Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Death of a Salesman — "I feel kind of ... temporary ... about myself," says the salesman, and in that one line a whole world of disappointment and disillusion is laid bare. Of course, since this is an Arthur Miller play, there are close to three more hours of lines around it, but this was how they rolled, back in the '40s. It's an experience director Sue Trigg recreates nicely in Altarena Playhouse's current production. Wisely, she's chosen not to change or update it, other than some little things cut here and there to speed things up. Willy Loman (a lively, pugnacious Chris Chapman) has tried to be well-liked all his life. But inside he suspects that people are really mocking him. Plagued by loneliness, he compensates with false bonhomie, a mercurial temper, and shallow infidelities. He's also getting old, and tired; driving back and forth with his sample cases is wearing him out. We never learn what exactly is in those cases, perhaps because it's as inconsequential as he suspects his own life to be. It's solid work from a largely amateur cast. Salesman can be read as a scathing indictment of capital, and of how a man can get sucked into the gears. But it's subtler than that, which this production shows powerfully with the sight of a man admitting that he feels not just "temporary," but obsolete. — L.D. Through April 9 at the Altarena Playhouse, or 510-523-1553.) 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; 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; or 510-895-2573.)


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