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Four New Plays Around One Courtyard At Atwater Village Theatre

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Not too long ago, the most likely guess as to where in L.A. you'd find a bunch of dynamic new play productions all running at the same time just a few steps from one another would have been somewhere along Hollywood's Theater Row on Santa Monica Boulevard. Even more recently, the best bet might have been Lankershim Boulevard in the NoHo Arts District. Right now, though, the prime pick-a-play spot in town is the Atwater Village Theatre, where three companies in residence and one guest ensemble all have shows going on in theater spaces situated at the four corners of the venue's central courtyard.

These productions were not developed in tandem, and they have nothing in common. They each operate their own separate box offices (and even their own separate concession tables) at the AVT. There's no volume discount for buying tickets to more than one of the plays, though that wouldn't be a bad idea. Still, on a Friday or Saturday evening, when all four shows start at 8:00 p.m.—or even on Thursdays and Sundays, when two or three of them are going on—the mingling of these discrete audiences generates a lively buzz in the outdoor "lobby" area and AVT feels like the Los Angeles theater scene's latest central hub. The shows aren't too bad, either:

ICU

One of the performance spaces at AVT is configured not as a stage with rows of seats facing it, but as a white-walled "box," conducive to placing the actors and set in the middle of the room with the audience surrounding them in chairs along three or four walls. In the first act of Circle X Theatre Co.'s world premiere production of ICU, a comedy by Fielding Edlow, we are right there in the St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital waiting room where a family and a mysterious young man are anxiously, though also hilariously, awaiting the latest diagnosis of their son, brother and friend, Brian (Tony DeCarlo), lying unconscious in the next room.

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It's a strikingly immersive—as opposed to interactive—theatrical experience to be sharing a space as closely with a play being performed as set designer Amanda Knehans and director Brian Shnipper allow here. Sitting with us in the room are a pair of late-middle aged Jewish parents (Caroline Aaron and Joe Pacheco) now so estranged that "the only thing we have in common is Bill Maher and almonds," along with their professionally and romantically unsuccessful forty-something-year-old daughter (Dagney Kerr). The stranger in their midst (Doug Sutherland) also wants to see Brian, though his reasoning and his account of their relationship keep changing. Every so often, the nurse on duty (Ericka Kreutz) comes in and berates the family for being so loud and boorish—which they certainly are.

In the first act especially, Edlow provides a steady barrage of very funny fast-paced dialogue, delivered with perfect timing and deft characterization by everyone in the cast, displaying the family in all its asinine, highly dysfunctional glory. The play gets a little muddier and more serious after intermission, when the action moves into Brian's room, but the performers keep it from fully derailing. Still, it's the high comic energy, and Shipper's nimble close-quarters staging, in the play's first half that make the strongest impression.

ICU plays Thursday-Sunday evenings through October 31. Tickets $23.

WATCHING O.J.

Exactly 20 years after a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder in the L.A. Criminal Courts Building downtown, David McMillan's play Watching O.J., set in a Los Angeles dry cleaner's store and a nearby auto repair shop on the day of the verdict's delivery, had its world premiere this past Saturday, October 3rd, in a production by the Ensemble Studio Theatre / Los Angeles.

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"In 1995," McMillan recalls in a program note, "as a black teen living in Los Angeles, who not only had friends who lived on the same street as O.J., but whose mom videotaped every single day of the trial—I was fascinated by how people were watching it. Specifically, how whites and blacks (and everyone else) were viewing the trial through their own distinct racial, cultural and historical lens."

These various lenses are embodied by the play's nine characters—black, white, and Asian—ranging from the bigoted dry cleaner Harold Levine (Tony Pasqualini), who "used to like O.J. [back when] he seemed like, you know, one of us," to his African-American customer Kim DeJoseph (Lisa Renee Pitts), who relishes the prospect of a Not Guilty verdict as a chance "to win one for a change, to get one over on them. That will be a win for all of us." When these two confront each other later in the day, Kim lets Harold have it: "You know why I'm so happy they acquitted O.J.? Because it pisses you off!"

McMillan's absorbing, if occasionally schematic drama is enlivened by a truly wonderful cast, always a hallmark of EST productions. Angela Bullock plays Cordia Jefferson, Levine's well-loved second in command at the store whose conflicting loyalties are stretched by the extreme reactions of those around her, with a noble dignity and heart-rending restraint. Robert Gossett's auto repair shop owner Oz Scott is a gregarious, but shrewdly sensitive observer of the emotional chaos wrought by the verdict, who tries to stay above the fray but can't avoid the crossfire altogether. Kelly Wolf's passion in the role of Oz's customer Sheila Brancato, whose police officer husband is out on the streets keeping the peace as the jury presents its decision, is also most compelling.

