Don't even try to fathom the title that writers/performers Cynthia Tarr and Erika Sukstorf have pinned on their 13-skit evening--"Beef or Jewels." A more serious problem is their flaccid and sloppy opening improvisation/dialogue with the audience at Stages' upstairs Annex space. Warmups like this are best left in the green room.
The prologue certainly offers no glimpse of what's actually to come, because Tarr and Sukstorf reach into some deep, sometimes bizarre crevices of American life and sometimes extract some real comic nuggets. They may not be "jewels" at this stage, but many of these skits are works--in the best sense of the phrase--in progress.
A scene depicting two women in the Industry carrying on a friendship by phone becomes a truly bleak view of Hollywood. Another turn on movie-making madness, "Manfred and Roland," shows Tarr and Sukstorf as lucid, focused comediennes.
Some sketches ("Valley Scientist," "Brunching With Zimos") are completely expendable; these, and the unconscionably long breaks, make this evening an endurance test. Just as exhaustion is creeping up on us, though, Sukstorf comes out with another vibrant, strange character-turn, and the show gets a lift. What it needs now is a director.
Performances at 1540 N. McCadden Place, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 24. (213) 469-0121 or 874-0198.
Vietnam's theatrical potential may have been used up in such plays as "Sticks and Bones" and "Tracers," leaving a play like Toni Grasso's and Donegan Smith's "Missions" to recycle tired notions. Their work presupposes that we will be in suspense at the source of Viet vet Kyle's violent outbursts against his family, as if no one has heard of the combat flashback syndrome that is now one of that war's most famous and bitterest legacies.
This suggests that "Missions"--all advertisements that it is a "world premiere" aside--has been sitting on the shelf for a while. The production is locked into every shopworn convention of domesticated American drama. There's Kyle, the good husband (Ben Fuhrman); Kate, the good wife (Harley Kozak); Jesse, their cheery boy (Kris Stall), and a train of happy friends and relatives, whose very happiness is a pure giveaway that there are crises to come.
Indeed, the play's insistence on telegraphing its drama before it arrives destroys any emotional bond it may wish to build with the audience. We know Kyle is going to attack Kate or Jesse; we know Kyle's war buddy Casey (Robert Crow, in the most authentic performance) is due for a sad end.
The programmatic performances, especially from Fuhrman and Claude Earl Jones as Kyle's brother, are no help. Only Kozak, breaking down under the family pressure, connects with the heart. Director Lynn Phillip Seibel does little to burnish a script badly in need of it. And Sheen R. Le Duc's set and Peter Parkin's lights appear very cramped in the Theatre Exchange space.
Performances at 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood, Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. ((818) 766-5745).
Equally troubling questions emerge from the Brides of Doom's production of "Passacaglia," at the new Rose Theatre. James Paul Dey's satiric, cartoonish attack on the sillinesses of the political Right and Left is fine in theory, but utterly wretched in the playing.
Lisa Sanman's production clearly had some notion that it was onto something hip and obscure (Dey's work first premiered in London in 1965). But clever uses of the space's loading dock metal door (actors sometimes enter via moped from the adjacent alley) and endless yards of parachute cloth do not a show make. The kind of trendy indulgences that so drown this work are precisely what this young cast, still learning its craft, does not need.
Performances at 318 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 4. (213) 876-7075.
Can Fred (Richard Gilliland) cure himself of sexual impotence? Can sex surrogate Judy (Kelly Kennedy) help him? Will Fred's wife Amanda, feminist congressional candidate from West L.A. (Fern Fitzgerald), find true happiness with her new lover?
On such burning queries does playwright/director Sam Locke's "Continuous Performance," at the Main Stage Theatre, revolve. It surely resembles Amanda's campaign speeches: much hot air for no purpose.
Locke's cast, with the right comedy, could spark our interest. Here, they are burdened with a badly paced and structured battle of the sexes that stumbles every time it attempts to raise a Big Issue. What we end up with are characters reading their author's biographical sketches. Does Fred, for instance, have to remind Judy three times (at least) that he likes helping people more than he likes sex? Comedy requires a lighter touch than this.
Judy's apartment is nicely appointed by designer Renee Hoss (though we wonder about the bed in the middle of the living room). But why the program credits for eight characters (and actors) who never arrive on stage? Did something get lost on the cutting-room floor?
Performances at 12135 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood; Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 12. (213) 466-1767.