Oh do do the Xanadu that you do so well

Xanadu 2You have to believe we are magic: Chloe Condon is Kira, the muse from Mt. Olympus, and Joe Wicht is real estate mogul Daniel in the New Conservatory Theatre Center production of Xanadu: The Musical. Photo by Lois Tema Photography

When I called playwright Douglas Carter Beane to interview him for a San Francisco Chronicle story on Xanadu: The Musical at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, he happened to be taking a break from rehearsals for his latest Broadway show, Lysistrata Jones. That musical, a hip, funny adaptation of the Aristophanes classic, happens to rehearse in the same building as the Foxwoods Theatre, home to Broadway’s notorious web slinger, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Douglas Carter BeaneWith his ear pressed to his cell phone, Beane surveyed the crowded sidewalk and quipped, “I hope people don’t think I’m buying tickets.”

Lyssie Jay, as Beane calls it, opens Wednesday (Dec. 14) after a successful run off-Broadway. It’s something of a family affair what with Beane’s partner, Lewis Flinn, providing the music and lyrics and Beane providing the book. The story has been updated so that instead of Greek women withholding sex until the men stop warring, it’s now a college cheerleading squad withholding nookie from a losing basketball team until they start winning some games.

While San Francisco audiences get a gander at what magic Beane worked with Xanadu (he wrote the book), Beane is essentially storming Manhattan. There’s buzz about his libretto revision for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella popping up next year. He’s also casting for The Big Time, what he describes as his “feel-good musical about terrorism.” The show is slated for off-Broadway. “The G-8 is on a cruise ship that’s taken over by terrorists, and the lounge singers on the ship end up saving the day,” Beane explains. “How would the Freed Unit at MGM back in the day deal with terrorism? It’s silly but very moving. I’m quite proud of it.”

He’s also working on a new play called The Nance for Nathan Lane (“the great genius Nathan Lane” as Beane puts it). “It’s a real period gay play I’ve been wanting do for a while,” Beane says. “It’s set in the world of burlesque and it’s about the gay stock comedy character, the nance.”

As if Beane weren’t busy enough (did I mention he also did all the re-writes on Sister Act: The Musical?), he and Flinn are raising two kids, Cooper, 7, and Gabby, 5. The secret to his success, he says, is: “A cute partner who is significantly younger. The children are also younger. Even our dog is younger.”

Visit the official website for Lysistrata Jones here.

Read my San Francisco Chronicle feature on NCTC’s Xanadu here.


Xanadu: The Musical continues through Jan. 15 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Decker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.

Theater review: `Some Men’

Some Men 1

The cast of Terrence McNally’s Some Men includes (from left) Brandon Finch, P.A Cooley, George Patrick Scott, Scott Cox, Dann Howard, Christopher Morrell, Patrick Michael Dukeman, and Matthew Vierling. This scene from the New Conservatory Theatre Center production takes place in a piano bar adjacent to the Stonewall riots. Photos by Lois Tema

From assignations to spouses for life in McNally’s `Some Men’

Funny, heartfelt and even a little corny, Terrence McNally’s Some Men traipses through gay male history the way a Queer Studies professor might present a survey course of contemporary gay drama.

Here’s a stop at Boys in the Band. Here we are at McNally’s own The Ritz. Now we’re in The Normal Heart territory. Dramatically speaking, we’ve been most of the places McNally takes us in Some Men, but he’s a writer of such compassion and warmth it’s hard to resist his characters, even if we feel like we’ve seen them hundreds of times before.

Now on stage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center under the sure hand of artistic director Ed Decker, Some Men arrives just in time for Pride month, and the production offers an appealing all-male cast, plenty of laughs and some genuinely emotional scenes.

McNally structures the play a little like a variety show with some key plot threads woven throughout the play’s 2 ½ hours. There’s comedy, drama and even some song and dance. The time frame flips back and forth (sometimes causing confusion) but begins and ends in a time resembling the present when gay marriage seems to be unquestionably legal.

