PRICK Not for the faint of heart.
Hard Times

Book-It Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center House

Through April 6.Don't go to this play--an adaptation of Dicken's Hard Times (1854)--because you were laid off and need something that speaks to your present difficulties; watch it, instead, and specifically, for the lead actors, who successfully translate into theatrical terms some of the most memorable literary characters in all of English fiction. As the expression goes, Charles Leggett steals (or steals a considerable part of) the show as the vulgar capitalist Josiah Bounderby, who owns Coketown's bleakest factory and is married to the sensitive daughter (Heather Guiles) of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind (Brian Thompson), who also steals a healthy portion of the show--not with the hilarity and energy that Leggett generates every moment he is on the stage, but with the perfection with which he reproduces the stern schoolmaster. Also, David Quicksall as Mr. James Harthouse, the aristocrat with a heart of stone, Ray D. Gonzalez as the worker with a heart of gold (Stephen Blackpool), and Cynthia Lair as the senescent Mrs. Gradgrind steal their own bits and pieces of the show.

In a word, go to this play no matter what your circumstances might be--overemployed or underemployed; receiving bonuses or welfare. It's a great play based on a great book by the always wonderful Charles Dickens. CHARLES MUDEDE

Letters from the Earth

Consolidated Works

Through March 22. Dan Savage, who adapted and co-conceived this production of Letters from the Earth, is my boss. In the interest of keeping this sizzling conflict of interest at the forefront of my review, I will henceforth refer to Mr. Savage as "my boss."

My boss's show stinks.

One of Mark Twain's funnier and more acerbic pieces, Letters presents missives from Satan to his heavenly pals, Gabriel and Michael. The archangel briefly visits earth to see how the human experiment is progressing, and reflects on the ridiculous state of humanity in general and Christians in particular. Throughout, Twain (via Satan) chuckles at the theological picture of an all-powerful, merciful God who savagely murders His innocent children and sadistically commands them to behave in ways utterly inconsistent with their nature--namely, with gentleness and chastity.

This production of the Satanic letters is polished but thoroughly leaden, directly lifting great chunks of Twain and putting them in the mouth of an actor, Charles Smith, through whom my boss turned what was sparkling prose on the page into dull oration on stage.

Satan's incredulity at humanity's erroneous theology is one of Twain's great comedic strokes; his correspondent is a flabbergasted celestial tourist, comparing what he actually knows of the cosmos to how poorly people imagine it. My boss' version is just a guy with an autoharp and a cute slideshow. Instead of a heavenly visitor, we get a lecturing, lackluster atheist, who has been robbed of his most potent comic weapon--the truth. BRENDAN KILEY

Prick

Re-bar

Through April 5.No other actor in town is better at bringing to life multiple characters and myriad settings on a bare stage than the dazzlingly virtuosic K. Brian Neel, and his newest offering showcases his skills admirably. However, Prick is a strange and unsettling experience, not for the faint of heart.

In Prick, the writer of a successful series set in the fantastical world of Werndoald spends his advance and then draws a complete blank when it's time to deliver the fourth installment. Looking for inspiration and a way to pay his mortgage, he rents out his mansion. Soon, his imaginary land is peopled with characters based on his scary new roommates: a drug-addicted runaway, a con artist fresh from prison, a compulsive masturbator, and on and on. Of course, the boundaries between truth and fiction soon dissolve and chaos ensues.

Most one-person shows consist of nothing more than navel gazing, so it's refreshing to see Neel stretch the medium's narrative possibilities. However, instead of being too warm and fuzzy, Prick seems too cold and... well, prickly. If not in service of an engaging story, Neel's steely ability to disappear into so many characters can seem like nothing more than chilly technique. Since he has created such unlikable, nay, repellent characters, the temperature in Werndoald drops mighty low indeed. TAMARA PARIS

This Is Our Youth

UW Ethnic Cultural Theatre

Through March 23.The scene is Manhattan, 1982. Ronald Reagan has just declared ketchup a vegetable. Enter poor little rich kids Dennis and Warren, a pair of ambivalent and disaffected slackers. Pot-dealing Dennis (Andy Kidd) lives in a one-room apartment, supported by parents who don't want him around. Best friend Warren (Tim Liese) shows up with a briefcase full of his father's stolen money. It isn't long before Dennis concocts a quick-profit cocaine scheme and Warren uses the money to impress and bed irony-free fashion student Jessica (Emily Cedergreen).

Kenneth Lonergan's astute play This Is Our Youth humorously captures the inarticulate desperation of three teenagers as they struggle to recognize love, friendship, and self-worth. Lonergan looks back with a wistful sense of irony at a generation of parents who selfishly abandoned their children to the embrace of free-market forces.

For the play to succeed, however, it requires a keen directorial hand. Unfortunately, Tommy Smith and his cast lack the maturity and chops to pull it off. Andy Kidd understands the bullying narcissism of Dennis but often mistakes speed and volume for depth and intensity. Tim Liese is a bit too earnest (and too goyish, for that matter) to make a convincing Warren, and Emily Cedergreen misses the cautious ache of Jessica.

Lonergan smartly tackles the stupidity, desolation, and confusion that bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Despite its clumsily written ending, Warren and Dennis should find themselves on the brink of revelation and insight. Regrettably, in this production they remain firmly mired in the naiveté and ignorance of youth. JEFF MEYERS