Struck by the power of a story well told

Times Staff Writer

Two South Africans, desperate to escape the impoverished futility of their lives, break into the home of an aging academic who walks in on them as they’re ransacking the place for money. A pair of wealthy scions with off-the-charts IQs and a perverse attachment to each other leapfrog from petty burglary to arson to “the crime of the century.” An egomaniacal writer with puppy dog good looks and an inveterate passive-aggressive streak travels around the country to check in on the girlfriends he dumped after promising them the moon. And a daughter living in small-town Ireland must decide whether to visit her long-lost mother who devastated her father by deserting him.

The situations these characters find themselves in are not your everyday binds. Playwrights prefer it a bit more extreme. And the cavalcade of quietly original plays that has greeted us this winter has shown that there’s nothing as catchy as an old-fashioned narrative hook.

The new year has been gloriously keeping its promise: In the first two months of 2008, we’ve been treated to a rich sampling of premieres, both “world” and “West Coast,” as the marketing lingo touts.

In truth, there has been nothing radical about this fresh infusion of talent into the larger institutional and smaller independent theaters. Revolutionary ideas aren’t being promoted, artistic paradigms haven’t shifted, and there’s nary a masterpiece in the lot.

Yet the successive invitations to explore untrodden dramatic trails have made for marvelous adventure this season. Stylistic journeys are always invigorating. But it has been an even greater pleasure -- and a psychological relief -- to be enclosed in imaginative worlds that are so captivatingly furnished. Full-bodied storytelling, even when the tale is bleak, is an uplifting phenomenon.

Take the trio who make up Athol Fugard’s “Victory,” which is receiving its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre under the assured direction of Stephen Sachs. The taut drama -- a small, straightforward post-Apartheid one-act -- centers on a bungled burglary. Freddie (Lovensky Jean-Baptiste), a black kid from the South African slums, and Vicky (Tinashe Kajese), his impressionable mixed-race accomplice, have broken into the home of a retired white teacher named Lionel (Morlan Higgins), who catches them looting his valuables.

Feeling as though he has outlived his life, Lionel isn’t surprised at his discovery -- this isn’t the first time his house has been hit. He is, however, shocked that one of the culprits is the daughter of his late housekeeper, a cherished employee who helped shore him up after the devastating death of his wife. And he can hardly believe that his precious books -- the one solace in his unremitting loneliness -- have been defiled in so sacrilegious a manner by Freddie, who obviously has a lot of pent-up rage.

The ensuing action -- suspenseful and emotionally fraught -- can be seen as a battle for Vicky’s soul between her thuggish young friend and the aged white man who had previously taken a distant proprietary interest in the education and well-being of his maid’s troubled girl.

Those who have read J.M. Coetzee’s acclaimed novel “Disgrace” will recognize the allegorical weight of the situation -- the future of South Africa captured in the way a brutal crime plays out among characters who are on one side furiously aggrieved and on the other guilt-racked and despairing.

What distinguishes “Victory” isn’t the novelty of its engaging plot, but the all-encompassing humanity with which it is observed. It’s a piece, in other words, for actors to bring to three-dimensional life, and that is exactly what Sachs’ trio manages to trenchantly achieve, with help from Travis Gale Lewis’ splendid and spare re-creation of the widower academic’s home, which makes it easier for both the cast and audience to enter the combustible locale.

Fugard’s latest may lack his signature lyricism, but its searching moral complexity is utterly gripping. You can’t help pitying this poor, arthritic soul cornered by two thieves in the middle of the night, even while recognizing the reasons why an oppressive history has turned against him.

Much of the interest of “Victory” derives from the overdetermined “why” of Freddie and Vicky’s criminal fate. The same can be said for Daniel Henning’s “Dickie & Babe,” one of two theatrical works in L.A. dealing with that homicidal duo of the 1920s, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. (The other, the musical two-hander “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story,” currently at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, offers a noir distillation that, while more accessibly enjoyable, is best appreciated after Henning’s voluminous documentary report.)

What’s most distinctive about Henning’s treatment is the way he enters the mind-set of these killers, linking the peculiar intimacy they shared with their pathological megalomania. This is far removed from the moody, gay Gap ad depiction of the 1992 movie “Swoon.” Here, Dickie, seemingly the more deranged of the two, has an aversion to the sexual contact his buddy can never get enough of. But as played by Nick Niven with a disconcerting cackle of a laugh, this brainy psychopath remains exquisitely aware of how his erotic hold on Babe (Aaron Himelstein) can mold his Nietzsche-obsessed pal into a willing accessory to murder.

The manipulative gamesmanship is frighteningly convincing. But “Dickie & Babe” is in need of serious edit. The first act is repetitious and the second, in which Clarence Darrow (Weston Blakesley) comes on the scene to rescue the felons from the death penalty, is amorphous. Henning seems to have become enamored with his marketing campaign -- “it all happened” -- and to have lost the focus of his artistic vision.