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Friends are gathered at New York’s Waldorf Astoria for the wedding of Michael and Eugene. From that moment of casual equality, we head back to the late ’60s, to a room at the Waldorf, where married man Bernie (Dann Howard), who will be one of the characters we follow in multiple scenes, is having his first gay sex encounter, and it’s with a hustler named Zach (Tim Redmond), who (surprise, surprise) just happens to be a Milton-loving Columbia student.

From there we bounce into the 21st century and to the funeral of a soldier who didn’t make it out of Iraq. His high-ranking military father (P.A. Cooley) meets a wounded soldier (Matthew Vierling), who happens to be the fallen son’s lover.

The farthest back McNally goes is the 1920s as he depicts the illicit affair between moneyed East Hampton dweller (Redmond) and his Irish chauffeur (Brandon Finch). We’ll hear about this pair again later in the play when their love story has become part of East Hampton lore, and their ritzy manse has become the home of gay dads and their adopted offspring.

Kuo-Hao Lo’s plain, attractive set (lit by John Kelly) provides the blank canvas on which the drama of 80-plus years unfurls with little need for fancy scenery.

The play’s most effective scene, the one that blends humor and pathos most effectively, is set in the ’90s in an AOL chat room, where men are hunting and hiding with the help of pseudonyms and phony profiles. The most poignant connection is between a muscle hunk (Vierling) and a bookish AIDS widower (Patrick Michael Dukeman), whose brand of snarky humor is hard to convey online, even amid a plethora of LOLs.

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Dukeman makes the most of a centerpiece scene set in a piano bar adjacent to the Stonewall riots of 1969. The show queens in the bar can hardly be bothered to stop contemplating the Broadway oeuvre long enough to pay attention to the commotion outside. Dukeman arrives as a drag queen (looking slightly prettier than Ethel Merman) who just wants a drink and a little respect, both of which are in short supply at this bar. Finally, a kind patron (Scott Cox) buys the lady, known as Archie in pants and as Roxie in a dress, a drink, prompting some deep inner thoughts.

“I look in the mirror and I see an ugly woman but a fuckin’ beautiful drag queen,” Archie/Roxie says. “We owe Barbra so much.”

Dukeman wins over the tough piano bar crowd by warbling a tribute to the recently deceased Judy Garland. When he starts singing “Over the Rainbow” (Christopher Morell plays the pianist but the recorded accompaniment is really by G. Scott Lacy) it seems the scene will implode from precious sentiment, but Dukeman pulls it off with dignity and passion.

Another poignant moment comes from George Patrick Scott as “Angel Eyes,” the proprietor of an underground gay Harlem club attempting to sing “Ten Cents a Dance” but interrupting himself to tell of his fling with the song’s lyricist, Lorenz Hart, who apparently wrote the song for Mr. Eyes.

Married men with secret gay lives, over-earnest gender studies students from Vassar, a night in the late ’70s steam baths are all part of McNally’s mix here, but he only really gains dramatic traction with a stop in a hospital’s AIDS ward and later a visit to a men’s group therapy session.

Decker’s attractive cast shuffles through this history lesson with the requisite energy and charm, but the comedy often lands with more surety than the drama.

The title of the play, Some Men, is truth in advertising – this is gay history from the vantage point of some men – but I have to say I missed the presence of women. They’re referred to – wives and divas mostly – but never seen, and that makes this historical tour shallower than it needs to be. The play depicts a slice of history to be sure, but its single-sex perspective makes it feel hermetically sealed.


Terrence McNally’s Some Men continues through July 12 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org for information.


Terrence McNally, catch him if you can

I wrote a feature on New Conservatory Theatre Center’s Some Men by Terrence McNally for today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

You can read it here.

Here are a few pieces of my interview with Mr. McNally that didn’t make it into the newspaper.

