AREAWIDE — Pasadena's Old Town has stunningly transformed itself from a near-skid row to a glittery commercial and artistic neighborhood, but the absence of small, live theater in all those gentrified blocks is lamentable.
Ironically, not too long ago when the area was populated by ratty storefronts and seedy bars, you could find three or four theater companies producing lively work there, including the dearly missed Bank Playhouse.
A few blocks northeast of Old Town, though, is home to one of Pasadena's very few small theatrical companies, the Basement Theatre, literally the basement of the Congregational Church (which otherwise has no affiliation with the dramas that unfold under its Gothic arches).
A spinoff of the old La Canada Players, the Basement Theatre is presenting four original short dramatic comedies, developed in the group's Writers Roundtable. Perhaps it's the lack of any sizable 99-seat competition in Pasadena, but this one-act festival will never be confused with the city's livelier little theater history.
The evening is wildly unbalanced, shifting in the first act from a low-key, accessible pair of dramas about lonely characters tapping into mutual heartbeats (Priscilla Finch's "Broadening Horizons" and Rod Barkley's "The Man Who Saw Roses") to excruciatingly inaccessible dramas about God knows what in the second act.
The two post-intermission plays (Elizabeth Fuquay's "Ladies Night" and Kathryn Bikle's "Marble Medusa") are tortured and torturous experiments in obtuse theatricality. They proceed from bar patrons in bizarre animal head masks in "Ladies Night" to a dysfunctional mother and son (Priscilla Finch and Butch Klein in the evening's most thankless roles) in the pompously titled "Marble Medusa," a wretched play that mocks any problems Hamlet and Gertrude might have had.
The one-acts, each with a different director, are reasonably well-acted, particularly by Patricia Marina and Jeff Wallach as an odd couple who connect in a stalled elevator in "Broadening Horizons" and Lisa Braswell and Tio Mago as client and matchmaker in a dating service drama that gives literal meaning to the term blind date in "The Man Who Saw Roses."
Practically all of the actors appear in two of the four plays, with the most distinctive dual performance turned in by Hugo Daniel as a yearning young blind man in the lonely hearts "Horizons" and, in a mercurial switch, a suave, glimmering bartender in the otherwise murky "Ladies Night."
The production also is dogged by the playing area's vast horizontal space, which often creates too many empty holes on the stage. The sets are spare to clunky but production values are otherwise OK, and tiered seating provides good sight lines.
The evening, finally, is gruelingly long, devoid of shape and economy.
Pasadena hasn't got enough small theater to be able to indulge even half an evening of such jangled, pretentious, dark comedy. Hopefully, the Writers Roundtable of the Basement Theatre will repair to another drawing board.
* "One-Act Festival," Basement Theatre, 464 E. Walnut, Pasadena. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends July 25. $6. (818) 397-1651. Running time: 3 hours.