What’s Happening in East Bay Theater

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For complete, up-to-date East Bay theater listings, look under Billboard on the home page for the “Select Category” pulldown, then select “Theater & Performing Arts.”

Days of Wine & Roses — One long, melodramatic commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous that hews closely to the program party line, J.P. Miller’s screenplay is barely and badly adapted to the stage: many scenes last only a line or three, and wind up being notably shorter than the blacked-out scene changes that follow, even in this bare-bones Act Now! staging by director Stephen Murphree. Rich Aiello and Brenda Reed make a charming pair of soused spouses, though more in animal detoxed desperation than during the staggering benders, and a sizable ensemble does what it can with a variety of paper-thin walk-on parts in what is for all intents and purposes a two-actor piece that hasn’t come to terms with it yet. It has to want to change. — S.H. (Through October 22 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469)

Deathtrap — Witty, self-referential, and a sly commentary on the mystery thriller genre, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap has been stunning audiences for almost thirty years. Two acts, five characters, one room, a dark and stormy night, power outages, an inheritance, and a couple of killer plot twists make this a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, whoever does it. Yet the Willows goes above and beyond the call of duty on this production. The acting is tight, the pacing is good, and the design elements all work — especially Jon Retsky’s spooky lighting and Tom Benson’s yummy set, studded with at least three dozen bladed, blunt, shiny, knobbly weapons. The first act goes gangbusters. Once-successful playwright Sidney Bruhl is having an extended dry spell, and hopes that the thriller Deathtrap will bring him back to his former glory. The problem is that Deathtrap is not his: It’s a first effort from Clifford Anderson, a twerp in one of Bruhl’s playwriting workshops. So Bruhl sets about luring said twerp to his cozy-yet-isolated country home, where he may or not kill the younger man with one of the many deadly instruments that grace the walls. So far, so good. Sidney’s wife, Myra (the nimble-faced Sandra Jardin), hates the idea (in some productions she is played as a more willing accessory, both interesting choices), her barely restrained anxiety swelling to fill the audience and ratchet up the tension. The second act, however, runs up against a piece of misguided caution that drastically lessens its potential impact.Without giving away the plot twist, there are two characters who need to have a sexual charge — and that doesn’t happen in this production. If you’ve somehow managed to miss Deathtrap up until now, you could do worse than this stylish production. — L.D. (At the Willows through October 23; WillowsTheatre.org or 925-798-1300.)

Executive Order 9066 — It’s hard to imagine that a teapot and two cups could tell a complex, neglected story from World War II, but in the hands of Liebe Wetzel’s company Lunatique Fantastique, a tea set gets a star turn. Two tea sets, really: one Japanese, one European. And some tin cans. And newspapers, and sticks, and old shoes, and a metal cafeteria tray, the kind with dividers to keep the portions separate. Such is the magic of Wetzel’s work, which she doesn’t call puppeteering but “object manipulation.” Her characters, vehicles, and sets are constructed on the fly by half a dozen black-clad performers who arrange objects into various configurations, leaving plenty of spaces for the audience’s imagination to fill in. Visually, it’s beautiful — a samurai turns into a ship, and then a home, in a fluid transition near the beginning. The bombing of Hiroshima, silently acted out with newspaper, is stunning. And there is some wonderful, challenging ambiguity, but the reliance on symbolism makes the show almost too elegant and abstract to provoke the gut reaction of some of her other work. Lunatique Fantastique debuted this piece two years ago at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, where it was limited to an hour. It feels longer now than it did then, and it’s hard to say whether that’s because it is a little longer, or because the cast of manipulators has turned over and these folks are moving at a different pace. Two years later, it’s leisurely and meditative to the point of being difficult to stay with. Still gorgeous, but slow. — L.D. (Through October 21 at the Marsh, Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

Our Town — At first glance, Thornton Wilder’s legendary play might seem to fall into the nostalgia trap, with its soda fountain and unlocked doors. But Our Town, which netted Berkeley High graduate Wilder the first of three Pulitzers, is much more interesting than its reputation suggests, especially in a version that manages to be meditative and not maudlin, gentle and profound. This is a quintessentially American town, yes, and things may be simpler, but people’s problems, their sadness and loss and occasional despair, affect them just as deeply. But in this Berkeley Rep production directed by Jonathan Moscone, these individual lives juxtaposed against the larger cycles of community and nature take on a certain dignity and loveliness. — L.D. (Through October 23 at the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Stage; 510-647-2949 or BerkeleyRep.org)

The Tempest — Because it is neither purely comedy nor tragedy, Shakespeare’s The Tempest gives a director a little more room to move — is it going to be all heavy and intense, or played for laughs? From the beginning shipwreck, where director Liliian Groag works an interesting variation on the “moving fabric as water” trick, it’s clear that the current CalShakes incarnation will be on the lighter end of the spectrum. Which is not to say that the production is lightweight. Silly and charming, yes, but still intense, especially when it comes to loss. While this is not an epic Tempest so much as a human-scale one, giddily physical and peppered with cheesily amusing sound effects, the big themes of love, submission, vengeance, and forgiveness are still in play. This is a gentle Tempest, all boings, bells, and the sound of birds. — L.D. (At CalShakes through October 23; CalShakes.org or 510-548-9666.)

When God Winked — The Marsh’s new Berkeley branch opens with Ron Jones’ one-man show about his thirty years working at SF’s Recreation Center for the Handicapped, now the Janet Pomeroy Center. Between his lively storytelling and videos of his clients in action, Jones really lets us get to know the unforgettable personalities involved and keenly feel the sense of loss and outrage when cutbacks leave them in the lurch. — S.H. (Through October 16 at the Marsh, Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 415-826-5750.)

You Can’t Take It with You — Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 comedic classic holds up surprisingly well today with all its jokes about Russian nobles brought low by the revolution and that newfangled income tax, which is a good thing because the play is performed so often. Yet it relies on timing that could be snappier in Kate Culbertson’s community theater production, which earns more pleasant smiles than actual laughs, and the dotty household at its center comes off as quietly quirky at best. But it’s hard not to be charmed by Ralph Miller’s gently unflappable paterfamilias or Stacey Matthews’ glowing belle of the bedlam, and Matt Flynn’s exquisitely cluttered set earns applause in itself. S.H. (Through October 22 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; CCCT.org or 510-524-6654.)

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