideal. And in its best moments, this adaptation’s central unconsummated relationship -- between the bitterly closeted painter Henry Lord (Kevin Bailey) and the gorgeous, pansexual foundling Dorian (Max von Essen) -- is freighted with convincing strains of thwarted, self-hating homoerotic desire.

The N’awlins backdrop affords a negligible racial subtext but thankfully gives us the show’s secret weapon, Armelia McQueen, as a waterfront madam. She delivers the evening’s best song, the existential torcher “Without Tomorrow,” with un-fakeably soulful bite.

The rest of Mellon’s and DeTurk’s score is unbearably light, with lyrics that are generic in the extreme. And though the show’s labored exposition is graciously shared among the cast, the sum is a crowded canvas indeed.

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-- Rob Kendt

“Dorian,” NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 21. $25 to $35. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.


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