THEATER BEAT

In "Breaking and Entering" at Theatre 40, thriller conventions intersect with an ornate treatise on truth and illusion. Colin Mitchell's comic mystery about a reclusive author besieged by his would-be protege is both more interesting than many a predecessor and more ungainly.

Fifty years ago, Wallace Trumbull (Steven Shaw) wrote a masterpiece, then retreated to his well-guarded upstate New York home (richly depicted by set designer Jeff G. Rack). At the outset, Trumbull follows the World Series until a power outage permits Milly (Meredith Bishop) to hoist herself into his living room.

A Trumbull fan since college, Milly has written the novel "Breaking and Entering" about this very encounter, which she wants him to read. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game calls into question whether Milly is all that unhinged or if Trumbull is as talented as his reputation indicates.

It's an admirably complex script, the outcome in doubt up to its denouement. Yet, though director Mark L. Taylor gets considerable mileage from Jeremy Pivnick's lighting and Bill Froggatt's sound, the tension comes and goes. Shaw and Bishop do competent work, although his Art Carney aspect isn't exactly menacing, and her nervous emotionalism lacks nuance. The schematic device of the play commenting upon itself -- embodied by two sportscasters (Lary Ohlson and Christopher Gehrman) -- is an intrusive contrivance. "Breaking and Entering" is easily a cut above typical boulevard fare, but it would benefit from more enigma and less explication.

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David C. Nichols --

"Breaking and Entering," Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 6. $23-$25. (310) 364-0535. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Not nearly addictive enough

Back in 1956, Frank Gazzo's "A Hatful of Rain" broke new ground with its open depiction of drug addiction -- a subject so buried that even addressing it had shock value. Nowadays, though, not so much.

Gazzo's morality tale of a war hero turned junkie trying to hide his condition is, frankly, dated and steeped in melodrama, but its ample ensemble-performance opportunities have obvious appeal for a combined actor-training and production program like the Katselas Theatre Company. Seizing those opportunities with a dual-cast staging at the Skylight Theatre, director Dean Kreyling sparks lively emotional fireworks but hasn't sealed the deal on the relevance of a topic that's received far grittier and more realistic treatment.

The play draws both its dramatic strengths and limitations from being set in a more innocent time, as the clueless members of a Lower East Side Italian American family try to cope with a problem beyond their comprehension. After acquiring a morphine addiction during his yearlong recovery in a veterans hospital, Johnny (Chris Devlin at the reviewed performance, alternating with Tommy Villafranca) is unable to resume a normal life. His neglected wife, Celia (Alicia Klein, Tania Gonzalez), attributes his unexplained disappearances to an extramarital affair. His father (Joseph Cardinale) is too self-absorbed to see past his own failed business ambitions. Only Johnny's black sheep younger brother (Ludwig Manukian, Gadi Erel), a streetwise bartender, knows the truth and faces the doubly thankless challenges of paying off Johnny's dealer (an insufficiently menacing Jeremy Radin) and keeping his own feelings for Celia in check.

These complications make for some flamboyant theatrics, (mostly shouting matches punctuated by torrid clutching), but inherent credibility problems remain unsolved.

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Philip Brandes --

"A Hatful of Rain," Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sunday. $25. (310) 358-9936. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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Innuendos fly in noir homage

"Block Nine," written by Tom Stanczyk, is a stylish noir homage of a play that boasts a clever gay twist -- two same-sex casts (the "dames" and the "fellas") rotate performances, giving the drama two distinct variations on a queer vibe. The actors successfully conjure a hot-house atmosphere of thwarted desire, but they can't quite compensate for what is ultimately a sluggish and overly self-conscious story.

Everything in "Block Nine," at the Lillian Theatre, drips with sexual innuendo, including the name of the protagonist, Lockjaw, an undercover agent who infiltrates a maximum security prison in order to get information on a sadistic crime boss. What follows is a lurid tale of lust, double-crossing and murder -- all of which the play sets in Art Deco quotation marks.

Both casts have clearly immersed themselves in the worlds of Turner Classic Movies and gay pulp fiction. "Block Nine" excels as an exercise in style, but not enough care has gone into the plot, which could definitely use another pass through the rewrite department. Some scenes go on forever, while others feel truncated. Noir wasn't just about shadows and cigarette smoke; the genre's best examples were tightly plotted machines with a tragic angle.

"Block Nine," directed by Emilie Beck and Peter Uribe, works best when its characters are in heat, and in this respect the dames easily vanquish the fellas. The women-in-prison motif is deliciously Sapphic, and the simulated sex scenes are steamy enough to convert anyone to the home team.

Of particular note are Cheryl Huggins, who as Lockjaw seems to be channeling Kathleen Turner channeling Lauren Bacall, and Dylan Jones, as her Rita Hayworth-esque arch nemesis. Among the fellas, Jeremy Glazer and Max Williams in the same roles don't have nearly the same range, but their bare-chested musculature is more than captivating.

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David Ng --

"Block Nine," Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 20. $25. (323) 960-4410. Running time: 2 hours.

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Period piece crosses time lines

Charm trumps craft in Kit Steinkellner's world premiere "Adeline's Play," being presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse. Set in a small Midwestern industrial town during the Great Depression, Steinkellner's comedy-drama is saturated with period coloration -- and, one suspects, a few anachronisms. (Did people really talk about being "on the same page" in 1934?)

Lovable archetypes, each of which takes his or her turn as narrator, advance the plot. There's elfin teenager Dorothy Anne (Dina Percia), shy newspaperman Buddy (Isaac Wade), obnoxious small-time politico CB Baldwin (Ariel Goldberg), former banker turned drifter Frank (Kyle Cadman) and bitter millworker Elna (Sarah Watson).

When Elna's dazzlingly upbeat sister, Adeline (Coco Kleppinger), returns to town to direct one of Buddy's plays, she spreads hopefulness in her wake.

A local legend, Adeline is famous for having a line opposite Gable in "It Happened One Night" -- but, as we learn, her "stardom" came at a sad price.

Director Amanda Glaze and a capable cast play to type, quite effectively, in a subtly heightened staging that appropriately evokes the broader acting styles of the pre-Method era in which the play is set. However, Steinkellner violates the 1930s tone with contemporary flourishes that seem jarringly out of place.

Characters seem far too willing to share their feelings during Adeline's rehearsals, which are strangely reminiscent of a 1970s consciousness-raising seminar. And after crisis implodes the group and derails the planned production, everyone drifts back together for no apparent reason, just in time for a feel-good ending that defies our belief and the characters' motivations.

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F. Kathleen Foley --

"Adeline's Play," Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Sept. 5. $20. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction "A Hatful of Rain": A review of "A Hatful of Rain" in Friday's Calendar section mistakenly identified playwright Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Gazzo.
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