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THEATER BEAT

Camp in a parallel universe

July 20, 2007|Philip Brandes, F. Kathleen Foley, Daryl H. Miller

"Richard III," Miles Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Sundays, 3 p.m. Saturdays. Ends July 29. $25. (310) 270-3454. www.ShakespeareSantaMonica.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

"Richard II," South Lawn of Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 7:30 p.m. July 21 and 22 and August 5, 9, 10, 19, 25 and 31. Ends Aug. 31. Free. (818) 710-6306. www.independentshakespeare.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Shallow sitcom? Don't bet on it

Six friends. Eight rooms. One big penthouse in the Big Apple. If it sounds like the cookie-cutter formula for a sitcom -- well, that's exactly the genre playwright Michael Elyanow sets out to deconstruct in "The Idiot Box."

In Jeremy B. Cohen's adept staging for Open Fist Theatre Company, what begins as a clever, amusing parody darkens into a savage indictment of the way television sells us a make-believe cocoon to insulate ourselves from reality.

Cohen, whose connection with the play dates back to its 2003 Chicago debut, artfully plunges us into a safe, antiseptic sitcom world, complete with a blandly upbeat theme song, freeze-frame credits and hollow laugh track hilarity as a sextet of sex-starved roommates battle life's trivial problems with snappy comebacks and double entendres.

With impeccable comic timing, the well-cast ensemble quickly differentiate their familiar stock characters -- a ditzy masseuse (Tisha Terrasini-Banker, a romance novelist with writer's block (Amanda Weir), her mopey husband (David Castellani), a slacker (Dominic Spillane) and Mark (Kelly Van Kirk), a cynical paramedic who owns the shared apartment.

Cozy complacency starts to unravel when roommate Chloe (Anna Khaja) attends a Chekhov play in search of insomnia relief but instead finds herself energized and intrigued by a world she never knew existed. The seductive grad student (Joe Holt) she meets at the play becomes her lover and guide to the real world. When Chloe's growing dissatisfaction with her shallow life proves contagious, Mark takes desperate action to preserve their artificial utopia.

Elyanow's sharp dialogue shows masterful facility with the glib sitcom banter he lampoons, though the play's simplistic and sometimes pretentious moralizing doesn't rise as far above it as one would hope. Nevertheless, the clash he sets up between make-believe and post-9/11 reality resonates with sobering truth: "This is home, for better or worse -- we can't go back to the way things were and pretend we don't know what we know."

-- P.B.

"The Idiot Box," Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 25. $20. (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Sex and lies in Ayckbourn farce

Infidelity, rickety lies and the near-constant danger of being caught. Alan Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves" adopts these standard elements of sex farce but kicks things up a notch by ... well, let's leave that for its current audiences to figure out.

The enduringly popular 1969 play is now at the Odyssey Theatre, which has become a go-to spot for Ayckbourn's comedies. This is the fifth of the British playwright's works to be presented there.

The story -- a puzzle with a clever structural conceit -- unfolds in two households. For clues, take a few moments to study Victoria Profitt's set design before the performance begins. Notice, for instance, how two dining tables intersect.

Greg Mullavey, the "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" veteran and Los Angeles theater mainstay, portrays a mild-mannered, absent-minded husband, Sarah Brooke, his wife. Seemingly unaccustomed to caginess, she clumsily evades his questions about her tardiness the night before; he's a human question mark, never quite able to piece things together.

They're British -- a bit upper crust, to judge by their accents. Employment connects Mullavey's character to the other household, where the accent is a tad more working class. Here, an unaccountably self-satisfied lout, played by Ron Bottitta, shuffles about shirtless, letting it all hang out. Exhausted by an overactive child, his wife, played by Tracie Lockwood, nevertheless finds the energy to warily appraise his every move.

A hastily invented lie soon places another couple -- a shy, painfully polite husband and wife played to perfection by Scott Roberts and Kate Hollinshead -- smack in the path of a storm.

Like so many farces, this one involves an awful lot of plodding buildup, culminating in too-brief bursts of manic activity. But director Barry Philips and his actors can see that Ayckbourn filled this sex comedy with more than the usual amount of social observation, and Mullavey digs still deeper to find unexpected depths of emotion.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"How the Other Half Loves," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 2. $24 and $26. (310) 477-2055; www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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