Lend Me a Tenor
ArtsWest
Through Sept 27.

It's Cleveland, 1934, and acclaimed Italian opera tenor Tito Morelli--written here with enough spaghetti-o's in his character to inflame the entire Italian-American Anti-Defamation League--has come to perform the lead role in Verdi's Otello. Right before the gig somebody mistakes Morelli for dead (sleeping pills, a note... long story) and suddenly there's much running-in-and-out-of and slamming of doors (all six) and lines like, "Are you crazy, this scheme will NEVER work!" and "We don't need luck... we need a miracle!" and "You fool! You'll ruin everything" and "Whew! I can't believe we pulled that one off... now everything can get back to normal!"

Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor is the kind of sweet, silly manure in which innumerable summer community-theater bushes bloom. It's farcical pap from start to finish, and I don't give a sloppy Manwich how many Tonys it can wave around to contradict me. (It scored a couple--waaaaaaay back in the laaaate '80s, and tell me if I'm wrong, but hasn't the whole freaking American theatrical idiom evolved slightly since then?) It's amusing, in an old-school, could-have-been-an-episode-of-anything-on-TV way--a formulaic (with opera divas, bed-hoppers, social climbers, and snotty bellboys), slightly naughty skit from The Carol Burnett Show kind of affair.

This Carol Burnett quality is exemplified by the performances of Trish LaGrua (Diana) and Beth Cooper (Maggie), two of the show's highlights who bear uncanny resemblances in style and aesthetic to Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence, respectively. (And John Wray as Saunders and Gretchen Douma as Julia are doppelg...ngers of Mr. and Mrs. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies, I swear.) ArtsWest's whole goofy contraption is safe, fun, you-can-bring-Gramma-to-see-it theater, and God bless it. Sometimes you're laughing with it, sometimes you're laughing at it, but, hey, you're laughing. ADRIAN RYAN

A Moon for the Misbegotten
ACT Theatre
Through Sept 28.

The last play that Eugene O'Neill finished, A Moon for the Misbegotten, is a sequel of sorts to the much-honored playwright's family epic, Long Day's Journey into Night. In Moon, the tortured, alcoholic older brother, James Tyrone Jr. (played by John Procaccino), goes out to a rundown farm he owns in rural Connecticut, where he drinks and spars with the resident farmer, Phil (Seán G. Griffin), and flirts with Phil's daughter, Josie (Jeanne Paulsen). That night James returns, possibly having sold the farm out from under the pair, possibly seeking love and redemption in Josie's arms.

Moon gradually shifts from broad comedy (the opening suggests we're a stone's throw away from Li'l Abner's Dogpatch) to a deep bitterness. It's all talk--through most of the play, the characters stand or sit on the porch, boozing and flapping their gums--and the dialogue is flush with old-fashioned character development, laid out a bit too obviously and leisurely for some audience members. (While the Rep's Topdog/Underdog suffers from being heavy on theatrical flash and low on dramatic substance, Moon suffers from the reverse.)

Framed by truly lovely set and lighting designs, the actors dig in with vigor. Procaccino makes James' self-loathing despair vivid and engaging, which is no mean feat; while O'Neill may have invented this poetic, self-destructive type, time has turned him into a not-very-likable cliché. Still, there's a stretch in the second act--when James and Josie circle each other full of drink, suspicion, and desire--that's as lean and compelling as anything O'Neill ever wrote. Unfortunately, the momentum founders in the mire of James' banal Madonna/whore complex, and despite Paulsen's best efforts, Josie slumps helplessly into self-sacrificing virtue. The glimpse of hope that O'Neill wants to give the play ends up seeming forced, while his darkness feels painfully honest and earned. BRET FETZER

Topdog/Underdog
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through Sept 27.

Topdog/Underdog opens in a rundown room where a hyperactive young black man clumsily practices his three-card-monte chops and rattles off his sucker-wooing patter. Behind him, a door opens, and another black man in whiteface, dressed as Abraham Lincoln, enters.

From this surreal moment, Suzan-Lori Parks unspools the lives of Booth and Lincoln, two brothers abandoned by their parents when they were kids, who fight and commiserate as they struggle with sibling rivalry and the indifference of the world at large.

The play has much in common with Sam Shepard's True West. Both plays are about squabbling brothers trying to one-up each other; both plays are not so much a story with characters as a series of acting opportunities: scenarios with simple, theatrical bits and chewy monologues that let energetic performers be alternately dynamic and moody. Larry Gilliard Jr. and Harold Perrineau rise to this with gusto, seizing every moment of drunken recrimination or self-deluding braggadocio, bouncing emotions off of each other like it's a ferocious and funny squash match.

Parks' propulsive language dances out of the actors' mouths and into your ears, but there's no real narrative movement--basically, the brothers rub each other more and more raw and then things end badly, which (given their names and the clearly laid-out theme of history repeating itself) is no surprise. If the characters were genuinely realized, and not simply props, this ending might be sad, or horrifying, or infuriating; instead, it's emotionally inert. Parks has said in interviews that she wants to awaken her audience to the possibility of making choices in the present, of not being programmed by the past; but her play is exactly that, an inescapable ritual of reenactment. The audience gets the excited anticipation a game of three-card monte inspires--but just like the game on the street, there's no choice but to lose, leaving the mark poorer but not much wiser. BRET FETZER

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