Terrence McNally

In addition to Some Men opening this week at the NCTC, McNally has a few other irons in the fire:

  • Last month he wrapped a critically lauded revival of Ragtime (he adapted E.L. Doctorow’s book with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens providing the score) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The cast (which McNally describes as “much younger than the original company) included Christiane Noll as Mother and Manoel Felciano (now in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo here in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater) as Tateh. The show was so well received, in fact, that there were meetings about a possible transfer to Broadway. “We’ll see,” McNally says. “That would make a lot of people happy.” The show has a whole different production team, headed by director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, but even more than that, McNally says, the country has gone through a seismic shift since Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998. “The show has a relevance now it didn’t have with the election of Obama,” McNally says. “You view a show like this differently through the lens of current events. People think we’ve re-written it, but it’s not like it was show that didn’t work the first time.”
    McNally isn’t exactly making plans for opening night on Broadway. “I don’t celebrate anything until I’m seeing the curtain go up,” he says. “So much can go wrong at 11:59, which I’ve learned after many bitter disappointments. I’ve learned not to celebrate just because we had a good meeting…but things look really good. We’ll see.”
  • This summer, McNally is a West Coast kind of guy. This week at the La Jolla Playhouse, McNally opened his play Unusual Acts of Devotion with a cast that includes Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”) and Tony-winner Harriet Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie) under the direction of Trip Cullman. The show runs through June 28, and then the writer heads up to Seattle (with a likely stop in San Francisco to see NCTC’s Some Men).
  • Toward the end of July, at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, McNally is part of the creative team behind the Broadway-bound musical Catch Me If You Can (based on the book and movie of the same name). Much of the team behind Hairspray – composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell – have reunited for this show. McNally is the new kid on the block, but after The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance and The Visit, he’s no stranger to the world of musical.
    Rather than depending solely on the Steven Spielberg movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, a slippery young con artist, McNally has turned to Abagnale’s original book for inspiration. “I hope I have found an emotional resonance to make audiences care about the characters,” he says. “A stage version cannot compete with the movie and its hairbreadth escapes and chases involving airplanes. Maybe someone could do that in a theater. I don’t know how. So my story is much more about the psychological chase of the FBI agent assigned to bring Frank in. It’s a father-son surrogate story. Frank’s real father let him down, and this motivates much of his action. We have musicalized the story, not put a movie on stage, which can very often be the case when movies are translated to the Broadway stage. I’m very proud of this piece.”
    It has been said that working on a musical out of town can be one of the most trying, aggravating and crazy-making experiences on earth. Not for McNally. This is his seventh time out, and he has yet to see the kind of drama people expect from Hollywood versions of backstage drama along the lines of All About Eve. “There’s this preconceived notion of the leading lady throwing down her mink and stomping out,” McNally says. “That has never been my experience, but I have to say it’s an exciting thing to do. There’s a lot of pressure and high emotion. But I don’t ever anticipate being hysterical. I anticipate being challenged and hope I rise to that challenge with my sense of humor and sanity intact. In the writer’s room or in the rehearsal space, the play is the most important thing, the only thing in the world. But out in the street, in the real world, there’s a more important life beyond that.”
  • Some Men, which ran off Broadway two years ago at the Second Stage Theatre (under Cullman’s direction), celebrates gay history and the relatively swift march toward equality in the form of legalized same-sex marriage, which is a given in the play. McNally and his partner, Tom, were civically united in Vermont. “We thought we were doing a political act,” McNally says. “We’d go to Vermont and give the state another number. But the emotions were so strong. The night before we both got so thoughtful at the profundity of it. Our people are raised on `what you do is illegal and criminal and society hates you.’ But to stand in the country and get married. It was…People staying at the inn watched the ceremony, and by the end there must have been 30 people cheering for two strangers. It was incredibly moving to say to another person: `I am yours to the end, for the long haul.’ The change in this country is just amazing. Gay men and women had half-visible, half-not roles for years. They might have been accepted but were frowned on, not embraced. Now I feel such clarity with my friends. I know they take Tom and me just as seriously as any other married couple.”


Terrence McNally’s Some Men continues through July 12 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org for information.

Theater review: `Act a Lady’

Act a Lady 3

Benjamin Pither (left), Glenn Kiser (center) and Harry Breaux are Midwestern men recruited to play French ladies in a late ’20s pageant in Jordan Harrison’s intriguing Act a Lady at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema

Men in the `Act’ are once, twice, three times a `Lady’

A frustrated, god-fearing woman huffs and puffs with indignation: “What is art about a guy in a dress?”

