One of the more predictable -- and dubious -- elements of the musical genre is the "I Want" song, when the protagonist gives us a soulful glimpse of his or her emotional engine.
But what happens when a musical revolves around someone who has no clue what she wants? That's the premise of Michael John LaChiusa's "Little Fish," a jittery, engagingly off-kilter chamber piece, now receiving a jaunty West Coast premiere at the Blank Theatre Company's 2nd Stage.
"I never knew what I was really like until I stopped smoking," says mousy Manhattan writer Charlotte (the appealing Alice Ripley), and "Fish" follows the first six months after she takes her last puff. As anyone who's tried to kick an addiction could predict, Charlotte's in for a tough stretch.
When not recalling disparaging remarks by her ex-boyfriend (Roberti Torti), she's stuck with a wacko roommate (Samantha Shelton), and friends who are either brittle perfectionists (the sleek Dina Morishita) or in abusive relationships themselves (a charming Chad Kimball).
Even for a story of confusion, "Fish" is a little too discombobulated. But the production has a nimble, assured vibe, due to crisp direction by Kirsten Sanderson and LaChiusa's music, which insistently scores the gap between the momentum of New York and Charlotte's failure to keep up.
Choreographer Jane Lanier knows how to take a tiny space and make it feel dynamic and textured instead of cramped: It's a kick to see Ripley and cast groove their way through scenes at the YMCA pool and a salsa club.
"Fish" doesn't entirely satisfy, but it's willing to ask what we are without our crutches. That beats a Broadway power ballad any day.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
"Little Fish," 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov 18. $32-$38. (323) 661-9827 or www.TheBlank.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
-- 'Chicago Eight' back in court
It's easy to see why Ron Sossi and Frank Condon decided the time was ripe for a reprise of their documentary drama, "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial." First produced in 1979, the play is a word-for-word sampling from transcripts of the 1969 trial in which the U.S. government prosecuted the "Chicago Eight" for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The proceedings sparked bitter controversy among a divided American public.
The current production at the Odyssey, directed by Condon and produced by Sossi, is strikingly timely, revolving around an unpopular war and the erosion of Constitutional prerogatives by a wartime government. As a piece of pure theater, however, it is somewhat laborious.
Give Condon points for ambience. Protesters in hippie attire and Black Panther uniforms pace outside this wood-paneled "courtroom" -- Adam Blumenthal's well-realized set -- strumming on guitars and singing antiwar songs of the period. As you enter, U.S. Marshals perform random frisks before allowing you to take your seat.
The accused include the waggish Abby Hoffman (Andy Hirsch) and Jerry Rubin (David Mauer), co-founders of the Yippie movement; David Dellinger (Rod Britt), the eloquent elder statesman of the group; and Bobby Seale (Darius Ever Truly), the sole African American defendant, whose repeated courtroom outbursts result in his being bound and shackled. With gavel flying, Judge Julius Hoffman (George Murdock, reprising the role he originated) persistently overrules the outraged objections of defense attorney William Kuntsler (Kent Minault) and his team.
Judge Hoffman's pro-government bias is outrageously evident, but those expecting "Conspiracy" to be a purely liberal screed may be surprised. The unfortunate stridency, sanctimony and sheer self-righteousness that characterized the left during the '60s is glaringly obvious in retrospect.
But if the defendants are irritatingly smug, they are also passionate and articulate. Highly educated and devoted to their cause, they helped correct the course of a government blindly careening in the wrong direction. The absence of their like today, in our dumbed down political climate, is keenly felt.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," Odyssey, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions. Ends Dec. 16. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
-- Old and young relationships
The setup seems so rom-com: A guy hires a female pet therapist to take a look at his misbehaving cat and is so attracted to her that, on the spot, he asks her out.
Breezy romance isn't what's destined to follow, however, in "Anon." Instead, playwright Kate Robin rolls up her sleeves and determinedly sifts through the garbage that befouls people's relationships and generally messes up their lives. Introduced this year by New York's Atlantic Theater Company, the play proves illuminating, if disturbing, in its West Coast premiere by the Echo Theater Company.