Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

The Actor's Nightmare and Prisoners of Love — Walnut Creek's Act Now! has a neat trick for keeping audiences and actors engaged: Do up a couple of one-acts. If the crowd doesn't care for the first one, well, the second will be different. You know the nightmare, the one where you're walking into a classroom to take a final exam in a class you haven't shown up for all semester? For actor and playwright Christopher Durang, the theatrical equivalent is showing up to watch a play you didn't realize you were supposed to be in. That's the whole point of The Actor's Nightmare, an in-joke one-act that still manages to be pretty funny. George Spelvin wanders into what might be a Coward piece, or Beckett, or possibly Hamlet — nobody can agree which it is, and everyone seems to think George is someone else altogether. Gamely he changes into a costume and tries to play along, but it's an unmitigated disaster from end to end. Meanwhile, in Joel Roster's Prisoners of Love, seven people struggle to stay connected to their loved ones. What begins as a clutch of isolated yet believable stories evolves into a larger story about the trials families face, but ends all too predictably in heartwarming resolution. Some of the writing sings, and some of it is just clumsy and unclear. This is one of those kitchen-sink plays to which new playwrights are so prone. While there's a lot of wit, Prisoners of Love could probably have spent a few more minutes in the rinse cycle to knock off the sudsier bits. — L.D. (At the Dean Lesher Center through September 30; ActNowTheatre.org or 925-943-7469.)

Colorado — Fresh from a three-month run of his Hunter Gatherers with Killing My Lobster in San Francisco, local playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb celebrates another world premiere, this time in Impact Theatre's pizza-parlor basement. If the narrative about the worried family of a missing teen beauty queen often feels thin (especially the meandering conclusion), the dialogue contains enough belly laughs to carry the show, and newcomer Elkhanah Pulitzer's production delivers them handily. Adrienne Papp is a knockout as the MIA terror in a tiara, all sugar and spite and vicious superficiality, and Klahr Thorsen shows where the venom comes from as the brittle, sympathy-pie-hoarding mother. Joshua Houston is funny and endearing as introverted brother Travis, going through puberty by watching Maury Povich, though he reads as much younger than the teenager he's supposed to be, and Jon Nagel is an amiable presence given little to do as the milksop dad. — S.H. (Through October 28 at La Val's Subterranean; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-446.)

Diary of a Scoundrel— Alexander Ostrofsky's social satire of the hypocrisies of Russian high society circa 1867 (translated by Rodney Ackland) holds up surprisingly well today. If the comedy's a little flat in this community theater production codirected by Carlene Collier Coury and Marilyn Kamelgarn, it's at least never hard to follow the cunning rise of a duplicitous young suck-up, nor to predict his fall. The sizable cast has a grand old time playing cartoonish buffoons, but when the roguish lead is played by a fifteen-year-old (Ulysses Popple) who speaks like a younger boy, the effect is a little like Pinocchio posing as Machiavelli. Carol Wood's society dresses are delightfully gaudy, though the trains drag loudly on the stage floor, and John Hull's elegant drawing-room set is unveiled late in the play, previously concealed by the dingy tan sheet that answers for the scoundrel's apartment. — S.H. (Through September 30 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

The Foreigner— Larry Shue's comedy about a depressed Englishman pretending not to speak English in a Georgia fishing lodge is delightful as long as you don't give much thought to why anyone's doing anything. Timothy Beagley beautifully embodies the painfully shy fly-on-the-wall who finds himself suddenly the most interesting person in the room — which is saying something when the room is filled with a painfully well-intentioned landlady always yelling to be understood, a soft-spoken but scheming reverend, his irritable fiancée, her dim-witted brother, a menacing good ol' boy, and a happy-go-lucky Cockney military demolition expert. Despite slipping accents and implausible situations, this Alameda community production directed by Richard Robert Bunker is well paced and often hilarious. — S.H. (Through October 1 at Altarena Playhouse; Altarena.org or 510-523-1553.)

The Marriage of Figaro — At CenterREP, the scenery trembles in fear for its life when Andrew Hurteau takes the stage. In the recent Laughter on the 23rd Floor, he punched several holes in the set. In the current giddy Marriage of Figaro, he just chews on it — literally — taking off a furry purple hunk in his mouth. But then that's the kind of show this is — a take-no-prisoners farce that cheerfully skewers the law, the nobility, and the battle of the sexes. It's a froth of schemes and pratfalls. Figaro picks up three years after the last scene from The Barber of Seville. Figaro, the wily barber, has rejoined Count Almaviva's household as chief steward. The count, so noble and single-minded in the first play, has grown weary of his wife Rosine's devotion and sets his sights on her chambermaid Suzanne, Figaro's fiancée — so much so that he's considering reinstating his droit de seigneur, which he'd abolished upon his wedding as proof of his love for Rosine. Figaro and Suzanne have to figure out how to make it to their marriage bed with her honor intact, but the count has other plans. Director Michael Butler uses Ranjit Bolt's lively translation and has assembled a yummy cast. — L.D. (Through October 7 at the Dean Lesher Center; DLRCA.org or 925-943-SHOW.)

Salome — Oscar Wilde's Salome was never staged in his lifetime, which might lead one to assume it was part of his precipitous decline and fall. That his prime years as a playwright were so few only underscores the tragedy that he was cut off at the height of his literary powers. The richness of his dialogue is well served in Aurora's production, directed by Mark Jackson. Miranda Calderon is believably bratty as Salome, gleaming with coquettish glee at the naughtiness of speaking to the prophet who maligns her mother, but Ron Campbell's Herod is the rock upon which this production is built. — S.H. (Through October 1 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

Urinetown, the Musical — Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' New York Fringe sensation turned Tony-winning Broadway smash is a very dark comedy and only gets darker, depicting a drought-plagued dystopia (or pisstopia) in which people have to pay to pee. But it's also a hilarious metamusical packed with winks at works from West Side Story to Les Miz. Contra Costa Musical Theatre tackles the subversive silliness and wild mix of genres impressively well in Jeff Collister's madcap production. — S.H. (Through September 30 at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; CCMT.org or 925-943-7469)

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