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Love amid the stacks

The title of Rajiv Joseph’s “Huck & Holden” refers to the respective heroes of those twin staples of American Lit classes, “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher in the Rye” -- but please don’t approach this sharp, engaging romantic comedy as an academic exercise.

The spirited young cast certainly doesn’t in the Black Dahlia Theatre’s accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable staging of Joseph’s cross-cultural odyssey about a visiting engineering student from Calcutta who finds more than he bargained for when he enters a college library in search of the books.

Amid the precarious stacks of books that compose Craig Siebels’ set, the very traditional Navin (played with pitch-perfect nerdiness by Kunal Nayyar) meets student librarian Michele (Raina Simone Moore), a pretty, outgoing voice major who takes an immediate liking to him.

The feeling is mutual, but Navin is paralyzed by his strict allegiance to “the rules” of Hindu propriety, compounded by shyness and inexperience.

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In desperation, Navin’s imagination conjures up Holden Singh (Danny Pudi), a wry amalgam of J.D. Salinger’s iconic rebel and a former Sikh schoolmate whose extroverted confidence he once admired. Clad in turban and prep school tie and blazer, Holden advises Navin in his neurotic pursuit of Michele -- think of a Bollywood riff on “Play It Again, Sam.”

Adding further metaphysical complications, Michele also has a spiritual advisor -- the bloodthirsty goddess Kali (Jameelah McMillan, sporting an extra pair of arms and a sarcastic neo-feminist attitude). Frank Faucette provides more down-to-earth zaniness as Michele’s philandering but still jealous boyfriend.

While more serious undercurrents about relationships, religion and racism flow through Joseph’s script, director Claudia Weill wisely maintains a buoyant touch that keeps the agreeable chemistry between Nayyar and Moore in the forefront, and never allows the abundant cleverness to lapse into pretension.

-- Philip Brandes

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“Huck & Holden,” Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 19. $20. (866) 468-3399 or www.thedahlia.com. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

‘Dvorak': Midlife crisis isn’t pretty

Antonin Dvorak came to the U.S. in the 1890s and wrote his megahit, the “New World Symphony,” informed with the spirit of indigenous American idioms.

Set in that fertile period, Janet Barnet and Alice Lunsford’s new musical, “Dvorak in America,” at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, places the Czech composer (Fred Ochs) in midlife crisis mode, with an underappreciated wife, a seductress, an overworked secretary, two lively children, a drinking habit and a mercurial temper.

Composer Barnet begins promisingly with Dvorak’s themes as her musical references, pleasantly executed by musical director Wayne Moore and Lara Janine, a violinist and actor, who is the standout as Dvorak’s life-hungry daughter.

But as lyricists and book writers, Barnet and Lunsford struggle to match the melodic depth and fall wincingly short. Dvorak’s soliloquy on the opposite sex: “Who can trust a woman? Can I adjust to woman?” Wife Anna (Dina Bennett): “I loved you before you even knew my name, before you won worldwide acclaim.” Dvorak: “I could not write a single note, without you to support my art.”

Meanwhile, biographical factoids land with a thud in the dialogue. Lukewarm chemistry between Ochs and Bennett -- and Ochs and Kelly Lester, as Dvorak’s sister-in-law and former lover -- doesn’t help. Lester’s attempt to add sexual heat comes perilously close to camp.

Period costumes by Bonnie Stauch are a notable touch, though, and veteran director David Galligan keeps things moving as fluidly as possible on the small stage, aided by lively if sometimes incongruous choreography by Lee Martino.

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-- Lynne Heffley

“Dvorak in America,” Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 12. $28 and $30. (323) 960-4429, www.plays411.com/Dvorak. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Elegant creature feature for adults

A remote estate surrounded by a dense forest. Two troubled scientists. The mysterious ritual of an obscure, indigenous tribe. A primal hunger for blood.

John Schneider’s offering of classic horror staples is receiving a lean but appetizing production at Sidewalk Studio Theatre -- an elegant Halloween alternative for adults.

Directors Natsuo Tomita and Christian Kennedy stage with almost no scenery: against shadowy gray walls, the cast, dressed in black suits and white shirts, moves with choreographed grace, the show’s abstraction inviting a suspension of disbelief. (The play is set in 1940, but the women’s pantsuits and the use of a video screen gives “My Werewolf” more of an ‘80s vibe.)

