Beyond the Fourth Wall

Our critics review local theater productions.

The Actor’s Nightmare and Prisoners of Love — Walnut Creek’s Act Now! has a neat trick for keeping audiences and actors engaged: Do up a couple of one-acts. If the crowd doesn’t care for the first one, well, the second will be different. You know the nightmare, the one where you’re walking into a classroom to take a final exam in a class you haven’t shown up for all semester? For actor and playwright Christopher Durang, the theatrical equivalent is showing up to watch a play you didn’t realize you were supposed to be in. That’s the whole point of The Actor’s Nightmare, an in-joke one-act that still manages to be pretty funny. George Spelvin wanders into what might be a Coward piece, or Beckett, or possibly Hamlet — nobody can agree which it is, and everyone seems to think George is someone else altogether. Gamely he changes into a costume and tries to play along, but it’s an unmitigated disaster from end to end. Meanwhile, in Joel Roster’s Prisoners of Love, seven people struggle to stay connected to their loved ones. What begins as a clutch of isolated yet believable stories evolves into a larger story about the trials families face, but ends all too predictably in heartwarming resolution. Some of the writing sings, and some of it is just clumsy and unclear. This is one of those kitchen-sink plays to which new playwrights are so prone. While there’s a lot of wit, Prisoners of Love could probably have spent a few more minutes in the rinse cycle to knock off the sudsier bits. — L.D. (At the Dean Lesher Center through September 30; or 925-943-7469.)

Diary of a Scoundrel— Alexander Ostrofsky’s social satire of the hypocrisies of Russian high society circa 1867 (translated by Rodney Ackland) holds up surprisingly well today. If the comedy’s a little flat in this community theater production codirected by Carlene Collier Coury and Marilyn Kamelgarn, it’s at least never hard to follow the cunning rise of a duplicitous young suck-up, nor to predict his fall. The sizable cast has a grand old time playing cartoonish buffoons, but when the roguish lead is played by a fifteen-year-old (Ulysses Popple) who speaks like a younger boy, the effect is a little like Pinocchio posing as Machiavelli. Carol Wood’s society dresses are delightfully gaudy, though the trains drag loudly on the stage floor, and John Hull’s elegant drawing-room set is unveiled late in the play, previously concealed by the dingy tan sheet that answers for the scoundrel’s apartment. — S.H. (Through September 30 at Masquers Playhouse; or 510-232-4031.)

The Foreigner— Larry Shue’s comedy about a depressed Englishman pretending not to speak English in a Georgia fishing lodge is delightful as long as you don’t give much thought to why anyone’s doing anything. Timothy Beagley beautifully embodies the painfully shy fly-on-the-wall who finds himself suddenly the most interesting person in the room — which is saying something when the room is filled with a painfully well-intentioned landlady always yelling to be understood, a soft-spoken but scheming reverend, his irritable fiancée, her dim-witted brother, a menacing good ol’ boy, and a happy-go-lucky Cockney military demolition expert. Despite slipping accents and implausible situations, this Alameda community production directed by Richard Robert Bunker is well paced and often hilarious. — S.H. (Through October 1 at Altarena Playhouse; or 510-523-1553.)

The Odd Couple — It’s natural enough that this 1965 Neil Simon comedy spawned a successful TV series in the ’70s, because many of what would become well-worn sitcom tropes are already there. There’s the single set of an implausibly huge New York apartment, the weekly poker game of wisecracking pals, and particularly the mismatched divorced guys living together. The punch lines don’t exactly zing in Willows artistic director Richard Elliott’s production, but it’s considerably enlivened by Cassidy Brown’s jittery Felix Unger, an excellent foil for Christopher Hayes’ glowering Oscar Madison. — S.H. (Through September 24 at the Willows; or 925-798-1300.)

The Rocky Horror Show — Anyone who’s seen the movie Fame knows that among the cognoscenti, people who have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show are called “virgins,” and that those who have become its habitués are “sluts.” But did you know that those who haven’t seen the original stage production, The Rocky Horror Show, are “masturbators”? Clearly, it was time to reduce the number of masturbators in Lafayette. So the Town Hall Theatre, ever concerned with civic duty, stepped into the breach with the most outrageous thing that’s happened on a Contra Costa stage in years, maybe ever. — L.D. (Through September 23 at the Town Hall Theatre; or 925-283-1557.)

Salome — Oscar Wilde’s Salome was never staged in his lifetime, which might lead one to assume it was part of his precipitous decline and fall. That his prime years as a playwright were so few only underscores the tragedy that he was cut off at the height of his literary powers. The richness of his dialogue is well served in Aurora’s production, directed by Mark Jackson. Miranda Calderon is believably bratty as Salome, gleaming with coquettish glee at the naughtiness of speaking to the prophet who maligns her mother, but Ron Campbell’s Herod is the rock upon which this production is built. — S.H. (Through October 1 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822.)

The Tempest — Julián López-Morillas makes an eloquently melancholy Prospero, exiled duke turned sorcerer, in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s free summer production of the bard’s swan song. But despite a faceless, omnipresent Blue Man Group of spirits that blends into the walls of Richard Ortenblad’s striking text-covered set, this is an oddly static Tempest, the castaways either milling around or running randomly willy-nilly to indicate comedy. — S.H. (Through September 24 in area parks; or 415-558-0888.)

Urinetown, the Musical — Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ New York Fringe sensation turned Tony-winning Broadway smash is a very dark comedy and only gets darker, depicting a drought-plagued dystopia (or pisstopia) in which people have to pay to pee. But it’s also a hilarious metamusical packed with winks at works from West Side Story to Les Miz. Contra Costa Musical Theatre tackles the subversive silliness and wild mix of genres impressively well in Jeff Collister’s madcap production. — S.H. (Through September 30 at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469)

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