Clearly, she’s never been to San Francisco.

But this woman, Dorothy is her name, has definitely not been to San Francisco. She’s a small-town Midwestern woman who reveres God and toes a straight moral line. She’s also one of the most interesting characters in Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady, now at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Dorothy, or Dot, is the voice you expect to hear saying no, no, no in Harrison’s fact-based drama about an early 20th-century phenomenon that involved grand pageants put on across the South and Midwest in which the townsmen paraded around as fancy ladies.

Inspired by photographs in a Lanesboro, Minn., museum of women helping the men paint their faces and get into their dresses, Harrison wondered it must have been like for rural men to upend all expectations and conventions by playing women on the stage.

The result is a fascinating two-act play that aims to have some fun while it explores some serious gender issues.

The NCTC production, directed by Dennis Lickteig features a likeable cast with some standout performances.

The first comes from Scarlett Hepworth as Dorothy, the according-playing voice of conventional morality. But Dot, especially in Hepworth’s capable hands, is no screechy ideologue. Rather, she’s a deeply intelligent woman with strong convictions and a great love for her husband, Miles (a warmly dignified Harry Breaux), who is perhaps enjoying his role in the play as Lady Romola a bit too much.

Act a Lady 2

Not only does Hepworth play the accordion with fleet fingers, she also sings beautifully and carries the heart of the show. Dot, it turns out, has had an open mind all along – she just didn’t quite know it.

Co-starring with Miles in the play-within-the-play – a wonderfully silly late 19th-century French farce about ladies with towering hair and big dresses (courtesy of costumer Jessie Amoroso) is one of the town’s rogues. True, as played by Glenn Kiser, has a reputation for running out on women and for liking his drink. Because it’s prohibition, he has to hide a bottle of pumpkin gin under the stage and sneak nips during rehearsal.

True’s eye is caught by the makeup artist helping director Zina (Michaela Greeley pictured above with Hepworth) convert the town’s men into ladies of the French aristocracy. The lovely young woman, Lorna (Laura Morgan), had been out in Hollywood working in pictures, but life was a little too fast out there, so she’s back home now. And she’s fascinated by True, whose masculinity is never in doubt, even as he seriously embraces his role as Countess Roquefort in the play.

Kiser’s True is tremendously appealing. You understand why Lorna would be drawn to him, just as you understand why one of the town’s lost young men, Casper (Benjamin Pither), would have an impossible crush on him as well. Casper, in his bow tie and argyle vest, has the most to gain from this production. Clearly a young gay man adrift in a world that has no idea what to make of him, Casper finds freedom in playing the drag role of Greta the Maid. He also falls hard for True off stage, and True, to his credit, handles Casper with all the compassion he can muster.

Pither is sweet and heartbreaking as Casper. When Harrison’s script starts to go off the rails – when the men start interacting with the roles they’re playing on stage and when the women start dressing as the men – the performances, especially from Pither, Kiser and Hepworth — keep the show focused and the emotional pulse alive.

The Act 2 trouble from the Ladies Christian Temperance Union never quite amounts to much, and after the strained farce of all the cross dressing and reality warping, the ending is downright corny.

But Harrison’s writing has flashes of brilliance.

Consider Dorothy’s heartfelt prayer before the men perform before the entire town (delivered with such warmth and believability by Hepworth):

“Lord, I hope it’s you workin’ through us tonight, and not you-know-who. Lord, help those boys get here fast and safe. Lord, help my husband be the star tonight and not the fool…Help this whole thing bring our town together somehow and not apart. Help it be art somehow, not just fellas stretchin’ out my delicates. I know you got a lot on your mind, Lord, but Lord, won’t you watch us tonight.”


Act a Lady continues through April 26 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org for information.

Review: `Zanna, Don’t!’

Football star Steve (Stephen Foreman, left) meets the fabulously gay student body of Heartsville High in the musical Zanna, Don’t at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema

Magic, show tunes, teenagers whip up mighty spell in `Zanna’
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Clever, colorful, tuneful and sweet – that’s Zanna, Don’t! in a nutshell.

