Capsule Reviews

Dennis Brown and Deanna Jent suss out local theater

Book of Days The good news about this intriguing chamber piece is that Lanford Wilson has returned to both his theater and family roots. Wilson's confusion after he won the Pulitzer Prize for Talley's Folly resulted in hamstrung, small-cast misfires like Burn This. But the Missouri-born playwright is at his best when he can paint on a broad canvas. This twelve-character murder mystery set in the Ozarks is a felicitous meshing of Fifth of July and The Rimers of Eldritch. The free-flowing storyline flirts with movie techniques, but the finished product is pure theater. Individually, some of the performances are a little stiff, but under Chris Stephens' fluid direction, the cast shines when it functions as an ensemble. Performed by St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley through March 5 at the Terry Fischer Theatre, 3400 Pershall Road, Ferguson. Tickets are free. Call 314-513-4488. (Dennis Brown)

Criminal Hearts Bo (Kelley Ryan) is a socialite who's never ridden on a bus; Ata (Patty Ulrich) is a thug who has never worn a dress. They meet during a botched burglary of Bo's apartment and promptly proceed to share all sorts of Life Lessons. This comedy by Jane Walker strives to be a sassy Billy Wilder movie for regional theaters. Instead the script is as contrived as clockwork. Here a revelation; now it's time for a plot twist. Well, nobody's perfect. But the engaging production directed by Cameron Ulrich is persuasively performed by both actresses, who work like Trojans all night long and make much of little. Then midway through Act Two, Andrew Neiman arrives as Bo's husband (his second role of the evening) and brings such energy and tension to the stage, you almost feel you're watching a play of substance. Performed by Muddy Waters Theatre Company through March 6 at St. John's United Methodist Church, 5000 Washington Place (at Kingshighway). Tickets are $16 ($13 for students and seniors). Call 314-540-7831. (DB)

Into the Woods Reviewed in this issue.

A Piece of My Heart Reviewed in this issue.

The Retreat from Moscow Not all theater has to be in-your-face. William Nicholson's three-character dissection of a failing marriage is marked by civility and quietude. To some viewers, those attributes might add up to boredom; others will find this play intelligent and thoughtful. And how startling to see a sober drama that is neither a revival nor a sleek new superhyped prize winner (no Pulitzer, no Tony). Rather, it's a throwback to that era when, if an author had something on his mind, he wrote a play. The show has been cleanly staged by Steven Woolf and is crisply performed by Darrie Lawrence as the wife who takes too much for granted, Anderson Matthews as her craven husband and Erik Steele as their son who finds his own identity even as his parents are losing theirs. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 11 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets $12-$58 (rush tickets available for students and seniors, $8 and $10 respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925. (DB)

SECRET: The Josephine Baker FBI File There's so much wrong with this show, it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start with the pointless intermission that allows the audience to flee. Then there's sluggish pacing, hopeless staging, a misleading title. St. Louis-born entertainer Josephine Baker is a mere supporting character in this reading of memos, letters and newspaper clippings primarily from the witch-hunting 1950s. (The evening is more concerned with gossip columnist Walter Winchell and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.) The multimedia project is the brainchild of Paul Guzzardo. In trying to use sound and visuals to evoke a time and place, Guzzardo may be on to something, but he hasn't found it yet. Performed by St. Louis Community College at Forest Park through March 6 at the Mildred E. Bastian Center for the Performing Arts, 5600 Oakland Avenue. Tickets are $4 ($2 for students and seniors). Call 314-644-9386. (DB)

Stories About the Old Days Blues artist "Mississippi" Charles Bevel and Black Rep veteran Linda Kennedy deftly perform this two-person valentine, recently adapted from a play into a musical. In Ivy Kennedy creates a vibrant character, a strong woman battling internal demons while trying to keep steady footing with an unpredictable former blues singer, Clayborn (Bevel). Both characters are angry, struggling with guilt and questioning God. Their simmering anxiety emerges unexpectedly, like steam bubbles in a thick sauce, while the possibility of a new relationship charges the atmosphere with electricity. The satisfying ending brings Clayborn and Ivy together for what promises to be a bumpy but exhilarating relationship. Bill Harris' revised script needs a little trimming but has at its heart an entertaining story of love. Through March 6 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Tickets are $25-$37.50 ($10 rush tickets for students available ten minutes before showtime). Call 314-534-3810. (DJ)

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street Reviewed in this issue.

Unexpected Tenderness This razor-sharp production of Israel Horovitz's memory play about an abusive father has been tightly, tautly staged by Brad Schwartz and includes impressive performances by Louis Balestra, Kevin Beyer, John Kinney, Richard Lewis, Diane Nelinson, Pamela Reckamp and Sarah Woolf. But ultimately the supercharged scenes become interchangeable; one senses they've been shuffled into the script as randomly as one might shuffle a deck of playing cards. Yes, domestic violence is brutal and inexcusable. But we know that before the lights go down. What else does the play want to tell us? Performed by the New Jewish Theatre through March 6 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur. Tickets are $20-$22 ($2 off for JCC members). Call 314-442-3283. (DB)

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