Collaboration is an ambiguous word; it can imply channeling the ego toward a greater group good or ceding one's morality to a hostile regime. In "The Grey Zone," now receiving its Los Angeles premiere, author Tim Blake Nelson and the new Because It's There Theatre ensemble take on one of the grimmest partnerships in history: the Nazis and the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who cremated the many thousands gassed at Auschwitz. For the burden of burning their compatriots and families, the men received better rations and sleeping quarters. It's an impossibly horrific situation to fit into a 90-minute play, and Nelson's effort, made into a feature film in 2001, is inevitably uneven. But at its strongest, which is to say its most dispassionate, "Zone" sketches a universe in which the best human qualities -- hope and charity -- have been twisted into instruments of torture.
Director Brian Weed and his design team use Deaf West Theatre's cavernous black box space to create a claustrophobic, monochromatic world drained of human feeling. A massive crematorium door dominates the dark, near-bare stage, and the prisoners, their faces made almost indistinguishable by the ashes blackening their shaved heads, seem to cling to identity by a shredding thread. Ian Gregory delivers an affecting performance as a matter-of-fact Sonderkommando, as does Alan Avenel as a self-loathing physician assisting Dr. Mengele. Only Weed's overuse of Ben Halbrook's eerie score is heavy-handed. In the end, what haunts is a wordless image: a lone prisoner, gas-masked and rubber-gloved, slowly opening the giant crematorium door, releasing a dark cloud of murdered souls.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
"The Grey Zone" Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 5. $20. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 90 minutes.
American dream as a missing prize
Once upon a time there was a gravedigger (Harold Surratt) who looked so much like President Lincoln he decided to make a killing off it. He set himself up as a fairground attraction impersonating the great man watching "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre. For a penny, anyone could come to his booth to be Booth: Choose a pistol, take aim, assassinate. Never mind that the man was black, or that he abandoned his wife Lucy (J. Nicole Brooks, riveting) and young son Brazil (Darius Truly) in pursuit of his dream. He was obsessed.
Gorgeously staged by director-designer Nancy Keystone, who turns the Theatre @ Boston Court into a giant absurdist sandbox, Suzan-Lori Parks' "The America Play" presents three souls tumbling their way across an expanse of black dirt (actually ground-up rubber tires) described as "an exact replica of the Great Hole of History." Following the trail of the missing gravedigger, mother and son dig up all manner of clues but never seem to find the story they want.
"The America Play" isn't a narrative but a set of compulsively repeated gestures, minstrelsy outtakes and twisted nursery rhymes. Like Samuel Beckett's beggars -- really, like the audience -- Parks' foundering family tries again and again to piece it all together. But Parks suggests the American Dream, particularly for those brought here against their will, is a scavenger hunt with a missing prize, an echo chamber without end. Her vision is a stubborn wondering with strange staying power.
"The America Play," The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 19. $30. (626) 683-6883. Running time: 2 hours.
Mortality on mind of Mednick hero
Don't be too hard on Gary, the failed actor who serves as playwright Murray Mednick's sounding board in "Out of the Blue" at the Lost Studio. C'mon, he's faced with his dying mother's life support system. This fourth installment of Mednick's "The Gary Plays" sets its Everyschnook hero (a perfectly cast Lee Kissman) musing on mortality in post-Katrina New Orleans.
A helicopter ride and hell's gates jockey with the hospice where Mama Bean (Tina Preston) and stepfather Daddy O (Hugh Dane) wait on the abstract set by Jeffrey Atherton, Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge. Those familiar with previous entries will recall nonlinear jumps, repeated phrases and existential gestures, and so goes this Padua Playwrights presentation.
If the iconoclastic wordplay remains an acquired taste, director Guy Zimmerman's idiomatic take savors the flavor. Ann Closs-Farley's costume designs offer tart comment -- as in Mama Bean's yeasty fright wig and Daddy O's post-Stepin Fetchit garb -- and composer Don Preston's sound and Dan Reed's lighting are suitably surreal.
The actors manage their absurdist duties with aplomb. Kissman radiates nascent despair as Gary, and Preston's raucous deadpan and Dane's curt resonance solidly register. Mark Adair-Rios is a suave angel of death, while Gray Palmer and Mary C. Greening are sardonically pert choristers.