The Mojo and the Sayso

ACT Theatre

Through Sept 30.

You know you've just seen a sub-par production when even the opening-night audience won't stand for the curtain call—nobody was buying The Mojo and the Sayso. The production just doesn't hang together: script, direction, and design all work against each other and make a cloudy, arrhythmic mess.

The play, written in 1987 by Aishah Rahman, concerns a working-class African-American family that's been ripped apart by the murder of its younger son. They can't stand to talk about it and can't stand each other, so each sinks his psyche into a distraction—for the father (Lindsay Smiling), it's a car he's building in the living room. For the mother (Tracy Michelle Hughes), it's a smooth-talking preacher at the local church. Their older son (Jose A. Rufino) has taken to calling himself "Blood" and stalks around with pistols and knives, looking for somebody to slaughter.

Rahman's characters speak in stylized, declamatory monologues that sometimes overlap and sometimes want to be incantatory. But the actors are at their best in the quiet, naturalistic moments—father and son talking about cars and Mexico—and at their worst in the play's quasi-magical realism, where they hover awkwardly between the natural and the fantastic, shouting and alienated from their words.

The crucial moment comes in the second act, when the family's dreams and nightmares literally come true. There are transformations and exorcisms that want to be dramatic, but the production hasn't done the work of coaxing us into its world. The big magic, the healing moment the entire play has been trying to build toward, feels chintzy and hollow—like a cheap trick. BRENDAN KILEY

The Exonerated

ReAct Theatre at Ethnic Cultural Theatre

Through Sept 23.

In Variety's 2005 review of the Court TV movie The Exonerated, a collection of monologues by people who have been to death row and back, the reviewer offers this important insight: "Dead men, after all, are hard to set free." In that statement we find the power not only of the TV movie but also of the play, which was first performed in 2002 and is currently being staged by ReAct Theatre. It's hard (perhaps even false) to call The Exonerated a play. One doesn't watch it to see great performances or hear sophisticated writing, but to receive hard information about real people who have been wronged in the worst way—by America's massive legal machinery.

In essence, The Exonerated is a fugue of six monologues—five men and one woman. As each line of a fugue has an identical melodic structure, each monologue has an identical story structure: the arrest, the encounter with the broken legal system, the death sentence, the bleak years on death row, the day of exoneration, and life after death. ReAct's adaptation, directed by David Hsieh, has one act and a mix of muscular (Geoffery Simmons as Robert Earl Hayes) and mild (Curt Bolar as Delbert Tibbs) performances. But the problem with staging The Exonerated, and a problem that ReAct for the most part avoids, is this contradiction: The actors can neither be too good nor too bad because both conditions ultimately subtract from the substance (the reality) of the stories. What we never want to lose sight of during The Exonerated is the fact that the people on the stage represent real people who have been to the edge of life and have seen things that only the dead are supposed to see. CHARLES MUDEDE

The Summer Before the Summer of Love

Theater Schmeater

Through Oct 6.

It's painful to say, but Scot Augustson seems off his game. The Seattle playwright who specializes in comic pathos—A Terrible Price for Whimsy, Plants and Animals, and Gilgamesh, IA—has stumbled for the second time this year. In March, it was Girls and Gods at Capitol Hill Arts Center, a feeble attempt at a feminist revision of Greek mythology. Now there's The Summer Before the Summer of Love, a tepid tale of the late '60s and two men falling in love, even though both of them know that one of them is faking a fatal illness.

Much of it is the fault of director William Cole, who doesn't seem to get Augustson's writing. When Augustson is firing at all cylinders, every line is a little jab of wit and deserves light, rapid-fire delivery. The actors in Summer are sluggish and overwrought, plodding when they should skip.

But even the writing isn't at its best. The richness of other Augustson plays is in his imaginative detours, like the unforgettable rise, fall, and cocaine burnout of a singing chicken in A Terrible Price for Whimsy. Summer has a few similar flourishes—attractive construction workers, one character's misbegotten plan to be a mail-order bride for an Alaska preacher—but they seem thinner and fewer here than in Augustson's other work. Which is not to say the love story isn't cute: Young Vic (the imaginary invalid) is an irresponsible, adorable lout. Old Greg (an astronomy professor) and his machinations to get Vic to tell the truth are funny and slightly pathetic. But cute can't sustain two acts.