Holiday family gatherings can bring out the worst in people.
Take the Plantagenets, contentious English royals assembled at a French castle for Christmas, whose threats of murder aren't the usual heat-of-the-moment hyperbole; armies are standing by as the sons of King Henry II (J. Patrick McCormack) vie for his favor, and their exiled mother, Eleanor (Katherine Henryk), plays them all off each other.
If James Goldman's knowing but rather shallow "The Lion in Winter" isn't the classic its historical subject matter and popularity would suggest it is, it can succeed on sheer force of larger-than-life personality.
In the blustery, bushy-bearded McCormack, director Beverly Olevin is fortunate to have the sort of actor who wears his dramatic heft lightly, confident that it comes across without pushing, which could almost be the definition of masculine charm onstage.
As his opposite number, the quietly scheming Eleanor, Henryk has the appropriate hauteur, but she's a bit too arch to convince us there's steel under the smiles. By play's end, Nanette Hennig, as Henry's pliant young mistress, seems more resolute than Eleanor, skewing our sympathies away from this peculiarly passive-aggressive queen.
Drew Wicks makes a compellingly pent-up Richard, Henry's most deserving heir, and he shares an extraordinary moment of thwarted passion with the epicene Rafael Goldstein, as the sharp young French monarch King Philip.
Jeff G. Rack's lavender-dominated storybook set is, like too much of Olevin's production, pretty rather than gritty. This "Lion" may purr when it should roar, but in McCormack at least it gets off some good-natured growls.
-- Rob Kendt
"The Lion in Winter," Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $18. (310) 364-0535. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Shel Silverstein, for adults only
Those who only know Shel Silverstein as a bestselling children's author might be surprised to learn that he was a lifelong contributor to Playboy as both a writer and cartoonist. In "An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein," presented by Yapima Digg Productions at the Elephant Theatre, Silverstein's adult sensibility is put on public parade, with mixed results.
The evening consists of several short sketches, ranging from the mean-spirited to the genuinely mordant. Among the large cast, the level of performance varies from so-so to very good, although the preponderance of young and pretty performers, combined with the haphazard nature of the show, are more suggestive of an acting showcase than a fully fledged theater piece. Director Monica Himmelheber and co-director Ida Darvish's rickety staging is especially unsteady in the unintelligible musical interludes meant to smooth set changes. The few impressively professional segments are, we suspect, a triumph of ingenious actors over shaky direction.
The stronger entries include one in which a man (Kris Allen) confronts his wife (Stacey Moseley) for her pathological pack ratting. Meredith Thomas and Ben Wilson are also fine as a woman and a Laundromat clerk whose routine transaction turns unexpectedly creepy. Kalimba Bennett and Andy Allen are sexy and wry as a couple whose kinky fantasy takes a cruel turn. In the scatological final sketch, Jen Ray and Rob Thain commit so wholeheartedly to their impossibly vulgar material that they actually make it work -- an admirable feat.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein," Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Ends March 26. $15. (818) 720-6663. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Bar scene adds to the atmosphere
Heard of pub theater? Charlie Terrell's "Tougher Than Grace" is club theater, staged in the high-ceilinged, bare-bricked environs of King King, a Hollywood bar with a studied red-light decadence that feels inherently theatrical.
And in some of the show's best moments, director Steve Ferguson uses the space in ways that feel novel. As Terrell and his taut, serious-as-a-stroke band rips through a bluesy number, we're left to hang out and scan the faces of actors mingling around and behind the bar; an appealing mix is struck between nightlife people-watching and a multimedia rock show.
Sometimes, though, we're just left hanging, watching a sort of live music video, all archetypes and broad strokes. The play follows the perils of young Tina (Jackie Page), voluptuous daughter of an abusive, fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher (Michael Childers) with a boozy, blond-wigged wife (Irene Muzzy).
The feverish, hypnotic Childers makes a convincing link between rock abandon and evangelical fervor, speaking in tongues and flailing epileptically, handkerchief aloft like a spiritual antenna. And Donny Persons, as a sweet, shaggy dreamer, and Sarah Colonna, as a skeptical barmaid, share an effective, elliptical over-the-counter exchange.