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Arts and Entertainment

Beggars In The House of Plenty

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Laist's theater pick for this weekend is John Patrick Shanley's haunting Beggars in the House of Plenty, a production of Vs. Theatre Company. Beggars is playing through Oct. 9th at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank. Shanley won the Tony and the Pulitzer for Doubt in 2005, and it's a great time to look at his earlier works. This one, in its West Coast premiere, still holds up as a theatrical masterpiece.

Shanley also wrote the screenplays for Moonstruck and Joe Vs. The Volcano, and fans of the strong emotions and quirky characters in those movies will get more trademark weirdness here. Beggars is a masculine show, perfect for the reluctant male theatregoers among us. It's a barrel full of violence, abuse, roughhousing, superstition, drinking, and cheap Catholic and Irish jokes. This autobiographical play mirrors almost every incident in playwright Shanley's bio, from getting kicked out of kindergarten and high school to growing up a young Irish kid in the Bronx.

Anchored by four towering performances from Eddie Jones (Pop), Annie Abbott (Ma), Johnny Clark (Johnny) and Jeffrey Stubblefield (Joey), Shanley's piece evokes a O'Neillian quartet of family dysfunction, complete with the young writer cowering under the madness.

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Young Johnny counts off the years of his life like a prisoner of war: "When I was three, four, five fuckin' years of my life..." He can't wait to get out. Yet once he escapes his family, their memories will torment him, and he comes back looking for answers. All he gets is more violence, and he has to watch his father reduce his Vietnam-vet older brother Joey to a quivering child in the basement.

The darkness of the family four is offset by two comic turns from Robyn Cohen as Sheila, a rose-colored sister getting married to get out, and a very funny Liz Herron as Sister Mary Kate supplying the obligatory nun jokes. But humor and a whimsical set by John G. Williams don't appease either the young Johnny or the audience. We are afraid, very afraid, of Eddie Jones with that butcher knife and bloodstained apron, and the increasingly insane Annie Abbott who seems to love food more than her children.

It's hard not to think of Ionesco or Albee with characters this grotesque, but Shanley's absurdism is far subtler. He uses just enough to keep the dialogue unsettling. The Vietnam veteran brother Joey (Jeffrey Stubblefield) takes a swig of Bud and proclaims to the audience, "I love beer." Then he says it again, with a big smirk. Young Johnny (Johnny Clark), as the young playwright on his sister's wedding day, runs up to his mother and cries out, "Ma! How about some breast milk?" We can't tell if these are jokes, or if these people are so upset that this is actually how they talk.

Shanley intersperses his touches of madness and magic with realist dialogue, like a long scene between the teenage Johnny and his Vietnam vet brother, our favorite part of the play. They're sitting in front of the TV shining shoes and pushing each other's buttons, talking about chicks and drugs and insulting each other. It goes on for a long time. Then Eddie Jones comes out ready to hunt rabbits in the Bronx and gives Johnny his ring. Joey's jealousy and the ensuing confrontation with Ma are pure family emotion. Of course, in the next scene, Johnny is summoning up his dead parents' demons. Somehow, Shanley makes it all hold together, as the narrative of a playwright's growth.

Vs. Theatre is a young company, founded in 2003, but you wouldn't know it from the high quality of this production. A strong design team, centered by Anita Khanzadian's actor-driven style of direction, makes the play simple, classy, and heartbreaking in its clarity. Before it disappears, Beggars plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm through October 9th at the Victory Theatre Center, 3326 West Victory Blvd, Burbank, CA 91505. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 818-841-4404. Lots of free street parking is available.