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Marriage unravels, with wit

“Honour,” an insightful family drama from Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, must be deemed above all a smart play. That isn’t because the characters are clever, although they are: a band of overly articulate intellectuals who love to analyze their circumstances with witty repartee. No, the play, receiving its West Coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre, is smartly designed because despite their intelligence, these characters remain utterly blind to themselves.

Famed columnist Gus Spencer (Robert Foxworth) and his wife, Honour (Susan Sullivan), have what looks like the perfect marriage. Then, after 32 years of marital contentment, Gus meets Claudia (Kirsten Potter), a young and ambitious journalist writing a flattering profile of him. Suddenly Gus announces that he’s leaving, and that this isn’t the stereotypical male midlife crisis he has contemptuously observed in others. He’s too complex to be such a cliche.

Of course, he is just that. All can see it -- except Gus.

But he’s not the only one with illusions. Gus’ sudden departure forces Honour to reevaluate her own sense of self, her choices in life now appearing quite different to her, particularly as she finds herself becoming a dreaded cliche, the spurned and pitiable abandoned wife, in the eyes of her daughter Sophie (Becky Wahlstrom).

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Foxworth and Sullivan acted together on the TV show “Falcon Crest,” and perhaps that history aids them here. Under Andrew J. Robinson’s direction, they certainly are convincing as a couple who has been together a long, long time, their love comfortable and transparent but long since fiery.

Foxworth, who will alternate in the part with Granville Van Dusen, dominates the show with his potent inner life; we can see the shield go up as the denials come out. Sullivan is also strong, but not as expressive, not quite as adept at exposing her character’s blind spots.

-- Steven Oxman

“Honour,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 6. $20-$25. (323) 852-1445. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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This bird’s-eye view is lacking

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is the kind of supremely histrionic film classic that begs to be parodied. However, “The Birds: A Tale of Ornithic Proportions,” opening Sept. 9 for an extended engagement at the Hudson after a run at the McCadden Place Theater, is a bizarre blend of comical camp and pop psychology that teeters between hilarity and ponderousness.

The play opens with a quote from Camille Paglia’s landmark 1990 book “Sexual Personae.” Ignore the anachronistic timeframe. Suffice to say that, in this freewheeling take, Paglia (Darcy Halsey) schemes with the off-screen Hitchcock to sabotage Tippi Hedren (Lori Evans Taylor), the bland blond actress who stars in the film.

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By all accounts, Hedren was indeed victimized by the sadistic Hitch during the filming, and this play-within-a-movie focuses as much on the behind-the-scenes sexual politics as the film itself. Clearly, adaptors David Cerda and Pauline Pang intend their parody to have more philosophical heft than mere camp. And certainly, in her crisply rendered staging, Kelly Ann Ford provides an ideal medium for the message, however belabored.

There are comically inspired moments, and Taylor is a prim, poised, vulnerable delight, nailing down whatever laughs she can find in this flip-flopping semi-musical. (A couple of songs punctuate the action, thereby muddling the show’s stylistic intent even further.) With his purse firmly clutched, Eric Bunton is also memorable in the Jessica Tandy role, while Joel Daavid’s set is perfectly off-kilter.

Unfortunately, within Cerda and Pang’s philosophically abstruse construct, too many comic opportunities go begging. Always wavering on the verge of self-importance, this half-baked “Birds” is neither fish nor fowl.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

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“The Birds: A Tale of Ornithic Proportions,” Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 25. $20. (323) 860-8786. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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Gray’s play isn’t all there yet

It’s easy to admire the apparent fearlessness of Layon Gray, the playwright-director-producer who plans to premiere three of his plays by the end of the year through the entity he has founded, the Los Angeles African American Repertory Company. As far as the speed with which he makes things happen, this is indeed impressive -- I can barely type that fast.

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Gray, however, would be well advised to slow down. Although “The Girls of Summer,” the company’s debut effort now playing in North Hollywood, showcases some exceedingly attractive actors, this remains a rough draft of a rough draft of a play, ready to be read only for the writer’s benefit and not staged for the sake of an audience.

The conceit of the play marries the film “A League of Their Own” with Charles Fuller’s superior mystery, “A Soldier’s Play.” Noting the fact that no black women were allowed to try out for the women’s baseball leagues formed during World War II, the play imagines the formation of an all-black female team to compete in an exhibition game against the league champions. We’re also told by the play’s present-day narrator (Preston Pratt) that the real story here involves the murder of the team’s coach (Baadja-lyne), and the disappearance, on the day of the game, of the entire team.

The play, told mostly in flashback, proceeds lethargically in the first act, as Gray provides scenes in which each member of the team is interviewed by an inquisitive reporter (Mark Charran). When it’s time to wrap things up, Gray throws a barrage of off-target curveballs, trying but failing to find a twist to make the mystery worthwhile.

While the play’s a dud, the stage does come alive whenever Baadja-lyne is on it. As the coach with the heart of a sadist, the actress commands the stage effortlessly, expressing a universe of contempt with a mere stare.

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-- S.O.

“The Girls of Summer,” Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m., Saturdays; 7 p.m., Sundays. Ends Sept. 25. $10. (323) 769-5090. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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Stuck in a tricky romantic triangle

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D.H. Lawrence’s novella “The Fox” is a slyly elusive work that has largely stymied stage and film interpreters, most unmemorably in the turgid 1967 film with Sandy Dennis and Kier Dullea. In a new adaptation at the Ark Theatre, David Grammer, who also directs, wrestles anew with this innately problematic piece.

A lot of the trouble lies in the source material, which, when stripped of Lawrence’s burnished prose, boils down to a somewhat flat sexual triangle between a lesbian couple and the soldier who disrupts their domestic microcosm. However, another problem lies in Grammer’s chronologically confusing staging, which pitches the action somewhere between World War I, the Iraqi War and limbo.

Julie Banford (Suzanne Fagan) and Ellen March (Bibi Tinsley), known affectionately to each other as Banf and March, have pooled their meager savings, fled the city and taken up residence on a remote farm. Isolated and increasingly irritated with each other, Banf and March are further harassed by a marauding fox, who is decimating their flock of chickens and threatening their livelihood.

When Henry (Nick Ballard), who once lived on the farm with his grandfather, comes back from the (unspecified) war to find the women in residence, the plot thickens -- and the rather obvious symbolism of the fox becomes increasingly apparent. The story’s chief surprise is Henry’s attraction, not to the fluttery, feminine Banf, but to the laconic, butch March, with whom Henry becomes besotted.

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Of course, that gender-bending twist echoes the homoeroticism implicit in much of Lawrence’s work. Grammer intersperses the dialogue sequences with narrative monologues -- a neat device that maintains the flavor of Lawrence’s rich description while preserving the flow of the action. The characters are essentially stereotypes, but these actors etch their familiar tintypes with sensitivity and restraint. But a few more artfully explored subtexts could have lent this “Fox” deeper meaning and variation.

-- F.K.F.

“The Fox,” Ark Theatre, 1647 S. La Cienega, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 18. $15. (323) 969-1707. www.arktheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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