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Trying to fix damage in 'Stray'

October 30, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt; F. Kathleen Foley; Philip Brandes

Sometimes even a village can't raise a child. In "Stray," co-produced by Black Dahlia Theatre and Chalk Repertory Theatre Company, playwright Ruth McKee looks past the feel-good glamour of international adoption and finds plenty of loneliness.

Working in a Ugandan AIDS clinic, ophthalmologist James (Matt Gaydos) falls for free-spirited Rachel (Analies Lorig), a white Kenyan. They adopt an orphan, Daniel, and bring him to the U.S. for the supposed better life. But memories of his family's murder torment the young boy, and soon he's acting up in school, much to the consternation of his teacher (Jennifer Chang), the evenhanded principal (Angela Bullock) and a child psychologist (Eileen Galindo).

Parents, teacher, principal, therapist: McKee dispassionately observes how each of these adult authority figures fails to help Daniel emerge from his private hell. By keeping him offstage, she places the focus squarely on how adult desire, always rationalized, displaces a child's basic needs; Daniel is literally invisible.

On Tom Ontiveros' stark black set featuring two playground swings, director Larissa Kokernet keeps her able cast on pace (Galindo is particularly good). But the play feels constricted -- nearly every scene is between two people -- and McKee never delivers the dramatic punch that would give the story genuine force. Still, as a portrait of the crucible that is parenthood, "Stray" troubles indeed.

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Charlotte Stoudt --

"Stray," Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Dark Halloween; performance rescheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18. Ends Nov. 22. $25. Contact: (800) 838-3006 or www.thedahlia.com or www.chalkrep.com. Running time: 2 hours.

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Inside Lincoln's Oval Office

Based on a little-known historical incident, Wayne Peter Liebman's "Better Angels," now in its West Coast premiere at the Colony, is a scrupulously researched and respectful drama that appropriately honors the Lincoln bicentennial. As far as vibrant new theater goes, however, the play is a tad rusty.

In Victoria Profitt's strangely rudimentary scenic design, a backdrop of vari-colored mountains' majesty sets off Lincoln's sparsely furnished White House office. Seen at the height of his war presidency, a beleaguered Lincoln (James Read) receives a visit from Cordelia Harvey (McKerrin Kelly), the recently widowed wife of Wisconsin's governor, who petitions Lincoln to approve a Northern hospital for the war wounded.

Seen in both 1909 and 1863, Lincoln's loyal amanuensis and later biographer, John Hay (David Dean Bottrell), serves as on-the-spot observer and retrospective narrator of the ongoing discussion between the president and Mrs. Harvey, a charged dialectic underscored by an unspoken romantic frisson.

The actors are all winning, particularly Read, whose fittingly folksy Lincoln has just the right touch of poignant cerebrality.

But director Dan Bonnell too often mistakes stiffness for period reserve, and despite Liebman's almost religious observance of actual historical records, anachronisms do creep in. The scholarly Hay's line, "It is not me you need to convince," is particularly wince-worthy, and Lincoln's failure to rise when Mrs. Harvey enters the room seems rudeness that no gentleman of the era would have countenanced, even in pique.

However, a final scene, in which Mrs. Harvey silently peruses Lincoln's just-penned Gettysburg Address, is a moving moment that tugs our tears and leaves us with renewed appreciation for the sad, doomed man who preserved the Union. In stark contrast with what has come before, the moment offers a glimpse of dramatic opportunities left unrealized.

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F. Kathleen Foley --

"Better Angels," Colony Theater, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Also 8 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19, and 3 p.m. Oct. 31 and Nov. 7. (No 8 p.m. performance Oct. 31.) $37-$42. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15. www.colonytheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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Abridged 'Crime and Punishment'

Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" is both a gripping thriller and a major doorstop. Now at A Noise Within, you can polish off this dense classic in less time than it takes to clear downtown L.A. at rush hour. Condensing 600 pages of Slavic nihilism into 80 minutes is a feat, but adaptors Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus very nearly capture the roiling soul of this 1886 masterpiece.

On Michael Smith's two-tiered wooden set featuring a shabby chaise lounge and a rickety flight of stairs, two relationships play out: An inspector (Robertson Dean) investigating a brutal murder plays cat and mouse with prime suspect Raskolnikov (Michael A. Newcomer), who finds himself drawn to the quiet strength of a prostitute (Holly Hawkins).

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