Beyond The Fourth Wall

Our critics review local theater productions.

1776 — A musical about the Continental Congress’ deliberations leading up to the Declaration of Independence sounds dreary if you hate freedom, and it’s greatly to writer Peter Stone’s credit that he managed to make it funny. It’s so much to his credit that the nursery-rhyme-simple songs by original conceiver Sherman Edwards often feel like wispy add-ons to make it a musical so it could play Broadway, where it won the 1969 Tony over Hair. By popular demand Willows managing director Andrew Holtz has revived the theater’s 2000 production, with Rick Williams returning as an excellently curmudgeonly John Adams, unpopular advocate of independence. And if it’s quite long at three-plus hours, they go by admirably quickly. Particularly affecting is Pat Sieler as loyalist holdout John Dickinson, the only “nay” voter not portrayed as a foppish buffoon. John Hetzler makes an amusing rascal of quipster Ben Franklin, and Noah James Butler is stolid as stone as Jefferson. — S.H. (Through July 2 at the Willows Theatre; or 925-798-1300.)

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress— You hole up five bridesmaids in a Knoxville bedroom during a wedding reception, and what do you get? In this 1993 comedy you get two hours of catty “girl talk” as imagined by American Beauty screenwriter and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball. The small cast and director Daren A.C. Carollo keep things moving pleasingly, even if they’re not moving anywhere in particular. Kelly Tighe’s twee country-manor bedroom set and Melissa Paterson’s garishly rosy bridesmaid dresses capture just the right level of kitsch without taking it over the top. If the characters are a bit more two-dimensional (the wide-eyed Christian, the casual-sex poster girl, the brassy lesbian), the lively performers aren’t to blame, though it’s disorienting to have characters talking about how much older or younger they are when they all look pretty much the same age. — S.H. (Through June 10 at Town Hall Theatre; or 925-283-1557.)

The Glass Menagerie — Tennessee Williams probably didn’t intend for his Glass Menagerie to be taken as a gauzy, nostalgic look at a family lost in time. His journals and letters reveal discontent and struggle that wind through all of his characters and scenarios. Written while Williams was at MGM working on a Lana Turner vehicle, The Glass Menagerie follows the implosion of the Wingfield clan. Tom dreams out his days working in a shoe warehouse. Meanwhile his chatty mother hustles magazine subscriptions, trying to make enough money to get her reclusive daughter Laura trained in some lucrative skill. It’s easy to play these characters in soft focus, but in the robust and troubling Berkeley Rep production, director Les Waters and his actors don’t fall prey. Emily Donahoe’s Laura is fine as long as she can stay within the cushioned world she has created for herself and interact only with her family. Rita Moreno’s Amanda likewise is tough and clear-headed, the silliness of her thirty-year-old party dress aside. As Tom, Erik Lochtefeld is twitchy, slumped, shabby, and ultimately poetic. — L.D. (Through July 2 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

King Lear — Pity Cordelia; she caught the “radical honesty” bug a few centuries too early. When her father King Lear turns to her, expecting that she will lavish him with the same kind of overblown hooey that her mendacious older sisters Goneril and Regan have been dishing out, she demurs. But Lear is not interested in plain, practical love; he needs his kingly ego stroked. In a rage he disowns Cordelia, divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and then plans to spend his dotage alternating months between the two. This does not please the two schemers, and for their own separate reasons they set out to destroy him. Everything pretty much goes downhill from there: The heavens respond with bad weather, Lear’s retainers end up banished or blinded, the king himself ends up naked and raving in the middle of a big storm, and the bodies pile up. All of this is much more riveting in the hands of the Shotgunners than you might think. Codirectors Patrick Dooley and Joanie McBrien have a punchy script and a fairly strong cast studded with heavy hitters. While some of the motivations are murky, the themes are sharply drawn. Loyalty is especially important in Lear, and clearly played by the Shotgun cast. Swift and gleefully nasty, this Lear is three hours of deception, madness, and extremely poor intrafamily communication. — L.D. (Through June 11 at the Ashby Stage; or 510-841-6500.)

Laughter on the 23rd Floor — Before he made a name for himself as the leading purveyor of the scripts beloved by community theater groups, Neil Simon was a junior joke writer on Sid Caesar’s seminal Your Show of Shows, the granddaddy of TV variety and sketch comedy shows. A tender 25-year-old so shy he would whisper his ideas to co-worker Carl Reiner, Simon was surrounded by the writers who would shape television and film comedy for decades to come. The story of what it was like being surrounded by such influential maniacs is Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now playing at CenterREP. There’s not much of a plot, per se. But while most workplaces offer up intrigues aplenty, how many offer a story easily told in two acts? There’s something that just doesn’t jell in the first act, even with Barbara Damashek directing a reliable cast. Happily, the second act is much better than the first. The pace picks up, the situations get more absurd, there’s a near-strangling, and the tension builds with the news that someone may get fired. The humor is very Jewish and very East Coast, sarcastic and one-liner-heavy. But There is a political undercurrent to this story, which takes place in the same milieu as Good Night, and Good Luck, the movie about Edward R. Murrow battling Joseph McCarthy. Watch Laughter in that light, while trying to figure out which character represents which real-life writer, and it’s much more interesting. — L.D. (Through June 17 at the Lesher Center; or 925-943-SHOW.)

The Miser — Strange, darkly funny, and beguiling, the Berkeley Rep production of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s The Miser begs the question of why we don’t see more intensely physical theater in the East Bay. Other than the Ragged Wing Ensemble, some of Les Waters’ work, and a lot of stage combat, most of our houses simply don’t go as far as the companies that visit. Jeune Lune, Mary Zimmerman, and the actors she brought in for The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and The Secret in the Wings, Culture Clash — why is our most physically daring theater all imported? It’s not a question of talent. Maybe this reflects a Stanislavskian fixation on text analysis over a more physical approach to building characters. In this clever vision of Molière’s classic farce about a man so stingy his children consider killing him so they can marry, nameless servants run around behind the set, pop in and out of the doors and around the sides of the stage, and stick curious heads in the windows. While the characterizations are charmingly idiosyncratic, it is the way the actors use their bodies that strikes the imagination. — L.D. (Through June 25 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

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