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Attractive Opposites

Talented casts make two very different productions in the area worth seeing.

May 04, 2000|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two of the several plays opening last weekend could hardly be less similar--a professional touring version of "West Side Story" and a new local company's production of Lanford Wilson's intense drama, "Burn This."

Both are worthy productions that demand attention and warrant a couple of hours of your time.

Perhaps the best news is the new Greenhouse Theater Company, working out of the Petit Playhouse in Oxnard and arranging its schedule around the Elite Theatre Company's still-running production of "The Gingerbread Lady."

The young group's first production, "Burn This," is a strong, relatively little-known play that makes large demands on its cast that the four actors and director Amy Garrett meet here with talent to spare.

As the play opens, Anna, a dancer and choreographer, has just returned from the funeral of one of her two gay roommates: her collaborator, Robby, who died in a boating accident. Larry, her surviving roommate, is doing his best to comfort her, as is her longtime fiance, Burton, a successful screenwriter.

Into all this, unexpectedly, bursts Jimmy, Robby's drunken and estranged brother, a stranger to all three. He is, however, about to have a lasting effect on everybody's relationships.

"Burn This" got relatively scant recognition in its 1987 Broadway run. Although Joan Allen won a Tony for her portrayal of Anna, nobody else connected with the play--not even John Malkovich, who played the potentially star-making role of Jimmy--was even nominated.

Jessie Beld plays Anna with sincerity, authority and vulnerability; remarkably, it's her first performance outside high school. Christian Garcia is fine in the showy role of effeminate, caustic Larry; John Medeiros shows strength as Burton, a character who in many ways acts as the cast's anchor. And it's hard to imagine even Malkovich more fascinatingly (to use a nonclinical term) nuts than Bill McDonald is as Jimmy.

Most of the actors quickly (if not particularly imaginatively) picked up a few dropped lines at Saturday's opening, and you could sense Beld's confidence quickly building as the show--about 150 minutes long, including intermission, and not dull for a moment--built to its climax.

One note: there seems to be more harsh language in "Burn This" than in a whole season of "The Sopranos," so be forewarned and leave impressionable kids at home. Also, homosexuality (though not an issue here) is treated frankly. Just thought you'd like to know.

DETAILS

"Burn This" continues Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. through May 14 at the Petit Playhouse, 730 South B St. in Oxnard's Heritage Square. Tickets to all performances are $8. For reservations (recommended) or further information, call 525-5257 or 483-5118.

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There isn't much to say about "West Side Story" other than to affirm that it's one of the 10 best musicals ever. Sha Newman, who directed and choreographed the Theatre Guild production playing through this weekend at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, won several awards for earlier stagings of the musical, and the version here is imaginatively staged, if not revolutionary, and very well played, sung and danced by a cast headed by Roger Befeler as Tony, Shea Curry as Maria, Marcia Francisco as Anita, Chuck Saculla as Bernardo and Tim Talman as Riff.

Somewhat disconcertingly, most of the players--especially the Jets--look as though they were recruited from the current Gap commercial: They even wear khakis part of the time, and Befeler, tall and blond, looks more like an Ivy League basketball star than a Polish-American tenement resident.

Don't let that concern you for more than a moment, though. Backed by a terrific orchestra led by Lloyd Cooper, this is very likely as fine a "West Side Story" as most of us are ever going to see.

It also moves, coming in under 2 1/2 hours Sunday night without feeling rushed. And to this one, you can--probably should--bring the kids.

DETAILS

"West Side Story" concludes Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Auditorium, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks. Performances are today through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost from $29.50 to $38.50 and can be purchased at the Civic Arts Plaza box office or at 583-8700 or (213) 480-3232. Discounts for groups of 20 or more are available; call (818) 986-2908.

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Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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