‘Othello’ in a new setting


In “Up From the Downs,” presented by the Watts Village Theater Company, playwright Lynn Manning makes an impassioned plea to “stop the insanity” -- the cycle of gang violence that casts a pall over the inner city of Los Angeles and beyond.

When it comes to senseless violence, Manning knows whereof he speaks. He was blinded in a bar shooting in his early 20s, a tragedy he addressed in his autobiographical one-man show “Weights” -- a moving chronicle of his impoverished childhood and his eventual triumph over blindness and despair.

Malcolm X Odums (Aaron Keith Braxton), the protagonist of “Downs,” is also blind, but in a strictly metaphoric sense. A former gangbanger who has ascended to political prominence as the visionary director of Peace on the Street, a special anti-gang unit funded by the city, Malcolm has made it his life’s mission to squelch gang violence. However, when he marries Mercedes (Saskia Garel), the Latina daughter of Police Chief Montoya (Ruben Garfias), Malcolm’s “street cred” is seriously impugned. Worse, Malcolm’s blind passion for his beautiful wife makes him vulnerable to the vicious wiles of mayoral aide Avery (Rico E. Anderson), a deadly adversary posing as a friend.


When Avery convinces Malcolm that Mercedes has been cheating on him with his fellow anti-gang associate, Santiago (Kurt Caceres), Malcolm relapses into a killing rage -- a legacy of his blood-soaked youth in the gangs.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the play is sweeping, emotionally raw and moving, even though it frequently veers into didacticism. Under the direction of Gregg T. Daniel, the cast -- which includes Taji Coleman and David Johann -- sizzles.

Line hesitancies were apparent on opening night, suggesting that the actors are still shaken by the death of the company’s artistic director, Quentin Drew, who was supposed to star in this production but died April 21 after a long battle with cancer. A fixture on the Watts artistic scene, Drew was also noted for his social activism and his outreach to at-risk youths. “Up From the Downs” is a fitting testament to that legacy.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Up From the Downs,” LA Design Center, 5955 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. today. Ends May 22. $20. (323) 254-5164. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.


Another round of ‘Get the Guests’

Somewhere between dinner and dessert, a pleasant evening with friends turned into an ugly battle of wills. A rift in the host couple’s marriage has gaped open, and an old rivalry has roared back to life between the host husband and his grad-school buddy.

Perceptive and discomfiting, Joe Hortua’s “Between Us” is a gripping study of the little familiarities that breed contempt. Commissioned by South Coast Repertory and given a developmental reading by the Mark Taper Forum, the play receives its West Coast premiere in a presentation by La Comuna, the Latino production unit of the Met Theatre.


After-dinner banter develops an edge when Joel (Andrew Hamrick) begins to lob verbal grenades at his wife, Sharyl (Lisa Welti), and she smilingly tosses them back. Guests Carlo (Ruben C. Gonzalez) and Grace (Onahoua Rodriguez) try to maintain a safe distance, but talk of careers soon has Joel stewing about Carlo’s accomplishments, which develops into a side skirmish.

Other issues buzz beneath the conversation. Worry about responsibility underlies discussions of religion and childrearing; bitterness about adult compromise rumbles through recollections of college-age dreams.

Certain developments bear an awfully strong resemblance to those in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends,” but ultimately, Hortua delivers a different sort of story -- one that is both fascinatingly and frustratingly hard to predict.

Alejandro Furth and his actors nevertheless make every moment seem harrowingly real. When Carlo tells his out-of-control friend that “this is too much,” he voices what the nervous audience is already feeling.

-- Daryl H. Miller

“Between Us,” downstairs space at the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 4. $12. (323) 957-1152. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.


The war between parents and kids

“I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to see my children fight over me,” says 75-year-old Evelyn, with equal parts irony and worry. As we will soon learn, this Brooklyn widow carries her own issues over aging parents, the topic that propels “Sunset Park” at the Zephyr Theatre.


Writers Marley Sims and Elliot Shoenman waste no time setting up the milieu. Substitute schoolteacher Evelyn (Sheila Oaks) trades banter over coffee with best friend and neighbor Rose (Jennie Ventriss). Discussing a dead contemporary, Rose states, “She’s gone to a better place.” Evelyn replies, “A hole in the ground.”

When Evelyn’s grown children arrive, “Sunset Park” starts to percolate. Embittered, menopausal Carol (Melanie Chartoff) and upwardly mobile Roger (Jim Ortlieb) trade on the accumulated sibling rivalry of a lifetime. Then they discover that Evelyn’s apartment, where they grew up, is going co-op. The ensuing emotional crises jockey with flashbacks to young Evelyn (Salli Saffioti), husband Benny (Aaron Jettleson) and, crucially, Benny’s father (Murray Rubin).