Like most creature features, “Werewolf” lives dangerously between the ominous and the risible, requiring convincing line readings of declarations such as “I pine for blood. Give it me.” If the production mostly stays sharp, it’s due to the committed work of Colette Freedman as an anthropologist who finds herself, shall we say, shifting her interest toward zoology, with a mixture of fear, excitement and menace. (All the leading roles are cast with two actors; Freedman alternates with Marwa Bernstein.)

Despite some underwritten scenes and uneven performances, “Werewolf” offers the brief but delicious chill of walking on the wild side after dark.

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-- Charlotte Stoudt

“My Werewolf” Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Nov. 11. $20. (818) 558-5702. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Fresh twist on Holocaust theme

In Wendy Graf’s “Leipzig” at the Lee Strasberg Institute, past and present collide in a psychological homecoming that raises deep and ultimately moving questions about personal and collective Jewish identity -- though the play itself suffers an identity crisis along the way.

“Leipzig” is a joint production from the West Coast Jewish Theatre and the resident Group at Strasberg, the same collaborators who brought Graf’s “Lessons” to this venue last year. Like its predecessor, the show treads a fine line between theater and pedagogy -- hard to avoid when culturally themed writing is the primary agenda.

As the play opens, self-absorbed aspiring journalist Helen (Mimi Kennedy) receives compound shocks from her mother, Eva (Salome Jens), a seemingly devout Catholic. On top of the toll, the onset of Eva’s Alzheimer’s has begun to take and in a moment of confusion she begins reciting a prayer in Hebrew.

The discovery of her mother’s Jewish origins fills Helen with dismay, revulsion and rage against her father (Mitchell Ryan), who desperately clings to a life built on lies.

Helen, who’s clearly spent too much time alone, discusses her crisis with her lifelong imaginary personal confidant, Jesus (Paul Witten, in a witty and tastefully understated turn). Allaying her fears about his possible conflict of interest, Jesus assures her that she doesn’t have to give him up. “Some of your best friends are Jewish,” he jokes.

Despite a good deal of heavy-handed dialogue that bears no resemblance to real conversation, Helen’s journey gathers force in the more successful second act, as she comes to appreciate her mother’s deeply buried guilt over having escaped the Nazi death camps that claimed the rest of her family (Shauna Bloom, K.C. Marsh and Ryan Eggold in flashbacks).

Nevertheless, the emotional anchor here is Jens’ heartbreaking portrayal of Eva’s disintegration. In Deborah La Vine’s assured staging, Eva vacillates between an increasingly tenuous awareness of the present and the mounting flood of ghostly memories.

With its focus on denial and repression, “Leipzig” brings a fresh twist to the overcrowded Holocaust-themed genre, with the implication that confronting historical trauma equips Jews to deal with present-day issues. If it were only that simple.

-- P.B.

“Leipzig,” Lee Strasberg Institute Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays. Ends Dec. 10. $30. (323) 650-7777 or www.westcoastjewishtheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours.

No checking out of this ‘Hotel’

Animator and writer Angus Oblong’s “Victorian Hotel,” starts promisingly enough with a shadow puppetry sequence of an eerie, giggling girl running through the attic, only to be thrown over a railing with a noose around her neck. This little horror is hardly noticed by the hotel’s hunchbacked concierge; the grinning, skeletal bellboy; or the resident succubus, having an operatic hair day -- all nicely macabre rod puppets. They’re also all dead. So far, so creepy.

When a snotty young couple (Kelly Pendygraft and John Crawford) show up, each keen for a secret assignation with their respective lover (Miles Taber and Kate Huffman), they are too overheated to notice the hotel’s primary rule: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. As the narcissistic quartet involves more deceased guests in their shenanigans, they quickly seal their own -- and the production’s -- doom.

This collaboration between Rogue Artists Ensemble and Powerhouse Theatre Company, currently at the Powerhouse Theatre, shows off some talent, including Sean T. Cawelti (set, puppet and art design), Joyce Hutter (puppets and masks) and Patrick Heyn (graphics), who brings a bored, epicene portrait to memorable life. But “Hotel” is repeatedly undone by its charmlessly smutty narrative and flat characterizations. Oblong’s cut-outs and puppets are far more compelling than his flesh-and-blood folk, but the undead only show up for cameos. (Maybe they’re haunting the hotel until they get a real story arc.)

With its broad performances, simple storytelling and quirky cartoon aesthetic, the show feels geared toward children. Oblong and company would do well to remove the explicit sexual content, rework the story using the same puppet ensemble and run “Hotel” as an annual family spook-out.

-- C.S.

“The Victorian Hotel” Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (no performances Nov. 23 and 24), 2 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Dec. 2. $25. (866) OFF-MAIN. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.


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