You’ve heard of Xanadu, well now meet it’s more engaging, gayer cousin. Zanna, Don’t! was an off-Broadway hit five years ago and finally makes its Bay Area premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in a delightful production full of appealing young actors under the astute direction of F. Allen Sawyer.

In the movie (and later Broadway musical) Xanadu, a roller-skating light bulb, er, goddess named Kira came to Earth to help a befuddled artist find his inspiration and dance with Gene Kelly. In Tim Acito’s musical, a Midwestern fairy (in every sense of the word)in a small town called Heartsville, makes it his business to ensure that all of the town’s same-sex couples are happy and on the brightly colored path to love. (Kuo-Hao Lo’s set is part comic book, part Oz, part candy store.)

In this topsy-turvy world, you see, gay is the rule. All couples are same sex, and if you’re straight, you are forced to be in the closet. At Heartsville High, the upside-down logic continues. Athletic heroes are nothing compared to chess heroes, guys spend time with guys doing “regular guy stuff” like making brownies, and it’s a matter of course that the captain of the football team will be in the school musical.

It’s that darn musical that ends up causing so much upset in Heartsville. The drama kids want to get political this year, so they write an original show about allowing straights in the military. And wouldn’t you just know it? The two actors playing the straight couple, Kate (Katrina McGraw) and Steve (Stephen Foreman), actually fall in love.

Hetero love in Heartsville? Scandal!

Even Zanna (the adorable Price Adam Troche Jr., right) and his trusty wand can’t help without changing the course of history.

Of course there’s a happy ending (this is a chipper musical, after all), but that ending is the least satisfying aspect of Acito’s thoroughly charming show. Some magic happens, a shift occurs, a song is sung, and everything turns out OK. Using musical theater logic, that’s not such a bad sequence of events, but Zanna has been so much cuter and sharper than that through most of its two-plus hours.

Acito is clearly a musical theater fan – he references everything from Grease to Kiss Me Kate to Anyone Can Whistle to Jesus Christ Superstar – and he traffics in upended musical theater clichés to terrific effect in this flittery fairy tale.

The score, which benefits from the excellent musical direction and nimble playing of G. Scott Lacy, is bright, catchy and irresistible. There are country numbers, musical theater spoofs, energetic dance numbers and some surprisingly effective ballads.

One such ballad, “I Could Write Books,” is the emotional opposite of Rodgers and Hart’s chipper “I Could Write a Book.” It is sung by Mike (Timitcio Artusio), who suspects something is up with his quarterback boyfriend:

“I could write books
‘bout all the things you don’t know about me,
page after page of all the things you didn’t say.
I could write books
‘bout all the things you didn’t do,
And then write twice as much
about how much I still love you.”

The youthful ensemble, which also includes Brian J. Patterson, Rodney Earl Jackson, Miquela Sierra and Cindy Im, is tremendously appealing. They execute Stephanie Temple’s bouncy choreography with zest. There are some volume problems here and there (the singers do not use microphones), but on the whole, the cast sounds good, and they’re cute as can be in Jeffrey Lalonde’s perky costumes.

Like most good fairy tales, Zanna, Don’t! is frothy on top and shot through with some fairly serious issues underneath. Though never overtly mentioned, upset over the recent election hovers over the story, and though Zanna and his pals find their fairy tale ending with diversity, respect and love, the real world outside of Heartsville is desperately in need of some magic … and show tunes!


Zanna, Don’t! continues through Jan. 18 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.

Review: 2boys.tv’s `Zona’

Stephen Lawson, half of the Canadian duo 2boys.tv, performs in Zona at the New Conservatory Theatre Center


Candian duo drags out, lip synchs through twilight `Zona’

 Aaron Pollard and Stephen Lawson, who perform under the rubric 2boys.tv are campy performance artists.

They take the art of lip synching out of the gay bar and put it into a theatrical world where it both baffles and delights audiences.

