Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

A Delicate Balance -- Edward Albee's 1966 play is a fascinating portrait of an unhappy but oh-so-civilized couple striving to carry on in spite of the howling void within and too many house guests. And Actors Ensemble does a fine job with it in Mikel Clifford's production (with a nicely detailed and tasteful living room set by Christian Carter and Richard Track), though the witty veneer of affable resignation comes off a bit more convincingly than the desperation that gradually leaks through. Michelle Delattre is magnetic as Agnes the judgmental matriarch, and Richard Aiello quietly keeps the peace and the cocktails coming as husband Tobias. Leticia Duarte Trattner is too petulant as daughter Julia, returned from another failed marriage, but Lane McKenna is a corker as Claire, Agnes' unrepentant lush of a sister, and David Fenerty and Maureen Coyne are nicely deadpan as T&A's best-friends-by-default Harry and Edna, who move in because a nameless terror prevents them from going home. -- S.H. (Through August 14 at Live Oak Theatre; 510-841-5580 or AEofBerkeley.org)

As You Like It -- Women playing traditionally male Shakespearean roles is what the Woman's Will theater company is all about. So a gender-bending comedy such as As You Like It, with the favorite Shakespearean device of a woman dressing up as a man, would appear to be right up the company's alley. It's a shame, then, that the most convincing performances happen to be those of women playing women: especially artistic director Erin Merritt as the lovesick maiden Rosalind. Many of the female actors play men with overly husky voices and burly swagger -- that is to say, exactly as Rosalind's idea of manly behavior is often played. Here, though, her pretending to be a man is treated as though it were the most natural thing in the world. -- S.H. (Through August 15 in Bay Area parks; 510-420-0813 or WomansWill.org)

The Boys Next Door -- The good news is that Tom Griffin's 1986 comedy about four mentally disabled roommates and the caretaker who is getting fed up with them is not nearly as treacly as many dramas on the same subject. The bad news is that it's just a series of comic sketches loosely strung together with fraying plot threads, easy plays for poignancy, and a device of addressing the audience that's almost never effective. Some of the performances fall short of the mark, but James Hiser is very funny as motormouth Arnold, Troy Johnson and Kate Christ are darling as a pair of giggling lovers, and Stephen Randolph has the play's most striking moment as the most severely impaired of the bunch, though the script calls upon him to break character in order to deliver it. What's most heartwarming is that the cast mostly manages to overcome the impairments of the material to put on an often-charming show. -- S.H. (Through August 14 at Broadway West Theatre; 510-683-9218 or Broadway-West.com)

The Caucasian Chalk Circle -- Among Bertolt Brecht's more popular plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is many things at once. It's a farcical depiction of government corruption, an inspiring tale of perseverance during wartime, a blistering indictment of war profiteering by the ruling class, a Marxist parable about the right of property and who most deserves it. First and perhaps least, it's an adaptation of The Chalk Circle, a Chinese play from around AD 1300 in which a Solomon-like judge places a baby in a chalk-drawn circle and challenges the two women who claim to be its mother to an infant tug-of-war to determine custody. For all that, it makes for an excellent afternoon in the park when Shotgun Players offer it up for free on weekends in the open-air amphitheater at North Berkeley's John Hinkel Park. -- S.H. (Through August 29; 510-841-6500 or ShotgunPlayers.org)

My Fair Lady -- Lerner and Loewe's musical adaptation of Pygmalion is a problematic classic, gleefully misogynist but still too insidiously charming to resist. This spirited staging helmed by Michael Manley ensures that you don't resist long. Deborah Banks is a strong Eliza Doolittle with a good voice, Tom Flynn radiates impish charm as drunkard father Alfred Doolittle, and the performances are generally solid throughout and nicely versatile in the musical numbers, despite some trouble balancing volume levels with the odd instrumentation. Matt Flynn's sets and Jan Koprowski's costumes are top-notch and remarkably evocative. -- S.H. (Through August 14 at Contra Costa Civic Theater; 510-524-6654 or CCCT.org)

Showdown at Crawford Gulch -- Probably the most charming of the four San Francisco Mime Troupe productions dedicated to George W. Bush. The Mime Troupe is once again examining the role of the media in furthering a war agenda, but this time it's a little more evenhanded. The working-class residents of Crawford Gulch have peacefully coexisted for many years until two newcomers arrive, one of whom wastes no time fanning the flames of paranoia until neighbors see imaginary threats in every tree. Although the satire is still pointed, this year the preaching is subtler and funnier than in years past. -- L.D. (Through Sept. 26 at area parks; 415-285-1717 or SFMT.org)

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