Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames
Theater Schmeater
Through Dec 10.

The second installment of the Cassandra cycle by Denis Johnson is sprawling and flawed, but a lot of fun. Californian by way of Texas, the Cassandra family is a mess. Years ago, Ma Cassandra went homicidally nuts, traumatizing her husband and children into permanently damaged goods. Johnson wrangles equal parts comedy and pathos out of his fucked-up characters, finding unlikely humor in their lives of jail, depression, and self-destruction.

The play begins with alcoholic Cass flopping at his dad's house, waiting for a bed at the local rehab center. His fugitive brother Bro turns up that night, planning to crash his ex-wife's wedding (she's marrying a preppy prick). Said couple shows up to "disinvite" the Cassandra clan and, in the midst of gunplay, arguments, and a tequila binge, decides to get married that night, in the Cassandra kitchen, out of pure spite. It doesn't make a lot of dramatic sense, but like a presidential press conference, it's hard to peel your attention away from the dysfunctional, sad spectacle.

Shoppers is sloppy and unfocused (a few painfully slow scenes, an invisible dog everyone pantomimes kicking, and the "futuristic" television that comments on the stage action are particularly egregious), but there are enough sharp lines and exciting moments to keep our attention through the flab. The ensemble is generally weak, but Roy Stanton as the tormented Cass and Erik Hill as the hellion Bro keep Johnson's train hurtling down its harrowing track. BRENDAN KILEY

Camino Real
theater simple at Freehold's East Hall Theatre
Through Dec 3.

Tennessee Williams's Camino Real (give it an ultra-bastardized pronunciation: "cam-minnow reel") is a kitchen-sink purgatory set somewhere on the road between Mexico and hell. The cast of characters is drawn from literature and mythologized history—there's a narcoleptic Don Quixote, a graying Casanova, a desperate Dumas courtesan, a Gypsy daughter who may have been christened in Victor Hugo's Paris but clearly made a stopover in Hollywood along the way. These frail, trapped creatures constantly spew avian metaphors. There's a weird but thrilling subplot involving a getaway plane called the Fugitivo, and some characters decide to take their chances on the desert and slowly peel away.

In short, it's a hallucinatory mess of a text, but director Carys Kresny gives it the visual fireworks of a dream. The cast is strong (Teri Lazzara, Marty Mukhalian, and Brandon Simmons are particularly vivid). And there are enough great images—a tiny globe on a cat's cradle string, a skinny cream-suited cartoon of a fop, a born-again virgin in a harem veil—to keep you suspended in the play's narcotic haze. By the end of the triumphant, perfectly paced first act, you may find that you feel, like the teenagers in front of me, as though you've been "on drugs" for the last hour and a half. And if, in the second act, you begin to feel overwhelmed by the sheer thematic excess—if Williams's hearts and moons and birds and pietàs get to be a little much—you can blame it on your anticipation of imminent withdrawal. Every climax, after all, needs its denouement. ANNIE WAGNER

Wild White Rose
White Cat Productions at Chamber Theatre
Through Nov 26.

What more can be said about totalitarianism? We who have crossed into the 21st century know that it's the big business of oppression, that it's fraught with terrific contradictions, that it attempts (and ultimately fails) to resolve these contradictions with brute force. We know that totalitarianism has its beauty, and in some dark way we are drawn to its power, its big war machines, its mad dreams for the end of history and absolute domination. Everyone knows these things, everyone talks about them all of the time (Bush is becoming a dictator and so on), yet a play like Wild White Rose begins with the assumption that we don't know a damn thing about this bloody bastard child of 19th-century industrialization and 20th-century mass communication.

Written by Roxanne Ray, who holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU, Wild White Rose attempts to explore the cruel inner logic of totalitarian rule. Because this logic is essentially nonsensical (a monstrous coupling of beauty and destruction, love and cruelty, human desire and mechanical will), the logic of the play, which strains to reflect this inner truth, is also nonsensical. But who in the world doesn't know that the core of totalitarian power is packed with nonsense?

The nonsense of Wild White Rose is this: A young, dreamy aristocratic woman falls in love with a cruel dictator; like all drawn to totalitarian power, she is killed by what she loves. Flowers fall on the stage. The world the aristocratic woman leaves behind is powered by tireless factory machines. There is also a river of innocence, stones of war, violins of sorrow. Piece these dream fragments together and you will see the illusion of absolute power. The end of Wild White Rose, however, does not introduce fresh insights—you know as much about totalitarianism at the end of the play as you did when it began. CHARLES MUDEDE