Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

(The 99-Cent) Miss Saigon — If you've ever wondered how this melodramatic spectacle of a musical about GIs and bar girls in Vietnam would hold up without the huge production and the helicopter taking off, the answer is really, really well. This totally stripped-down, no-budget staging of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical by director Maya Gurantz is delightful throughout, and the music actually sounds better at times without the swelling orchestra, just a piano and an acoustic guitar with some violin and clarinet here and there. The workaround depictions of explosions, the baby, and the helicopter are pretty funny, but this isn't just some campy romp and it's heartrending when it needs to be. — S.H. (Through March 25 at the Willard Middle School Metalshop Theater; TenRedHen.net/saigon.htm or 510-547-8932.)

Our Lady of 121st Street — Brooklyn's Sister Rose is dead, but it'll be hard to bury her — someone has absconded with her body. So all the people who have come to pay their respects — students, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers — have to wait to see what happens. They're an impatient bunch; tempers flare, old wounds are reopened, and one woman slaps another just for looking like a childhood enemy. It's keenly funny and human, enough to overlook the fact that you're going to have to hop on BART to see it. Every now and again a show hits San Francisco that's worth the expedition. Our Lady of 121st Street is just such a show, and it's a damn shame, with its irreverence and genuinely graceful multiculti vibe, that we didn't get it first. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis writes like Mamet — if Mamet understood women better, believed in personal redemption, and just had more heart in general. And director Bill English has assembled a riveting cast to offer this West Coast premiere. It's uproariously dirty and funny. Guirgis is a young playwright to watch. — L.D. (Through April 8 at the SF Playhouse; SFPlayhouse.org or 415-677-9596.)

The Romantic Age Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne's obscure 1920 play is a pleasant bit of fluff in which everyone's terribly likeable. Melisande is a rhapsodic dreamer who takes her knight in shining armor fantasies too literally (Jamie Von Ritter staring dreamily into the floral wallpaper that represents the night sky), and her hypochondriac mother (an amusingly dotty Terry Guillory) just wants to see her comfortably and sensibly wed. Add to that a prosaic suitor (an endearingly befuddled A.J. Hamilton), the practical cousin who constantly comments that she's not as romantically minded (blithe and sunny Hallie Lewis), a jovial dad (Joe Nichols), a wise drifter who speaks in aphorisms (Richard Smith), and the inevitable romantic stranger (chaste and amiable Matthew Travisano), and this simple fable plays out almost mathematically. San Leandro Players' community production, directed by Daniel Dickinson, captures Milne's gentle humor nicely. Michael Guillory's cluttered drawing-room set feels homey and natural, the green sheets answering for a sylvan glade less so. — S.H. (Through April 15 at San Leandro Museum Auditorium; SanLeandroPlayers.org or 510-895-2573.)

Shadow Crossing — Central Works' new play Shadow Crossing probes at the question of legal and illegal immigration like a tongue worrying California's loose tooth. Written by Brian Thorstenson in collaboration with the ensemble, it tells the story of a gay photographer planning to move to Canada to escape US homophobia, his Minuteman-leaning schoolteacher friend, and a young Mexican looking for work who collide in a messy and vital tangle of needs, history, and ideologies. The relationships are played truthfully, the tension is high, and like so many Central Works shows, the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous. But while provocative, it sometimes stumbles. — L.D. (Through March 26 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

She Loves Me — Two people work in the same field and hate each other. Little do they know that they've been conducting a passionate affair via the post. Sound familiar? Parfumerie was written by the Hungarian Miklós Làszló, and then milked for all it was worth for years after. You've Got Mail is the latest version of the play, which was made into two other films in the '40s. But the most enduring version is She Loves Me, a Broadway musical that debuted in 1963 and is now playing at Crossroads. Here we have two people working — and competing — in Maraczek's Parfumerie, creating tensions that ripple through the other employees. It's totally frothy, but every now and again there's a sharp little twist to take off the sugary edge. Overall the show is like the perfumes in Maraczek's shop: sweet, charming, and light, evaporating quickly. — L.D. (Though March 25 at Crossroads Theatre, CTACrossroads.org or 925-944-0597.)

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