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Greed is native to every country

T.S. Cook’s “Ravensridge,” in its world premiere at the Fremont Centre, is not a perfect play. Indeed, Cook, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of “The China Syndrome,” tends to overstate certain premises better left abstruse. That doesn’t lessen the impact of his exciting new drama, which explores complex ideological issues to keen effect.

“Ravensridge” was inspired by real events, namely, the labor lockout at a West Virginia steel mill in the early 1990s. The bulk of the action, however, transpires almost entirely in Russia, where American union rep Will Torrey (Vaughn Armstrong) has traveled to meet millionaire mill owner Richard Miller (Jon Sklaroff), a fugitive from the Feds, in hopes that Miller will end the lockout. Will’s mission goes awry when he gets into a fight, accidentally kills a man and gets tossed into a Moscow prison, a Stalinist-era fortress with basement rooms equipped with drains, but no showers -- a grim allusion to decades of totalitarian bloodletting.

In prison, Will is repeatedly interrogated by Russian police officer Maj. Viktor Davidykov (Robert Trebor), a dedicated socialist whose complicated principles clash with Will’s cowboy-simple Americanism. But the men share surprisingly common notions about decency and fair play.

Staged with sensitivity and style by director James Reynolds, the play features a Troubadour (Kim Story) singing American folk songs from an era when joining a union could spell violence and death. Emily Adams and Jed Reynolds are excellent as an American union rep and a Russian police officer, even though their interstitial romance seems largely dispensable. Most problematic, the character of Miller is too explicitly nefarious to be credible.

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Those are niggling problems easily addressed. It’s the explosive dialectic between Viktor and Will that is the play’s heart. Beautifully performed by Armstrong and Trebor, Will and Viktor are moral men adrift in societies that reward avarice over character. Cook’s resonantly pro-union drama issues a clarion warning against today’s snatch-and-grab culture and the governments that promulgate unfettered greed.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Ravensridge,” Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 30. $25. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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‘Riff Raff’ with a noble purpose

Just reading the program of “Riff Raff,” Laurence Fishburne’s 1995 play about two African American men forced into hiding after a botched drug heist, is heart-wrenching. The production is dedicated to the memory of Darius Truly, the young actor stabbed to death late last year while leaving a party in Palms.

In the first local production of the play in a decade, Snikrep Productions intends to focus attention on Truly’s murder -- and by extrapolation, the dismal murder rate among America’s young black men. When the intentions are so worthy, it seems petty to point out flaws. However, although “Riff Raff” provides meaty roles to three gifted actors, its shortcomings as a play are painfully evident.

Mike (Dorian Logan) is a resilient ex-con who plots to steal a heroin shipment from a couple of teenage drug mules. When Mike’s trigger-happy half-brother, Billy (Chris Gardner), kills one of the youths and is himself badly wounded, the duo hole up in an abandoned crack den, pursued by the deadliest mobster in the city. Hoping to find a way out of his predicament, Mike summons his oldest friend, Tony (Theodore Perkins), for advice, only to be ultimately undone by his tragically misplaced trust.

Fishburne, who played Mike in the original off-Broadway production, sets up a taut situation with well-delineated characters. But his drama soon devolves into random chattiness, complete with intermittent confessional monologues that seem geared more for an acting workshop than this play.

Director Hezekiah Lewis makes the most of this actor-centric piece, assembling a terrific cast and investing the proceedings with a slice-of-life truthfulness that seldom flags. Justin Wolske’s fight choreography is a highlight, as is Lacey Anzelc’s squalid set, evocatively lighted by Jenna Pletcher. Gardner is hypnotically sickening as the twitching, strung-out Billy, although Lewis should squelch Gardner’s tendency to upstage. Logan is particularly winning as a lifetime loser who remains defiantly ebullient amid the wreckage of his wasted life, while Perkins wisely bides his time in a deceptively quiet role that builds to shattering levels of intensity and regret.

-- F.K.F.

“Riff Raff,” Alexia Robinson Studio, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $20. (323) 960-1052. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Funny thing about addiction

We’re all addicts, admits Don Cummings’ cheerfully rude comedy, “A Good Smoke,” now staged by the Production Company at Chandler Studio Theatre Center. Whether it’s momma, nicotine or self-righteousness, there’s no limping through life without a crutch.

