Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist — Though constructed almost entirely out of Dickens' language, Neil Bartlett's script omits many characters, simplifies the plot, and adds foreshadowing to make long-buried revelations immediately obvious in his music-hall-inspired grotesquery. Rae Smith's ingenious set is a dingy box with walls and ceiling covered in smudges and footprints that obscure myriad trapdoors and slots. Gerard McBurney's suspenseful music uses nearly omitted pickpockets on fiddle, serpent, and hurdy-gurdy, and introductory passages are sung eerily a cappella. Carson Elrod makes a sympathetic narrator, but his Artful Dodger clowns broadly at the expense of comprehensibility. Ned Eisenberg slips awkwardly between Cockney and Yiddish accents as Fagin, gesturing magically to dim lights to put people to sleep. It's the supporting cast that stands out, such as Remo Airaldi as puffed-up beadle Mr. Bumble and Gregory Derelian's menacing Bill Sykes. When the story is only the unfortunate events an orphan boy endures, the fewer twists there are, the less there is to Twist. (Through June 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; or 510-647-2949.)

The Cryptogram — Set in 1959, David Mamet's short 1994 play often alludes elliptically to events long ago of which we never get a clear picture. The secrets come up so often that it's hard not to imagine far darker and more elaborate scenarios than the ones that eventually emerge. Patrick Dooley's production is well paced, taking its time when it needs to, and the cast handles Mamet's rapid-fire fragments deftly, if not quite so naturally that one ceases to be aware of them. Zehra Berkman gives mother Donny great poise and dignity that provide added punch when the cracks begin to show. Gideon Lazarus is an alert presence as ten-year-old John, who can't sleep for obsessing over increasingly large questions. As family friend Del, Kevin Clarke sports nerdy specs, rigid hair, and a kindly yet awkward air. Cryptogram is a curious tidbit of a play that raises many mysteries but keeps them mysterious. (Through June 17 at the Ashby Stage; or 510-841-6500.)

Death of a Salesman — Traveling Jewish Theatre artistic director Aaron Davidman's staging sets out to bring to the surface a Jewish identity implicit in Arthur Miller's classic of American drama, but that's ultimately incidental next to how rare it is that the play is done so well. Most astonishing is Corey Fischer's Willy Loman, with all the stubborn pride and insistent insecurities visible in his slumped frame, getting more painfully hunched in on itself as the play goes on, and audible in his incessant, animated ramblings to people both in the room and in his head. Jeri Lynn Cohen has a warm, mild presence as wife Linda, though the weight of the years is missing in her performance. Michael Navarra gives son Biff's resentment and outsize physicality the right amount of underlying solicitude, and John Sousa is a wonderfully twitchy bundle of nerves, lusts, and aspirations as younger son Happy. (Through June 10 at the Julia Morgan; or 415-522-0786 ex. 2.)

How the Other Half Loves — New Center REP artistic director Michael Butler makes Alan Ayckbourn's 1970 marital farce a retro homage to a Swinging '60s London right out of Austin Powers, brought to life by Laura Hazlett's marvelously garish costumes and Eric Sinkkonen's stunning set, a living-room wonderland of kitsch that's actually two apartments superimposed on each other, connected by an affair between two of the spouses. It's as gimmicky as it is funny, but a well-oiled, briskly performed farce, clever in both senses of the word. Each couple invites the same strait-laced third couple over on subsequent nights, and the two unendurable dinner parties are played out at the same time on overlapping tables. Mark Anderson Phillips is hilarious as Frank Foster, a clueless boob always yammering about something inane. Carrie Paff is snooty and sensual as Fiona Foster and Sarah Nealis' scattered Teresa Phillips is a pistol, though why they're with Darren Bridgett's loutish Bob Phillips is puzzling. Jeffrey Draper and Lizzie Calogero are exquisitely uncomfortable as the Featherstones. (Through June 16 at the Lesher Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)


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