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After fast start, ‘girl’ fades a bit

Ellen Fairey’s, “girl, 20,” now at the Hudson Mainstage, is a provocative drama that takes us for a jolting psychological gallop before fading in the stretch.

The story is set primarily in a campus mental health clinic, where students receive free counseling sessions -- provided that they are willing to have their sessions filmed for later study. Pot-smoking film student Marty (Robert Belushi, son of Jim) has a gig running the antiquated equipment at the clinic, where he meets Sam (Madison Dirks), the intense grad student with whom he will be working.

Hidden behind a two-way mirror, Marty films while Sam observes. A maniacally chatty extrovert, Marty repels and fascinates the emotionally isolated Sam, who has developed an obsessive crush on Jade (Rachel Sondag), an “anonymous” student in the program. When Sam learns Marty has had a one-night fling with Jade, the simmering acrimony between the men flares into violence.

Fairey has a distinctive dramatic voice and a knack for crafting compelling characters. But her gripping tale takes an 11th-hour detour into the nonlinear.

Despite that, “girl, 20" is a dream acting vehicle for its three performers. Belushi and Sondag are holdovers from the Chicago premiere, which was directed by Matthew Miller, who also stages the L.A. production. Miller’s tautly naturalistic tack brings out the best in his able cast. Sondag is evocatively enigmatic as an aspiring writer whose wry facade covers sadness, while Belushi taps into the unexpected cerebral quality of his hard-partying slacker. As for Dirks, he masterfully charts the meltdown of his twitchy perfectionist, who compulsively studies others while never forging the human connection that would save him from the calamity we sense is his fate.

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-- F. Kathleen Foley

“girl, 20,” Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Hudson Theatre, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Oct. 20. (323) 960-7726. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Together, sisters face milestones

Certain life events tend to magnify who we are, drawing the best and the worst of our personalities to the surface. Two of the biggies -- the death of a parent and impending marriage -- follow close upon each other in Ann Noble’s “And Neither Have I Wings to Fly.”

The 1995 play is being given its Southern California premiere by the Road Theatre Company, of which Noble is a member. It follows presentations of her stories “The Pagans” (by the Road in 2004) and “The Boarding House” (by Interact Theatre Company this spring) and reunites her with Scott Cummins, who since directing “Pagans” has made a splash with his stagings of the Tracy Letts dramas “Killer Joe” and “Bug.”

The story unfolds in 1950s Ireland. Mossy stone walls enclose the modest home suggested by Desma Murphy’s set design. A wake has just been held here, and in the ensuing quiet, Eveline (played by Noble) and Kathleen (Stephanie Stearns) struggle to cope with the loss of their mother. Eveline, in her mid-20s, seems old beyond her years; she was Mum’s primary caregiver through three awful years and now appears tied to the household indefinitely, to take care of Da (Leon Russom). Younger sister Kathleen, on the other hand, is looking out for herself. Although she is just days from marrying sweet, attentive Leo (Danny Vasquez), she doesn’t bother to hide her fascination with flashy itinerant actor Freddy (Mark Doerr).

A worried Eveline keeps her eyes trained on the situation, but also vying for her attention are Leo’s swaggering, somewhat shady older brother Charlie (Mark St. Amant), who’s taken a shine to her, and Mum, who returns as a ghost (Taylor Gilbert).

Spectral Mum retains a corporeal ability, which Noble uses to advance the plot. It’s a false impulse in a tale that otherwise feels emotionally true. The culmination is, nevertheless, quite powerful. Under Cummins’ direction, every gesture seems genuine, inevitable. Some characters behave as expected, others are full of surprises -- and that is, indeed, pretty lifelike.

-- Daryl H. Miller

“And Neither Have I Wings to Fly,” the Road Theatre, Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 4. $25. (866) 811-4111 or www.roadtheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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Psychosexual tension in ‘Koans’

A procession of women balancing books on their heads opens “Suffragette Koans.” It’s an apt metaphor. Linda Carson’s surrealist reverie on female sexuality and repression makes every gesture count in this spare, absorbing Little Victory Theatre production.

Described by Carson as “a ladylike black comedy,” the text is as slight as the Zen story form it emulates and as layered as the Victorian-era underwear sported by director Joyce Piven’s accomplished cast. There’s considerable structural symbolism, from the character’s plant names to the pointed shifts of proximity, and Carson’s wordplay approaches modernist poetry.

This infuses five episodes of burgeoning awareness, starting with a deadpan exchange of erotic dreams while embroidering: “Last night I dreamt I was. . .” “I’ve had that.” Sexual energies transfer to bicycle riding, indicated by straddling an outstretched Slinky. Virginity becomes an ornament each woman personalizes, experimentation runs its course and knowledge shared is power gained.

“Suffragette Koans” is a natural for director Piven, an expert at expressing psychosexual subtleties through physical theatricality, and her players follow suit. June Raphael has a casual intensity that recalls the young Jill Clayburgh. Karyn Dwyer is guileless and wry. Kirstin Hinton goes from blinkered to clear-eyed, Kim Kuhteubl vividly mixes sarcasm and sentiment, and Pasha McKenley forms the striking centrifuge of the whole enterprise.

Its main liability is brevity, getting us interested enough to want to know more, then ending. But a koan is like that, providing a lesson without explanation. It’s the responsibility of the recipient to determine the meaning, and “Suffragette Koans” takes us further in that direction than you might imagine.

-- David C. Nichols

“Suffragette Koans,” Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd. Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. $24-$30. (818) 841-5421. Running time: 40 minutes.

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Lovers torn apart by Castro’s Cuba

Odalys Nanín has a touching tale to tell about her Cuban homeland in “Skin of Honey/Piel de Miel,” now in its world premiere at Macha Theatre (formerly West Hollywood’s Globe Playhouse). Nanín’s play is a searing examination of Castro’s failed socialist experiment and a torrid love story about two young Cuban girls split apart by the times. As a charged political drama, “Honey” has a lot to recommend it. However, the lesbian romance too often wanders into Harlequin territory.

You have to admire the passion that Nanín, who also produces, directs (with co-director Alejandra Flores) and stars, pours into her fervid vehicle, which wheels along at a brisk clip. The action commences shortly before the infamous 1980 Mariel boatlift and segues back to 1961, when for many the revolutionary fervor of Castro’s Cuba has fizzled into disillusionment.

In 1980, the adult Amelia (Nanín), a U.S. businesswoman, published poet and proud lesbian, returns to Cuba for the first time in almost 20 years to reunite with her lost love, Isabel (Susan Artigas), now a prima ballerina in the Cuban National Ballet. In 1961, Young Amelia (Lidiya Korotko) and Young Isabel (Andrea Rueda), whose close friendship has taken a sexual turn, learn they must separate. Isabel and her family are fanatical Fidelistas, while Amelia’s father (Ray Michaels Quiroga) is an outspoken critic of Castro who faces death unless he flees.

Nanín keeps a firm hand on her busy plot, but some of her dialogue is downright lunky. (“Time seems to fly when I’m with you.”) Nonetheless, she has assembled a game group of performers who commit fully to the prevalent ardor. Nanín and the sultry Artigas cook up considerable sexual chemistry, Quiroga is terrific as an affluent man reduced to poverty and terror, and Robert Tena progresses from campy to moving as a cross-dressing ballet dancer who faces arrest and death because of his sexual orientation.

The standout of the evening is Korotko, whose wistful character faces devastating loss at an age when most girls are pondering their next lipstick purchase.

-- F.K.F.

“Skin of Honey/Piel de Miel,” Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 28. $30. (323) 654-0680. www.machatheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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