Pollard and Lawson have descended into the United States from their artsy perch in Montreal, Canada to perform a limited engagement of their creation Zona at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Lawson is the lip-synching drag artist who performs, and Pollard is the behind-the-scenes guy who handles more of the tech stuff – the complex soundtrack mixing opera and dialogue from old movies – and the visually stunning video displays that allow Lawson to perform alongside video version of himself as well as with a growling naked man wearing a bear head.

This is bizarre stuff to be sure, but anyone familiar with consummate drag artists such as Lypsinka, who has raised lip synching to a formidable art, shouldn’t be surprised to see enterprising (and, OK, maybe a little pretentious) artists aiming to take the form even further.

Lawson, dragged out in black stockings, garter belts, a series of black gowns and a long black wig, looks like a cross between Sarah Brightman and Liza Minnelli. We first see him perform a shadow play about a woman, a bird and a giant cat. Or some such.

The only spoken dialogue in the 50-minute piece is Lawson intoning an Aubrey Beardsley poem. The rest is excerpted from opera and American cinema. We hear long excerpts of Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer. If you listen closely, you’ll also catch Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Bette Davis in a number of movies, Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour and some Miriam Hopkins, Gena Rowlands and Gracie Fields.

Rather than relying on plot, 2boys.tv seems to be after a feeling. This is intuitive storytelling, and it mostly works, though long-form lip synch such as this could benefit from a stronger narrative through line.

Lawson plays a woman crippled by fear. She is part nurse, part sensualist, and her fear is manifested in the form of the aforementioned naked bear. Before facing and vanquishing her fear, she must wander through some rather beautiful videoscapes.

Some of the most arresting images involve Lawson holding up the blank pages of a book onto which are projected words and images. Another involves a miniature theater in which a miniature Lawson interacts with the real-life, three-dimensional Lawson.

Whether or not you recognize all the film references, Zona is still intriguing, especially if you can let your brain just relax and receive the impressions rather than trying to make sense of the visual and audio scramble.

2boys.tv’s Zona continues through Aug. 31 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org for information.

Here are three scenes from an earlier version of Zona:

Midsummer stages heat up

David Kahawaii (left) is JoJo and Carl Danielsen is The Cat in the Hat in the Woodminster Musicals production of Seussical the Musical.

Summer used to be a dead time in Bay Area theater. No longer. Here are some hot shows to check out this weekend and in the weeks to come.

Terrence McNally, the man who wrote Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! wrote this pair of one-acts in the early ‘70s and set them in warring rest homes to examine how bucking the status quo can often be the best revenge. Square MaMa resurrects the one-acts for your summer viewing.
– Terrence McNally’s Bad Habits, through Aug. 30 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th ST., San Francisco (one block from 16th Street BART station). www.squaremama.com

One of Canada’s most acclaimed performance art duos, 2boys.tv, Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard, bring their unique repertoire of “epic multimedia performance” to the States. Described as an “inimitable blend of burlesque, video projections, opera, show tunes and old films,” the boys will present Puree and Zona.
2boys.tv, through Aug. 31 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $22-$34. 415-861-8972; www.nctcsf.org.

Every summer, Thunderbird Theatre premieres something funny. This year we get a show with a tag line: “Jane Austen Sucks (blood).” Yes, Jane Austen meets vampires in Pride & Succubus, the creation of Claire Rice.
– Thunderbird Theatre’s Pride & Succubus, through Aug. 23 at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom St., San Francisco. $17-$25. 415-289-6766; www.thunderbirdtheatre.com.

One of the most intriguing offerings of the summer, Gary Aylesworth’s The Ballad of Edgar Cayce is a “bluegrass operetta” about one of the world’s most famous so-called psychics who attempted to channel spirit voices to answer the great questions of existence such as: was there really an Atlantis? The show is performed by Aylesworth and Peter Newton, who also supply the live music.
– Gary Aylesworth’s The Ballad of Edgar Cayce, through Aug. 30 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 47- Florida St., San Francisco. $15-$20. 415-831-1943; www.constructioncrewtheater.com.

