The conflict of "Music From a Sparkling Planet," presented by West Coast Ensemble in its new Silver Lake home, pits youthful dreams against adult realities, using television as metaphor. Though the channels by which Douglas Carter Beane transmits his comic parable about three trivia-addled chums and their childhood TV icon are hardly deep, they're endearing.
Fittingly, set designer Kurt Boetcher places a vintage console TV at center before a window-box collage of lamps and signage. This represents Greater Philadelphia, where Mylar-clad Tamara Tomorrow (the wonderful Kelly Lloyd) ruled afternoons in the '70s, spouting upbeat predictions -- "In the future, dogs will have full voting rights" -- between Japanese cartoons.
Cut to 2002, when Miller (David Kaufman), Hoagie (Chris Damiano) and Wags (Michael Spellman) play trivia games to stave off sinking expectations. These archetypes, whose dilemmas Norman Lear would recognize, register humanity in their adolescent memories of zaftig Tamara.
Between these musings, flashbacks relate how community theater advocate Sharon Pierce got the daytime gig. Approached by station manager Andy (John O'Brien), wary Sharon provides some of Beane's brightest barbs: "Improvise? Do I look like I come from Chicago?"
Beane switches dials between their relationship and the trio's quest to find Tamara today. Its sentimental outcome flirts with contrivance, yet director Richard Israel, a natural at heartfelt comedy, and his deft forces keep the gentle charm in focus.
Lisa D. Katz's lighting, Marina Mouhibian's costumes and Rebecca Kessin's sound are inventive, and the actors are delightful. Lloyd, cast against type, is a find, and her colleagues hit their marks with flair. "Music From a Sparkling Planet" won't change the world, but it casts a warm escapist glow.
-- David C. Nichols
"Music From a Sparkling Planet," Lyric-Hyperion Theater, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 1. $22. (323) 906-2500, (800) 595-4849 or www.tix.com. Running time: 2 hours.
Despair behind closed doors
Based on Henry James' "Washington Square," Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 play "The Heiress" is one of those theatrical perennials that offers ripe opportunities for its lead actress. A 1949 film adaptation won Olivia de Havilland a best actress Oscar, while a 1995 Broadway revival gave Cherry Jones her first Tony.
In Circus Theatrical's current production at the Hayworth, director Robert Cicchini reinvigorates this vintage tale, which features the ideally cast Alli Steinberg in the title role. Dedicated thrill-seekers may be disappointed by the play's sheer stateliness, but fans of "Masterpiece Theatre" and indeed anyone who likes well crafted character studies will relish this carefully modulated and emotionally telling staging.
The action is set in 1850 in the posh Washington Square home of successful society doctor Austin Sloper (Robert Lesko), whose belle wife died giving birth to their ugly duckling daughter, Catherine (Steinberg). Egged on by Catherine's meddlesome matchmaking aunt Lavinia (sprightly Judith Scarpone), the charming but improvident Morris Townsend (Mario Schugel) pays court to Catherine.
Convinced that Morris is a fortune hunter, Dr. Sloper forbids the match on pain of disinheritance. That, along with Morris' painful jilting, triggers Catherine's emotional transformation from docility to bitter defiance.
Alina Ivette's sumptuous costumes reflect the elevated station of these privileged New Yorkers, for whom social conventions are of paramount importance. In this pre-Freudian period, emotional abuse was to be endured and sublimated, seldom spilled into a sympathetic ear.
That makes for a fascinating dynamic, and the actors work the subtexts of their material like the wily, classically trained hands that they are. Granted, Lesko was shaky on his lines opening weekend, and Cicchini occasionally leads Steinberg into excessively giddy displays that seem out of context, but those missteps are rare in this otherwise satisfying evening.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"The Heiress," Circus Theatricals at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends March 10. $20. (323) 960-1054, www
.circustheatricals.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Secrets glimmer in the 'Moonlight'
Andy is dying. The crusty old man lies muttering in bed, attended by a dryly supportive wife, waiting -- and waiting -- for his sons to come pay their respects.
It's going to be a long night.