On Stage 

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 Category" pulldown, then select "Theater & Performing Arts."

A Step Away -- Central Works' premiere of A Step Away is a witty and often incisive new comedy about four people struggling with intimacy and each other. The two couples -- one numbingly self-actualized, the other threatening to blow apart at the seams like a stuffed animal won at a carnival ring-toss -- spend a few evenings trying to connect through a combination of shaming, intimidation, high-blown psychology-speak and, when all else fails, some of the silliest seductive dancing imaginable. It's like life, but more so. Plays featuring two couples in crisis are a dime a dozen. Yet unlike many such stories, A Step Away does not revolve around an infidelity, which is refreshing. -- L.D. (Through November 21 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

Noises Off -- Michael Frayn's hysterically funny backstage comedy about putting on a drawing-room farce (the type with people running in and out of doors all the time) is given a sharp community-theater workout by director Daren A.C. Carollo. That's not to say it couldn't be sharper: The first act is a little slow, but the second act is hilarious, with lots of nicely paced slapstick. There are three acts, however, and the third -- sheer chaos by design -- isn't finely-controlled-enough chaos. But these are quibbles in a generally delightful diversion with a charming cast (though the British accents come and go, and probably should just go). Ralph Miller is nicely deadpan as the nearly deaf old drunk, Ben Ortega endearingly dim as the jealous leading man, and Kerry Wininger very funny as the clueless starlet in knickers. -- S.H. (Through November 20 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; CCCT.org or 510-524-6654.)

Out of Sight, Out of Murder -- The title alone should tell you this ain't Uncle Vanya. Lightning strikes while a mystery writer slaves away in an old country manor, bringing all his characters to life -- or rather all the stock characters he has called into active duty for his equally cliched whodunit. Then he is stuck with them until whoever dunit does it and is inevitably unmasked. It's a cute concept, cutely written by Fred Carmichael and cutely executed in this San Leandro Players production directed by Bob Aven. The community-theater cast has a blast playing stock types -- the wide-eyed ingenue, the ever-complaining spinster, the gold digger, the hysterical maid, and of course the butler -- with the effect of making the "real" characters seem more cartoony. -- S.H. (Through November 21 at San Leandro Museum Auditorium; SanLeandroPlayers.org or 510-895-2573.)

Present Laughter -- Beloved as Noél Coward is of audiences, there is a long and rich history of theater critics not getting his work. I'm coming up a traditionalist after seeing Actors Ensemble's clunky Present Laughter, a "light comedy" that is definitely light on the comedy. While the director and cast certainly can answer for the show's lackluster pacing, the playwright himself must be held accountable for the ambiguous tone of the work. Coward talked a big game about precision craftsmanship, but it doesn't always show in his work. A certain mushiness is thus evident in Present Laughter, the most autobiographical of Coward's works. It's a comedy, sure, but it's based so closely on his friends and associates that it has a self-consciousness that does not translate into humor. And it requires variety, spark, and actors with impeccable timing, all of which it mostly lacks. Present Laughter tanked the first time it was staged, which makes sense upon seeing this brave if tediously unfunny production. Time has been kinder to Coward's reputation than to his plays. -- L.D. (Through November 20 at the Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-525-1620.)

Summer and Smoke -- This is the second consecutive season where we're getting a lesser-known Tennessee Williams work from director Lee Sankowich. Summer and Smoke revisits many of Williams' most beloved situations and themes in a densely authentic production at Walnut Creek's Center Rep. More streamlined than last year's The Fugitive Kind, Summer and Smoke is the story of Alma and Johnny, neighbors since childhood. But theirs is not the bland, easy love that setup would suggest. The two inhabit a hothouse of stifled desire, nicely suggested by Kelly Tighe's gorgeous set. Even if you haven't seen this particular Williams, it's very familiar. Alma is soul sister to Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois, and Johnny is pressed from the same mold of so many Williams heroes -- dissipated and a little crude, but irresistible for all that. And this story goes the way so many Williams stories do: Alma spends most of the play despairing of whether she will ever survive the cruel life she's been dealt, and Johnny will be forced to confront his wicked ways. What's different is that this one, while overlong, has something like a happy ending. -- L.D. (Through November 20 at the DLRCA, Walnut Creek; DLRCA.org or 925-943-SHOW.)

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