Sims and Shoenman somewhat overdo the tidy teleplay touches, yet their script addresses senior realities with honesty and humor. Director Mark L. Taylor keeps the overall tone believable, starting with Nathan Metheny’s excellent set and ending with the fine cast.

Oaks’ deadpan authority matches up beautifully with Saffioti’s sensitive younger self. Chartoff and Ortlieb are hilariously convincing, Jettleson’s character deserves expansion, and Ventriss and Rubin almost steal the show. “Sunset Park” could stand a shade less explication, but its heartfelt essentials will speak volumes to the demographic it deals with, and maybe even their offspring.

-- David C. Nichols

“Sunset Park,” Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. June 5 only. Ends June 5. $20. (310) 551-0918, (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.


Making a pact with the devil

Villains don’t believe they’re bad guys. But in Norman Lock’s unfailingly bleak “The Contract,” now in a crisp premiere by the Laurelgrove Theatre Company, the heavy is shop steward/hit man Walt (Shaunt Benjamin), and he has a more nuanced perspective. “We’re all filth,” he pronounces at one point.


Walt pronounces a lot, in fact, in the course of his elaborate wooing of the chemical plant’s new hire, Dave (Rob Tepper), a meek, shaggy innocent who seems powerless to resist. Sex, capitalism, politics -- no topic is beyond Walt’s all-encompassing, and unremittingly acid, discourse.

Lock should probably have kept a lid on Walt, because he -- and the inexorable march to perdition he represents -- dominate and determine “The Contract,” to the exclusion of all other possibilities. We know too early that the hard-up Dave will succumb to Walt’s poisonous, Mafia-style economic logic and that Dave’s hopeful wife, Kathy (Nina Hauser), will be much the worse for it, no matter how she protests.

And we know she won’t get much help from Walt’s pliant, battered wife, Irene (Catherine Carlen), who matter-of-factly embodies the worst of suburban myopia, bigotry and complacency. There’s just no upside in this portrait of small-town fear and loathing; new arrivals Dave and Kathy have no choice, it seems, but to sink into the polluted sludge.

The opening-night cast (which alternates with another cast) is extraordinary, under Jack Heller’s finely shaded direction. But no amount of shading can add suspense to this downward spiral. “The Contract” is too much of a done deal.

-- Rob Kendt

“The Contract,” Laurelgrove Theatre Company at the Hollywood Court Theatre, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood, inside the United Methodist Church. 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 29. $20. (323) 692-8200. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.


Old pros in synthetic setting

Sex farce collides with nostalgia in “I Remember You” at the Norris Center. This cocktail lounge-weight romantic triangle by Bernard Slade laces boulevard formula with a passel of pop standards.


Former TV scribe Slade (“The Flying Nun”) hit the mother lode with his 1975 “Same Time, Next Year,” and “I Remember You,” a smash in its 1992 Hungarian premiere, attempts a new twist on a similar song.

The title song, in fact, crooned at the start by Austin “Buddy” Bedford (Bill Hayes) in an Upper East Side dive, well realized by musical director John Sawoski’s offstage playing, Tim Boot’s set and Greg Forbess’ lighting. Here, Buddy meets stranger Tracy Wheaton (Caryn Richman), a divorced bond trader who reminds him of his long-lost English love.

She is frumpy children’s author Prunella Somerset (Lee Meriwether), who, conveniently, is Tracy’s estranged mother. Horrified at this dubious May-December romance, Prunella ignores her adoring editor, Oliver (Paul Kent), and sets off to seduce Buddy away from Tracy.

Slade retains his skill at one-liners, but his narrative is numbingly synthetic. Director Tracy Strickfaden compounds this with limp pacing and scant sexual chemistry. Richman’s perkiness is miscast as a disillusioned urbanite, and the yeoman Kent is stuck with pure contrivance.

Long-established pros Hayes and Meriwether should know better. He can still sing, she still looks great, but his paternal twinkle is no more rakish than her British accent is consistent, and their Act 2 “Don’t Worry, Baby” duet is downright baroque. The fan bases may enjoy “I Remember You.” I’d just as soon forget it.

-- David C. Nichols

“I Remember You,” Norris Center for the Performing Arts, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Ends Saturday. $32. (310) 544-0403, Ext. 10 , Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.