When it comes to "the green-eyed monster," literary envy can be every bit as crazy-making as sexual jealousy. Witness Itamar Moses' "The Four of Us," a two-character play about best-friend twenty-something writers, one of whom has just sold his first novel for the infuriating sum of $2 million. The play, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum at the Elephant Theatre Lab, suggests it's possible to forgive a buddy anything, except the gaudy success you covet.
Ben (Ryan Johnston), the wunderkind novelist whose coffers unexpectedly runneth over, can't believe his dumb luck and decides the best way to deflect resentment is to affect a boyish modesty. It's a strategy that's not going to work with David (Steven Klein), his old friend from music camp whose sense of entitlement is even more keen than his own. A budding playwright recently out of grad school, David can't help peppering Ben with annoying questions and passive-aggressively mentioning that he hopes having all that time and money won't prove "totally spiritually corrupting."
The reach of Moses' drama may be cramped, but the navel-gazing action is often well observed. Humorous truth can make small moments ping, as when David grows increasingly irascible in the face of Ben's inability to remember any of the names of the celebrities he's been thrust among.
But the production is content to provide mostly surface realism. For the story to ignite, the underlying emotional tensions would have to be more complexly interpreted and punched up. The psychological flatness of the characterizations slackens the dramatic pace.
Spanning a decade, the play has a tricky jigsaw structure. Moses' boldest stroke is to blur the boundary between art and life, leaving us always a little doubtful about what we're viewing. The effect is thematically ingenious, though it can't by itself broaden the claustrophobic scope.
-- Charles McNulty
"The Four of Us," Elephant Theatre Lab, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 19. $25 (800) 838-3006 or www.fireflyinc.com. 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Women of the plains gather
"Many plays -- certainly mine -- are like blank checks. The actors and directors put their own signatures on them." Thornton Wilder's comment is both disingenuous and true, and the same artful simplicity that marks "Our Town" also infuses the Road Theatre Company's "The Friendly Hour." Imagine "The View" meets Laura Ingalls Wilder: Tom Jacobson's all-female elegy to life in rural South Dakota is based on the actual minutes of a woman's club that met from 1934 through 2007.
Half a dozen dirt-poor Depression newlyweds, led by freethinking Dorcas Briggle (Ann Noble) and flinty Effie Voss (Kate Mines), decide to meet monthly for games, discussion and tasty lunches. Jacobson doesn't so much narrate as eavesdrop on these women as they pass through familiar milestones of everyday life: pregnancy, marriage, aging, disappointment. Events are small-scale here, so what registers most vividly in Mark Bringelson's intimate and tender production is time itself -- mortality, the seasons, being part of nature's cycle. Over and over, the club wonders about God and the eternal, meanwhile skinning skunks for a quarter or suffering from hemorrhoids.
What might feel prosaic -- and yes, I found myself drifting now and again -- is enhanced by design and performance. Desma Murphy's "unfinished" wood-beamed set is graceful and durable, much like the women it shelters (although it doesn't evoke the harshly beautiful landscape that dominates their lives). The fine ensemble resists the urge to comment on their characters, and, as a God-fearing conservative, Mines gives a standout performance. Her Effie was so credible, I was dying to ask what she thought of Sarah Palin.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
"The Friendly Hour," Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 1. $25. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Redheads of the world: unite!
Abundant talent permeates "R.R.R.E.D. -- The Redhead Musical Manifesto." As brash lunacy goes, it's shamelessly eager to entertain us.
Opening on the "Victoria's Secret Garden" club, the verdant walls of designer Leonard Ogden's witty set suddenly shift to an even kitschier bunker strewn with redheaded iconography. Doffing their disguises, anarchists Victoria O'Hara (Katie Thompson) and G.J. Crockett (Patrick Livingston) call to order this secret meeting of "Real Redheaded Revolutionary Evolutionary Defiance."
Their goal is global re-population, since the gene that determines redheads will be obsolete by 2100. It's a daunting task, not least since Victoria is a control freak and G.J. is a fey spotlight-grabber, but let's blame everything on those treacherous blonds and brunets.