Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

1776— A musical about the Continental Congress' deliberations leading up to the Declaration of Independence sounds dreary if you hate freedom, and it's greatly to writer Peter Stone's credit that he managed to make it funny. It's so much to his credit that the nursery-rhyme-simple songs by original conceiver Sherman Edwards often feel like wispy add-ons to make it a musical so it could play Broadway, where it won the 1969 Tony over Hair. By popular demand Willows managing director Andrew Holtz has revived the theater's 2000 production, with Rick Williams returning as an excellently curmudgeonly John Adams, unpopular advocate of independence. And if it's quite long at three-plus hours, they go by admirably quickly. Particularly affecting is Pat Sieler as loyalist holdout John Dickinson, the only "nay" voter not portrayed as a foppish buffoon. John Hetzler makes an amusing rascal of quipster Ben Franklin, and Noah James Butler is stolid as stone as Jefferson. — S.H. (Through July 2 at the Willows Theatre; or 925-798-1300.)

The Glass Menagerie — Tennessee Williams probably didn't intend for his Glass Menagerie to be taken as a gauzy, nostalgic look at a family lost in time. His journals and letters reveal discontent and struggle that wind through all of his characters and scenarios. Written while Williams was at MGM working on a Lana Turner vehicle, The Glass Menagerie follows the implosion of the Wingfield clan. Tom dreams out his days working in a shoe warehouse. Meanwhile his chatty mother hustles magazine subscriptions, trying to make enough money to get her reclusive daughter Laura trained in some lucrative skill. It's easy to play these characters in soft focus, but in the robust and troubling Berkeley Rep production, director Les Waters and his actors don't fall prey. Emily Donahoe's Laura is fine as long as she can stay within the cushioned world she has created for herself and interact only with her family. Rita Moreno's Amanda likewise is tough and clear-headed, the silliness of her thirty-year-old party dress aside. As Tom, Erik Lochtefeld is twitchy, slumped, shabby, and ultimately poetic. — L.D. (Through July 2 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

Holiday — This 1928 romantic comedy by Philip Barry was made into a film with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, as was his more famous The Philadelphia Story, but there's no movie-star mimicry in this remarkably solid California Conservatory Theatre staging directed by Greg Schuh. Better still, the comedy of manners doesn't come off as stilted even in party scenes with everyone clowning around. Michael Navarra and Jennifer Erdmann have palpable chemistry as an engaged couple fearing her rich father's disapproval, and he's as believable in his starry-eyed dream of taking time off to figure his life out as she is in her reluctance to wed an idler. Amanda Mitchell is a lively presence as the bride's restless sister who's the only one who understands the groom (uh-oh), and Kevin Euler is sadly sympathetic as her drunkard brother. The tight production is graced with sharp period costumes by Diane Dahms and Ric Koller's minimal sitting room that folds out into a colorful playroom. — S.H. (Through June 25 at California Conservatory Theatre; or 510-632-8850.)

Laughter on the 23rd Floor — Before he made a name for himself as the leading purveyor of the scripts beloved by community theater groups, Neil Simon was a junior joke writer on Sid Caesar's seminal Your Show of Shows, the granddaddy of TV variety and sketch comedy shows. A tender 25-year-old so shy he would whisper his ideas to co-worker Carl Reiner, Simon was surrounded by the writers who would shape television and film comedy for decades to come. The story of what it was like being surrounded by such influential maniacs is Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now playing at CenterREP. There's not much of a plot, per se. But while most workplaces offer up intrigues aplenty, how many offer a story easily told in two acts? There's something that just doesn't jell in the first act, even with Barbara Damashek directing a reliable cast. Happily, the second act is much better than the first. The pace picks up, the situations get more absurd, there's a near-strangling, and the tension builds with the news that someone may get fired. The humor is very Jewish and very East Coast, sarcastic and one-liner-heavy. But there is a political undercurrent to this story, which takes place in the same milieu as Good Night, and Good Luck, the movie about Edward R. Murrow battling Joseph McCarthy. Watch Laughter in that light, while trying to figure out which character represents which real-life writer, and it's much more interesting. — L.D. (Through June 17 at the Lesher Center; or 925-943-SHOW.)

The Merry Wives of Windsor — Queen Elizabeth loved Shakespeare's knight Falstaff so much that she demanded the playwright bring him back after his uncertain end at the close of Henry V. In fact, she demanded that Shakespeare write her a play in just two weeks, which might explain why the portly, hedonistic, and witty hero is more of the first two and less of the third in The Merry Wives of Windsor than he was in the history plays — qualities taken to their illogical extremes in the new CalShakes production, where Falstaff is a puppet roughly the size of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, with a head like a stubbly hamburger bun. CalShakes calls its madcap, Sesame Street-colored vision of Merry Wives "puppet-infused," but "overrun" is more accurate. Director Sean Daniels' offering is a smorgasbord of puppet technology. Rod puppets, marionettes, variations on the Japanese bunraku and kuruma ningyo forms; this show is a puppeteer's dream and a major spectacle. Whether the play needs spectacle is debatable. Merry Wives is two stories: the rascally Falstaff wooing two ladies in hopes of securing their husbands' money, and the marrying-off of pretty young Anne Page, whose parents disagree about the most appropriate suitor. That second story is a little thin even when played by human actors. Having most of the relevant characters played by puppets with no facial variation makes them ciphers; only Mistress Quickly escapes by virtue of swishing hips and Lorna Howley's voice characterization. And the main story, that of Falstaff being bested by two virtuous women? There's not a better actor to put inside a nine-foot-tall Falstaff than Ron Campbell, but something is missing. Making the puppet a halitotic and turd-producing caricature lessens his emotional dimensionality even as his physical dimensions are increased. Which isn't to say it's not fun overall — it is. It might not be exactly what the queen ordered when she asked for a play with Falstaff in love, but it's clearly told, silly and colorful, and a good family show. — L.D. (At CalShakes through June 25; or 510-548-9666.)

The Miser — Strange, darkly funny, and beguiling, the Berkeley Rep production of Théâtre de la Jeune Lune's The Miser begs the question of why we don't see more intensely physical theater in the East Bay. Other than the Ragged Wing Ensemble, some of Les Waters' work, and a lot of stage combat, most of our houses simply don't go as far as the companies that visit. Jeune Lune, Mary Zimmerman, and the actors she brought in for The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and The Secret in the Wings, Culture Clash — why is our most physically daring theater all imported? It's not a question of talent. Maybe this reflects a Stanislavskian fixation on text analysis over a more physical approach to building characters. In this clever vision of Molière's classic farce about a man so stingy his children consider killing him so they can marry, nameless servants run around behind the set, pop in and out of the doors and around the sides of the stage, and stick curious heads in the windows. While the characterizations are charmingly idiosyncratic, it is the way the actors use their bodies that strikes the imagination. — L.D. (Through June 25 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

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