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Smile -- you’re in ‘Culture Clash in AmeriCCa’

Times Staff Writer

Laughter is a great unifier. It’s a principle that Culture Clash well understands. For 23 years, this trio of comedian-actor-activists has gleefully tipped sacred cows, passed around some very amusing snapshots of human behavior and, above all, instilled the hope that, one day, we’ll all finally notice the beautiful, intricate web of shared values that exists beneath our surface differences.

Among the most effective means of sharing this vision has been through the material that Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- has gleaned from sit-downs with ordinary people in cities across the United States.

Compiled into an omnibus known as “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa,” the re-created interviews are startling, funny and revelatory. An update of the show is unleashing a giddy tumult on the smaller Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

An audience favorite is a salsa-dancing Puerto Rican New Yorker, portrayed by Salinas. Displaying the moves as he describes them, the gregarious fellow observes that this dance shared by Latin cultures -- and, nowadays, enjoyed by Americans of all types -- is performed with distinct variations in different cultures: more arm flapping here, more posterior waggling there. Without ever needing to come out and say so, he presents a deft little demonstration of a social ideal: people celebrating what they have in common while embracing what makes them unique.

Not everything is this understated.

Culture Clash’s broader, on-the-nose humor -- more typical of its early sketch-comedy work or of its recent comic play “Zorro in Hell” -- keeps seeping into the mix. A Muslim American taxi driver, part of the show for years, abruptly goes stand-up with claims of ferrying certain senators and prostitutes, including a toe-tapping Larry Craig. In this and other instances, a character’s humanity gets blitzed by one-liners, and tonal rifts occur.

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Although the show has been given a next-level gloss with direction by South Coast Repertory’s producing artistic director, David Emmes, and some nicely tweaked design elements, the material isn’t as quietly, powerfully effective as when it was presented in 2004 at the Assistance League Playhouse in L.A.

Neither are the Orange County-related updates as revealing as the prior community studies. We sense that the day laborer and the surfer dude could tell us a lot more.

Still, this is a show that really lets Culture Clash demonstrate its acting skills as, with the minor additions of wigs and costume elements, the performers morph into a lesbian couple experiencing a suburban community’s silent exclusion; a Vietnam vet, now living in Tijuana, who laments that today’s racially divided, armed-to-the-teeth America isn’t the country he fought for; and, most inspiringly, a Ugandan and a Filipino who befriend each other at a new citizens’ ceremony and jointly pledge allegiance to the new home that gives them the freedom to hope.

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daryl.miller@latimes.com

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‘Culture Clash in AmeriCCa’

Where: Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: April 6

Price: $28 to $62

Contact: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours


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