Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For a complete, up-to-date East Bay theater listings, look under "Billboard" on the home page for the "Select Catagory" pulldown, then select "Theater & Performing Arts."

The Dinner Party -- Six guests invited to a dinner party by an absent divorce lawyer try to figure out what on earth they're doing there in this typically witty play by Neil Simon, which Kevin T. Morales gives a whip-smart workout with a nice balance between snarkiness, slapstick, and sentiment. Having written and directed last season's delightful closer Let's Go to the Movies, Morales contributes his own prologue to Simon's play, a haranguing monologue against American stupidity called French Resistance, which aims to be clever but is simply rude. He brings out the ample humor in the play itself beautifully, however, abetted by a strong cast (Paula Wujek, Jeremy Koerner, Jerry Motta, Randy Anger, Brenna Palughi, and Katie Callahan) and a striking design in which Morales' tricolor set matches Melissa Paterson's elegant costumes and couples subtly match each other. -- S.H. (Through September 19 at Town Hall Theatre, Lafayette; 925-283-1557 or TownHallTheatre.com)

Force of Nature -- Playhouse West's season opener, an adaptation by Steven Deitz of Goethe's novel Elective Affinities, starts with a worrisome present-day framing sequence in which modern versions of the characters frolic with Frisbees. But once it reverts to a period piece, the philosophical dialogue sounds far less stilted. A man and woman live in marital bliss cultivating their garden until the husband invites his best friend to live with them, and his wife in turn invites a beautiful young protégée. Before you know it, everyone's in love with the wrong people, but this is neither soap opera nor farce, and the shift in affections is discussed as if it were a chemical reaction. Frequent asides to the audience enliven what might otherwise be stiff, stoic exchanges, and elegantly subtle performances carry off this thought-provoking, unsentimental romance with remarkable grace, backed by an evocative set and a lovely harp accompaniment. -- S.H. (Through September 24 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-943-7469 or DLRCA.org)

Grease -- When it comes right down to it, Grease is a lot like porn. Whether it's a guilty pleasure depends on you, but you're sure not going for the plot. The characters are just there for a song or three, and there's not much more to them than that. It's a good thing that the songs are fun as bubblegum goes, and that the Contra Costa Musical Theatre gang sings 'em pretty well. It's not especially inspired, but everyone goes through the motions with big smiles and in good voice, with a few standouts: Meghann May makes for a lovely Sandy, Michael Verzosa makes the most of his inspirational moment as the Teen Angel, and Nephi Speer's mellifluous crooning is hopelessly devoted to (sigh) a song about mooning. -- S.H. (Through October 2 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-943-7469 or DLRCA.org)

Ravenscroft -- This dark comedy by Don Nigro is a bit uneven, as if it can't decide whether it's a parody of gothic murder mysteries or a gothic murder mystery with comic moments. In either case, those comic moments are awfully clever. This community theater production helmed by Steve Hill makes the most of its bare-bones set of scattered chairs and end tables by having the five women sitting in the background whenever they're not being interrogated, as a human backdrop. The denouement may leave you scratching your head, but the performances alone the way are generally solid, with the unfortunate exception of John Anthony Nolan's portrayal of the inspector himself, who begins worn-out, petulant, and overwhelmed and has nowhere to go from there. Claudine Jones is funny and nicely nuanced as the alternately dotty and sly Mrs. Ravenscroft, Heather Spain sparkles as her maddening teenage daughter Gillian, and Brooke Lichtenthaler is hilarious as the deer-in-headlights maid. -- S.H. (Through October 2 at Masquers Playhouse; 510-232-3888 or Masquers.org)

Showdown at Crawford Gulch -- Probably the most charming of the four San Francisco Mime Troupe productions dedicated to George W. Bush. The Mime Troupe is once again examining the role of the media in furthering a war agenda, but this time it's a little more evenhanded. Although the satire is still pointed, the preaching is subtler and funnier than in years past. -- L.D. (Through Sept. 26 at area parks; 415-285-1717 or SFMT.org)

Twelfth Night -- The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's production is a beauty, visually speaking. It's an intriguing, energetic staging. It's being performed for free in local parks on weekend evenings all summer. In short, it's everything a summer Shakespeare comedy should be, except actually funny. Stephen Klum strikes a slightly sinister presence as Feste, veteran Shakespearean Julian López-Morillas plays disheveled Sir Toby with a devilish savvy, Alex Moggridge is appropriately foppish and clueless as his stooge Sir Andrew, and Jack Powell is the very model of an immovable manservant as Malvolio. The actors do fine work individually, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. -- S.H. (Through September 26; 415-422-2222 or SFShakes.org)

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