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‘Killing’ is a dark allegory

Written in 1970 (the same year its author was elected to the French Academy), Eugene Ionesco’s “Killing Game” is hardly hearty holiday fare. But if you like your humor dark-hued, the production at Unknown Theater might be your ticket.

The play opens on a sunlit village square as its denizens go about their business. The halcyon scene is rudely interrupted when twin infants are found dead in their perambulator. Dire as they may seem, those deaths are just a precursor. Panic erupts as a mysterious plague sweeps the city. People scream, run in circles, drop dead with hilarious expediency. Before the first scene is over, everyone on stage has succumbed. (Not to worry, though. The actors all play multiple roles and will return to die anew.)

As the dead proliferate, the quarantined, trapped and terrified townspeople search for an explanation or cause. Some blame the politicians. The wealthy blame the poor. But this is an equal opportunity malady that strikes all, regardless of social status, political affiliation or creed.

As the chaos escalates, black flats, lettered with words such as “mercy,” “harmony” and “hope,” reverse to reveal antithetical terms: “cruelty,” “ignorance,” “despair,” and so forth. Chris Covics’ striking production design is a highlight. Yet Covics, who also directs, sometimes struggles to bridge the gap between the harrowing and the humorous.

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A later, lesser work of Ionesco, “Game” affirms that the flimsy fabric of civilization can unravel without warning. It’s a blatant message, blatantly delivered here. Most of the performers are professionally proficient, but a few lack necessary subtlety. A notable exception is Kathy Bell Denton, whose gentle underplaying is a welcome respite from the occasional histrionics. However, Ionesco’s durable gallows humor transcends the imperfections in this otherwise worthy evening.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Killing Game,” Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $24. (323) 466-7781. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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Rollicking fun with family

An ample helping of holiday warmth infuses “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Barbara Robinson’s stage adaptation of her sweetly raucous children’s book receives a spiky, appealing reading at Knightsbridge Theatre.

Since its 1972 publication and 1983 TV version, “Pageant” has become a regional favorite, understandably so. This tale of an annual Christmas show hijacked by the worst welfare family in town isn’t exactly subtle, but its mix of satire and sentiment is quite well-observed.

As narrated by Beth Bradley (Emily Abbot), the pageant is the one time that the local children can escape the Herdmans, a sextet of unholy terrors. Perhaps Charlie (Tristan Price), Beth’s brother, puts it best: “Sweet hour of prayer / Sweet hour of prayer / Because there are no Herdmans there.”

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This year, chaos descends after the director breaks her foot. The gossipy church ladies (Tamera O’Hara, Cynthia Watson and Hannah Knight) maneuver Grace (Allana Barton), Beth and Charlie’s mom into overseeing the event, despite the antipathy of husband Bob (Travis Terry).

She hasn’t bargained on the Herdmans, who muscle themselves into starring roles, smoke cigars in the bathroom, think “Shazam!” is a proper angelic greeting, and worse. Catastrophe seems inevitable until Christmas Eve, when the meaning of the season emerges in the most unexpected and heartfelt way.

If director Vicki Conrad’s staging, which adds parochial elements and rap fillips to Robinson’s scenario, is a bit unkempt around the edges, that’s only appropriate. Her large, multi-age cast could not be more eager or rambunctious. Adam Dlugolecki and Jessica Stone’s oldest bullies spearhead an avid herd of Herdmans, and the would-be “Sister Act” nuns led by Julie Sanchez are very funny. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” may not be particularly polished or profound, but it still lives up to its title.

-- David C. Nichols

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“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” Knightsbridge Theatre L.A., 1944 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. today, 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $25. (323) 667-0955. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

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Bad review? Kidnap a critic

The only good critic is a dead one: Readers who agree with that sentiment should make a pilgrimage to “A.K.A.: Eat the Runt,” Robert Riechel Jr.'s trashy but entertaining revenge fantasy now at the Hudson Guild Theatre.

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Armed with a cucumber and a wounded ego, Lone (Riechel) kidnaps Thatcher (Peter Leake), a critic underwhelmed by Lone’s recent dramatic effort, “Jesus Was an Alien Too.” Dragging his duct-taped victim back to a shabby Fresno pad, Lone displays the prey to his girlfriend (Victoria Engelmayer) as an aphrodisiac. It works, but then this chick would be aroused by the back of a cereal box.

Stories with a guy tied up by an outlaw couple tend to head in familiar directions, and “Runt” is no exception: Alliances shift, and substance abuse leads to bonding, partial nudity and gunplay. Riechel rides the pure sensation of his premise without really developing it: The play has a visceral kick but not much on its mind.

As Lone, Riechel thrashes around with thick-skulled passion, and the micro-miniskirted Engelmayer relishes playing a dim bulb. Leake gets the best role as a man having the worst and best night of his life. The three create a mini-mosh pit of flesh and need, amped by Matt Richter’s jittery sound and light design. The play ends at least two scenes too early, abruptly resolving what might have been a deliciously unstable triangle. Still, a guilty pleasure.

P.S. If this reviewer fails to appear in print next week, look for me in a Fresno basement.

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-- Charlotte Stoudt

“A.K.A.: Eat the Runt,” Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Dark Dec. 25-Jan. 3. Ends Jan. 31. $25. (323) 960-7721. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.


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