That’s bad news for do-gooder Dave (Henry Gummer), who flies in from California after his domineering, hypochondriac mother (Barbara Gruen) conveniently has a breakdown the same day her daughter, Susan (Madelynn Fattibene), gives birth. Dave prides himself on being way past the tactics of his bloodsucking family, but it’s a crime scene, all right: Younger brother Joe (Blake Anthony) enables Mom’s pill popping, while passive Dad (Dennis Delsing) tunes out with beer and football. Susan’s newborn won’t nurse, the crisis is shredding everyone’s nerves, and Dave foolishly gave up smoking years ago.

It’s tough to mine much that’s new in the dysfunctional family genre, but Cummings has a feel for desperation, and he gives each of the play’s women her own awful, nakedly human monologue. As the mother from hell, Gruen admirably holds her ground, refusing to give into sitcom cuteness or ask for our sympathy.

Cummings, who also directed, has trouble moving the cast around August Viverito’s cramped set of appropriately exhausted furniture. You wish he’d cleared the whole thing out and done it black-box style. After all, what says home more than recriminations and a clean ashtray?

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“A Good Smoke” The Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 29. $22. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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Saints with an avant-garde look

If only all theatrical failures could be as visually daring as Cal Rep’s current production of “The Saint Plays,” by Erik Ehn.

This avant-garde telling of the lives of five Catholic saints features some of the most intriguing production design you’re bound to see this season. Unfortunately, it’s in the service of a tedious and rather impenetrable storytelling style that’s likely to challenge even the most ardent experimental theatergoers.

Staged entirely in a large sandbox, the play condenses the biography of each saint into a miniature parable. The first two stories are by far the most accessible. Joan of Arc (Rowena Johnson) rouses her soldiers to war only to be quickly captured, condemned and executed. The next story follows St. Rose of Lima (Anna Steers), a young girl who maims herself in compassion for those less fortunate.

The subsequent chapters recount the lives of St. George, St. Barbara and St. Dymphna. (The last is a world premiere piece.) These installments grow progressively abstract and long-winded. By the end, we’re watching actors cavort in turtle and bird outfits as they wax metaphysical about (I think) religion and nature.

Director Anne Justine D’Zmura and scenic designer Staci Walters work minor miracles with the giant sandbox set. Using evocative lighting, they conjure up imagery that feels both biblical and science fictional. The costumes by Paulo Lima are a postmodern orgy of ecclesiastical haute-couture that would do Fellini proud.

Among a handful of memorable scenes, the most striking depicts a group of priests and nuns being gunned down by soldiers. It’s a horrible and strangely beautiful image that’s likely to stay with you well after the play’s gibberish dialogue has evaporated from mind.

-- David Ng

“The Saint Plays,” California Repertory Company, 854 E. 7th St., Long Beach. 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends March 15. $17-$20. (562) 985-5526. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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‘Largest Rodent’ isn’t Mickey

The capybara (Hydrochaerus hydrochaeris) is a semi-aquatic South American mammal and the metaphoric crux of “The World’s Largest Rodent” at Victory Theatre Center. Don Zolidis’ satire about an adolescent with major family issues and a magical title critter receives a promising yet web-footed premiere.

It opens with Billy (Andy Gobienko) squinting through his classroom Power Point presentation, projected on Brett A. Snodgrass’ bisected set. Thanks to Jennifer Logan’s graphic design, this slide show has a raw, ditsy humor as Billy’s crises lurch forth.

Meg (Kim McKean), Billy’s sister, is a porn model. Reynaldo (Vincent Giovanni), her Latin-lover boyfriend, goes overboard after Meg says Billy needs a father figure. The genuine article bailed some time back. Mother (Mary Carrig) is comatose after her suicide attempt. No wonder Billy seeks out Chastity (Aria Noelle Curzon), a chirpy Christian with her own identity conflicts, or the beer-swilling capybara (Kelly Van Kirk), a furry figment of Billy’s traumatized imagination . . . isn’t it?

Director Tom Ormeny gives this quirky property a keen production. The designs have flair, Ormeny’s lighting most warped, and costumer Lauren Tyler makes the capybara resemble a chew-toy on steroids. The cast plays well together. Gobienko brings a fresh take to the Woody Allen-in-puberty archetype, Van Kirk shifts paternal personas with ease, and their colleagues are primed to rock and shock us.

That they don’t often do so is because of the erratic script, its targets and plot threads too scattershot to achieve true satire. Zolidis has an eye for seriocomic situations, but he merges the scabrous and the sentimental without following through to combustion, and far too many twists feel arranged. For all its snark, this half-formed “Rodent” lacks narrative teeth.

-- David C. Nichols

“The World’s Largest Rodent,” Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 13. $26 to $34. (818) 841-5421. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes


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