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Torturous ramble to utopia

October 16, 2009|Charles McNulty; Charlotte Stoudt; F. Kathleen Foley; David C. Nichols

The word "utopia," that imaginary site of perfection, comes from the Greek, meaning "not a place." And it's this essential irony that playwright Phyllis Nagy hopes to catch in "Never Land," her tedious poetic ramble in which psychologically fragmented characters long to find a better elsewhere.

Let's peek in on the crazy, financially strapped Joubert family in its misleadingly grand home in the South of France (tastefully appointed by scenic designer Frederica Nascimento). Grown daughter Elisabeth (Katherine Tozer) is bathing in the living room and spouting shards of high-flown nonsense. Henri (Bradley Fisher), her formally attired, world-weary father, is aghast at his daughter's nakedness and concerned about her new suitor, who's expected later that day. Anne (Lisa Pelikan), Elisabeth's haughty, alcoholic mother, cares primarily about her next bottle and firing nasty rejoinders.

Just as the title characters of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" passively dream of Moscow, the Jouberts futilely fantasize about high-tailing it to England. Elisabeth pretends she's running off to London to marry her abusive beau, Michael (William Christopher Stephens), while Henri tries to get a job as the manager of a bookshop in Bristol, owned by the Canton-Smiths. This cheerful bourgeois English couple (played by Christopher Shaw and Shannon Holt) visit the Jouberts and struggle to maintain a smiling equanimity in the face of so much violent eccentricity.

Nagy directs this U.S. premiere of her 1998 play at a glacial pace that only exacerbates the work's pretentiousness. It's like one of those high-strung T.S. Eliot verse dramas, though written in a stilted prose that aims for flamboyant effects rather than lyrical precision.

The actresses cut sharp, outre figures, and the entire cast of this Rogue Machine offering demonstrates an admirable commitment. To her credit, Nagy (the writer and director of the Annette Bening-led HBO film "Mrs. Harris") succeeds in constructing her own linguistically curious universe. Trouble is, "Never Land" is a torturous locale for anyone to pass through, including the audience.

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Charles McNulty --

"Never Land," Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 15. $25. (323) 960-7774, www.roguemachine theatre.com. Running time 2 hours, 55 minutes.

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'Dracula' tale, minus the fangs

Turns out that Bram Stoker was once a vampire's assistant. The "Dracula" author's day job was managing actor Henry Irving, a Victorian-era A-lister whose massive ego sucked the life out of his entourage -- and was the inspiration for Stoker's immortal count.

Scott Martin imagines the two artists' clash in his spirited but curiously bloodless musical, "Children of the Night," at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.

May 1897: Backstage at London's Lyceum Theatre, Stoker (Robert Patteri) desperately tries to interest Irving (Gordon Goodman) in playing Dracula in a staged reading of the yet-unpublished novel, pitching the project as a much-needed commercial venture. Irving refuses, even after his wife, the great Ellen Terry (Teri Bibb), intervenes on Stoker's behalf. Is Irving's resistance jealousy or snobbery, or does it signal a rift more profound?

Director David Galligan's lively production is first-rate, with Broadway and West End veterans in the lead roles (the musical direction is by Ross Kalling). Martin serves up the pleasures of the backstage genre, and "Children" contains what may be the first song devoted to the superstition of never saying the name of Shakespeare's Scottish play aloud in a theater.

But there is something anticlimactic about a story that turns on an actor's failure to appear in a play reading. Not a satire, not quite a tale of rivalry, the musical has yet to find the dramatic spine that will give its characters satisfying stakes. Despite rich source material, "Children" finally lacks teeth.

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Charlotte Stoudt --

"Children of the Night," the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 1. $15-$25. (310) 358-9936, www .katselastheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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A captivating clash of the titans

As Roman Polanski is well aware, time does not heal all wounds. Certain actions, no matter how distant or deftly rationalized, can haunt one through a lifetime.

Legendary Hollywood director Leo Greshen, the antagonist in Jeffrey Sweet's flawed but compelling drama "The Value of Names," presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse, understands that well. Thirty years previously, Leo (authoritative, vigorous Malachi Throne) appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, denouncing several contemporaries, including his best friend, actor Benny Silverman (Peter Mark Richman), with whom he shared a friendship dating to their early days in theater.

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