Nonetheless, there’s something hypnotic about the experience. Henning is a master at negotiating the Blank’s tiny 2nd Stage space. And the production, which has a fine supporting cast featuring a dashingly retro Michael Urie, unfolds as a series of miniature tableaux, with short, sharply delineated scenes shifting between a sepia-tinged newsreel style and a more theatrically surreal approach.

Obviously, no account, no matter how rigorously researched, can completely clear up the mystery of evil. And that of course is part of the dramatic enticement, which Neil LaBute knows as well as anyone. A deep-sea diver into the perversities of male behavior, he doesn’t want to explain away chauvinistic madness as much as give a rough measure of its seemingly boundless depths.

LaBute’s “Some Girl(s),” which is receiving a nicely balanced production at the Geffen Playhouse, divides into four scenes in which Guy (Mark Feuerstein), occupying different hotel rooms across the country, reconnects with the women he abruptly left behind. A snake lurking behind a fake flower, he claims to want to make amends, but his remarks insidiously probe old wounds and desires.

The repetitive dramatic setup, amounting to a series of subtly sadistic reunions, isn’t always easy to squirm, I mean sit, through. But what encourages us to keep following Guy’s cross-country trek is the hope of figuring out his dubious rationale.

Shrewdly directed by LaBute, the production whets the appetite for explanatory revelations while concealing its hand until the final moments. If the suspense grows monotonous, at least Guy’s hard-done-by girlfriends are given their due. Better still, each one ups the ante as a combatant in a battle of the sexes that’s meant to make everyone in the audience feel a tad defensive.

Operating in a more lyrical register, Billy Roche’s “Poor Beast in the Rain,” the inaugural offering of the Salem K Theatre Company, has the ring of a Gallic Tennessee Williams. Try as you may to remain detached from the dramatized fray, the emotional tug lures you in.

Set in a betting shop in a small Irish town, the play revolves around the weekend of an all-Irish football final, a time of great pride, drunken celebration and treacherous remembrance. Sporting events mark time, and this one has drawn back the forbiddingly named Danger Doyle (Andrew Connolly), the scandal-ridden seducer who years ago absconded with the wife of the betting shop owner. Life in uneventful Wexford hasn’t been the same since.

Steven (Michael O’Hagan), the lonely, retiring proprietor, would prefer to live out his day unmolested by any more change. His daughter, Eileen (Kate Steele), has become (out of necessity) the public face of this operation. This competent young woman is sought after by Georgie (Christopher Carley), a likable doofus with a singing voice that’s renowned throughout the town, but she doesn’t seem quite ready to settle for local obscurity.

Danger discreetly informs Eileen that her mother is not holding up well and is dying to see her. Would she go with him back to London to comfort her? This stealthy conundrum proceeds under the watchful eye of Molly (the sensational Joanne Whalley, pouncing with the deliberation of a cat on her eighth life). A char in the betting parlor, she possesses an acid-spewing tongue and a smoldering passion for Danger that won’t burn out. Not a nuance gets past her, and as the various conflicts among these characters are brought to a head, she makes sure that no one escapes a confrontation with the stark truth.

The play, part of Roche’s critically praised “Wexford Trilogy,” was first performed in London in 1989 but is only now receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Matrix Theatre. If it took this long to get an American staging this good, the wait was worth it. Directed by Wilson Milam, who did such a memorable job with Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” on Broadway in 2006, and featuring top-notch ensemble work, the production delivers what only the theater can -- an embodiment of poetry.

Yes, “Poor Beast” has an underlying dilemma that borders on the quaint. But it’s also beautifully observed and tenderly affecting. This is usually a rare feat, but the remarkable development of the last couple of months is the bountiful number of such occasions.

New voices, such as Sarah Treem’s, have enlivened South Coast Repertory. Her sprightly play “A Feminine Ending” which ran last month, is a deconstructed romance about an ambitious woman choosing between her artistic dreams and her love life. Heather Woodbury’s new solo show, “The Last Days of Desmond Nani Reese: A Stripper’s History of the World,” which enjoyed too short a run at the Bang Studio Theatre, conjured colliding feminists’ worlds through the imagination of a singularly inventive writer and actor. And Alex Timbers (who’s admittedly more of an auteur than a playwright) collaborated with composer Michael Friedman on “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” an irreverent look at our nation’s seventh president (and the creepy parallels he shares with our 43rd).

This last work, which had its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, may have tapped out its sophomoric chicanery relatively early. But it offered frolicsome evidence that the new wave of theatrical pioneers is as unstoppable as the battalion of traditional dramatic storytellers who thankfully never go out of fashion.