The characters of Dr. Seuss come to musical life in Seussical the Musical created by the same team that brought Doctorow’s Ragtime to the stage. Kids and adults appreciate the travails of Horton, who hears a Who, Maisy the Duck, who admires her tail and the Cat in the Hat.
Seussical the Musical, through Aug. 17 at Woodminster Amphitheater, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland. $23-$38. 510-531-9597; www.woodminster.com.

Playing with `Dolls’

Michael Phillis is one of those young actors who makes you excited you took a chance and saw a young actor.

His debut solo show, D*FACE, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center could have been just another autobiographical solo show/therapy session. But Phillis proved himself to be an engaging performer and intelligent writer. Exiting the theater you made a mental note: keep an eye out for what this one does next.

Well, Phillis is offering a sneak peek at his new solo show, Dolls, at 7:30 tonight (Monday, May 12) and Monday, May 19 at The Marsh in San Francisco. What the show is about exactly isn’t clear except that it really is about dolls.

Phillis, who is also a graphic artist and author of an ongoing online comic saga, has developed a rather involved Web site devoted to Dolls. Check it out here and plan to stay for a while. One area I enjoyed was the dolls’ rules. Here are a couple:

1. Never let them see you move.
2. Never let them hear you speak.
3. Always end up where they left you.

The sneak peek of Dolls is part of a Monday Night Marsh showcase evening that will also feature new work from Allison Landa, Patti Trimble, and Marga Gomez. Tickets are $7. The Marsh is at 1062 Valencia St. (near 22nd), San Francisco. Call 415-826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org for information.

Review: `Take Me Out’

Baseball drama aims for more than just naked truth

three stars Play ball!

It’s a shame that Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out is known as “the naked baseball play.”

Sure, there’s more male nudity than in all the previous Tony Award-winning best plays combined. Sure, the front rows have more than their share of gawkers. But at least there’s an actual play there amid all that flesh.

At its best, “Take Me Out,” now receiving a sturdy, often insightful production from San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, the play is more than simply a play about a popular major league baseball player who rocks the ultra-macho world of professional sports by coming out of the closet.

The play is often about being part of something larger than our individual selves. There’s a spiritual element (couched in intense, baseball-loving dialogue) that goes beyond labels like “baseball play” or even “gay play.”

Being part of a community — whether it’s a baseball team or a stadium full of cheering or booing fans — consumes much of Take Me Out and its flashes _ not just of skin _ of tremendous intelligence, humor and compassion.

Director Ed Decker’s production succeeds in many ways comparable to the touring Broadway version that played San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre in 2004.

This is a more modest production without all the bells and whistles (or running water for the shower scenes), but its smaller, more intimate nature gives Greenberg’s philosophical dialogue a more comfortable, thought-provoking arena.

The intimacy also underscores the play’s trouble spots — mostly in Act 2 when the emerging plot is hijacked by violence _ and its tendency to make athletes sound like college professors or complete dunderheads. Greenberg also has a tendency to use race as a substitute for character when it comes to the minor players on the team.

The most striking performance comes from Jeffrey Cohlman (above, center) as the bad guy: Shane Mungitt, a racist rookie from the minor leagues brought on board to help the world-champion New York Empires clinch another title.

Mungitt, unlike so many of the other characters, is barely verbal, and there’s something terrifying in the lanky tension of his body and the vacant look in his eyes. Cohlman, with his redneck sideburns and Southern drawl, goes far beyond caricature to create a truly menacing — either through ignorance or intent — player.

As main character Darren Lemming, Brian J. Patterson (seen in the photo at the top of the review) has the requisite good looks, and he manages to give the character some shading beyond his vanity and super-size ego.

Matt Socha as Kippy Sunderstrom, the ball player who serves as our narrator, has warmth and charm.

As for the other guys, well, kudos to them for their ability and willingness to be little more than fleshy set dressing.

There’s probably more nudity than is really necessary here, but this is a play dealing with, among other things, masculinity and vulnerability — the naked truth if you will — so at least there’s some sense under the sensation.

Take Me Out may not be a grand slam, but it’s a good, solid triple that leaves you wondering if baseball — or believing in baseball or believing in something — is really the secret of life.

For information about Take Me out, visit www.nctcsf.org.