The conflicting perspectives revealed in Watching O.J continue to resonate, of course, in our own era of re-examined racial injustice and exposed police misconduct. Though the events it depicts may belong to history, this play could hardly feel more current in its social pertinence or immediate in its visceral impact.

Watching O.J., directed by Keith Szarabajka, plays Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through November 8. Tickets $21.64

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AMERICAN FALLS

Five separate narratives wind around and enmesh with one another in Miki Johnson's atmospheric drama American Falls, set in the small town of American Falls, Idaho. Billed as "a kind of modern day Our Town," this short play moves back and forth between various denizens of the community, three of whom address the audience directly in monologues, interspersed with two recurring small ensemble scenes. The Echo Theater Company's west coast premiere production of American Falls features a rotating cast, with actors switching in some roles from performance to performance. Certainly the particular group we saw on stage gave us no reason to wish we'd come another night.

One of the play's two central narrators is an open-hearted Native American shoe salesman named Billy Mound of Clouds (Leandro Cano), who alludes to the other goings-on in the town while talking extensively about what he watches on TV and the magic powers he shamanically derives from his shoes. The other is Lisa (Andrea Grano), a young woman who has recently committed suicide, leaving behind a husband Samuel (Karl Herlinger) and young son Isaac (Tomek Adler). Samuel bitterly resents Isaac's existence and addresses him with increasingly unbridled hostility as the play progresses. There's also a trio of young adults (Beth Triffon, Garrett Hanson and Ian Merrigan), only one of whom relates to the rest of the play's characters and events, who trade stories in a bar.

The strongest character of all is an older woman named Samantha, played by Barbara Tarbuck, who also speaks directly to the audience with searing regret about the many ways in which she has wasted her life, intimating, too, a recognition of the toll her dissatisfaction has taken on those closest to her in American Falls. In Tarbuck's final monologue, Samantha imagines in excruciating detail the extensive string of choices she might have made that would have allowed her to live happily and achieve fulfillment throughout her years. The culminating exhalation of resentment, "It is what it is," provides the play's most devastating moment and a perhaps belated cautionary note to all who hear it.

The Echo's company artistic director, Chris Fields, directs.

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American Falls plays Friday-Sunday evenings and Sunday afternoons through October 18. Full-price tickets $25; online discounts available for $24 and $16.50.

GET. THAT. SNITCH.

Great Minds Creative Productions is an ambitious new theater company presenting its very first show, Get. That. Snitch., as a guest production at the AVT.

Ten male actors are strewn motionless about Victoria Tam's prodigious duplex set as the audience files in to their seats. Then, when the lights go down, we meet the play's narrator (Michelle Chaho), who identifies herself as the Devil and starts relating the tale these dead men can't tell about how they all ended up lying here.

There's a lot to admire in this show and, more crucially, plenty to suggest that these Great Minds have the chops to continue producing. Tam's set is richly complemented by Marly Hall's costumes, Phillip W. Powers's lighting design and Sheiva Khalily's projected rear-wall cartoons depicting each new character as he's introduced.

The playbill promises "blank-firing firearms, loud sound effects [created by Austin Quan], strobed lighting, bright lighting effects, herbal cigarettes, theatrical haze, adult language and graphic content," and Get.That. Snitch. delivers all of these without a hitch. Directed by Andrew Pilmer, with sharp fight choreography by Micah Watterson, the cast maintains a crisp momentum over the 90 intermission-less minutes of what we're tantalizingly promised is "The World's Most Dangerous Play." A voice-over as the show gets underway assures us we're "going to see all sorts of crazy shit go down tonight."

Which brings us to the main problem here: playwright Achilles Capone's stab at a high-octane noirish gangster story is entirely unintriguing, a TV dinner Reservoir Dogs with a connect-the-dots plot line, cardboard cutout characters and lifeless dialogue. Drawbacks like these all the production values in the world can't make up for.

Still, we'll be willing to check this company out again and hope they find better material to work with next time.

Get. That. Snitch. plays Thursday-Sunday evenings through November 1. Full-price tickets $25; online discounts available for $19 and $16.