THEATER BEAT

It's no wonder that, in the wake of 9/11, so many modern-day playwrights set their work in futuristic dystopias. Recent examples include Philip Ridley's envelope-pushing "Mercury Fur," set in a ravaged and surreally violent Britain, and Craig Wright's "The Unseen," an existential prison parable set in a mysterious totalitarian state.

Welsh playwright Gary Owen draws from the same poisoned well that has fascinated so many of his peers in "The Drowned World," his 2002 drama about a society of the ugly and deformed waging genocide against anyone beautiful.

Owen's fantastical play, in which the malformed masses hold deadly sway over the best and brightest, could have been written by Ayn Rand in the middle of a psychotic break. That's mostly to the good. In "World," even the most dire and repugnant passages -- and there are many -- take on a lyrical intensity that can be riveting.

Less enthralling is Caitlin S. Hart's workaday staging, which misses crucial opportunities. In the program notes, Hart proclaims her intention of drawing parallels between "World" and the atrocities of the Franco regime -- a fascinating objective that could have given real political immediacy to the piece. But a rudimentary production design gives little hint of the intended milieu, and uneven performances further blunt the playwright's poeticism.

Maria Olsen gives the strongest turn of the evening as Kelly, a "citizen" who has been charged with hunting down the beautiful people she both resents and covets. Her quirkiness dovetails perfectly with Owen's imaginatively eccentric vision.

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F. Kathleen Foley --

"The Drowned World," 6470 Theatre, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. today through Sunday. Ends Sunday. $15. (323) 465-0383. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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Piling on the human misery

As frank depictions of human degradation go, the gritty dramas of Adam Rapp leave little to the imagination. It's therefore no surprise that despite being nominally a love story, "Blackbird," his 2004 two-hander revived at Elephant Theatre Lab, seeks to rip the last shreds of dignity from the social misfits that are Rapp's forte.

A frustrating mix of indulgent scripting pierced by flashes of downbeat poetic virtuosity, the piece demands -- and gets -- fearless physical commitment from performers Johnny Clark and Jade Dornfeld, respectively well cast as an embittered Gulf War vet and a teenage heroin addict holed up in a claustrophobic one-room Manhattan tenement (realized in spectacularly squalid detail in Danny Cistone's set design).

On this heavy-handedly symbolic Christmas Eve in the late 1990s, 32-year-old ex-junkie Baylis survives on disability checks for his sciatica and herniated disk, while his stripper girlfriend, Froggy, a submissive product of abuse and worse, has just been diagnosed with hepatitis. Baylis has a bad habit of venting rage on ill-chosen objects -- a recent altercation with a TV set has left his foot basically useless.

And that's just the opening volley. What follows is part stage play, part laundry list of human misery. And soiled laundry at that -- incontinence prominently tops the physical humiliations on graphic display as Baylis' lack of bowel control forces him into adult diapers and Froggy keeps wetting their bed. Director Ron Klier embraces the play's obsessive focus on bodily functions with relish, padding excruciating details with deliberate pacing.

To their credit, Clark and Dornfeld make the affection between these characters palpable, nailing the moments of tenderness that redeems their humanity.

Yet there's less here than meets the eye: The losers-in-love premise has been handled with more depth -- and respect for an audience's time -- by the likes of Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and others.

In piling on every imaginable problem and trauma, Rapp seriously overplays his hand, numbing whatever sympathies we might have for these people. By the time Baylis reaches for a shot of Novocain, it feels like we've already had our fix.

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Philip Brandes --

"Blackbird," Elephant Theatre Lab, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Sept. 19. $20. (323) 860-3283. Running time: 2 hour, 40 minutes.

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An endearing coming-out story

"Deflect, deflect!" is the hero's mantra in "Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins." Just try to deflect the pertinent humor of Brian Christopher Williams' coming-out-and-of-age comedy in its deft West Coast premiere by West Coast Ensemble.

Narrated by Horace Poore (the marvelous Wyatt Fenner) from the treehouse atop designer Stephen Gifford's symbolist set, the script suggests "Brighton Beach Memoirs" nudged into Norman Lear territory by David Sedaris. It traverses the mid-1960s to 1977, when era turbulence besets the working-class Poores.

Older brother Chaz (an intense Nick Niven) "wins" the draft lottery, and Canada beckons. Salty parents Myron (Tony Pandolfo, gruffly hilarious) and Etta (Jan Sheldrick, never better) raucously grapple with unemployment. Mentally challenged neighbor Agnes (Sara J. Stuckey) squawks greetings across the Adirondack Mountain road.

And after Horace fixates first on Mark Spitz, then his ambiguous gym teacher (Nick Ballard) and finally a certain Florida orange juice spokeswoman battling gay rights, "Anita Bryant" dives into trenchant waters of moral relativism.

Few local directors are better at finding humanity in commercial material than Richard Israel, whose work here rivals anything he's ever done. Lisa D. Katz's lighting is as pointed as Suzanne Klein's costumes are apt, and the cast is superb.

The gimlet-eyed Fenner seamlessly shifts ages and motives, and Niven, Pandolfo and Sheldrick reflect his virtuosity. Ballard and Stuckey admirably avoid cliches, while Sean Owens and the intrepid Madelynn Fattibene are deadly funny as various critical entities.

Williams sometimes trades on tropes. Not all postdated sloganeering is necessary. That scarcely diminishes his tickling, touching play or this endearing production.

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David C. Nichols --

"Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins," El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 4. $20. (323) 460-4443. Running time: 2 hours.

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