Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For a complete, up-to-date East Bay Theater listings, look under "Billboard" on the home page for the "Select Category" pulldown, then select "Theater & Performing Arts."

A Step Away -- Central Works' premiere of A Step Away is a razor-edged new comedy from playwright Myrna Holden, Ph.D. The Ph.D is important; Holden got hers in social and clinical psychology, and it shows in her witty and often incisive exploration of four people struggling with intimacy and each other. The two couples -- one numbingly self-actualized, the other threatening to blow apart at the seams like a stuffed animal won at a carnival ring-toss -- spend a few evenings trying to connect through a combination of shaming, intimidation, high-blown psychology-speak and, when all else fails, some of the silliest seductive dancing imaginable. It's like life, but more so. It's life as it would be if people said what they were really thinking, without regard to the consequences. Dan and Jesse haven't spoken since they were in school together, so when Dan reenters Jesse's life after wandering around from country to country engineering dams, he's surprised to learn that the once-passive Jesse has changed. Jesse chalks up the change both to age and to meeting and marrying the headstrong, passionate Emma, so it stands to reason that Dan and Emma will clash. Impressed by the fact that Jesse managed to find a woman he liked who liked him back, Dan decides he should move in with the couple and learn the secret of Jesse's success. It's a promising premise, but Holden backs away just when things have come to an intriguingly menacing point. Instead of pushing these three into the waiting powder keg, she introduces a fourth person. Plays featuring two couples in crisis are a dime a dozen. Yet unlike many such stories, A Step Away does not revolve around an infidelity, which is refreshing. And Holden's dissection of how "conscious and/or unconscious needs push to be gratified" makes this play far more about the individual characters and their challenges than what happens between them, although that's also important. It's a play that probably wouldn't work half so well in a less-intimate venue than the Berkeley City Club, where every twitch, every sweating hairline, is clearly visible. -- L.D. (Through November 21 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

La Cage aux Folles -- Some bright day, gay marriage will be unshakably legal in this country, and works such as the glittery 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles will be charming but dated artifacts. In the meantime, much of this musical is still relevant and surprisingly touching underneath the sequins and satin that adorn the performers at Georges' French Riviera nightclub, La Cage aux Folles. Under the flamboyant dance numbers and shoulder-spanning feathered headdresses, there is still a wrenching story about a son thoughtlessly asking a loving parent to do something unconscionable. The actors and creative staff of the Diablo Light Opera Company manage to capture the glitz and the grief in a funny, well-paced production. Props to DLOC for a fun, exuberant production that invites audiences (gay, straight, or otherwise) to make the antigay attitudes lampooned in La Cage a thing of the past. -- L.D. (Through November 6 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLOC.org or 925-943-7469.)

Noises Off -- Michael Frayn's hysterically funny backstage comedy about putting on a drawing-room farce (the type with people running in and out of doors all the time) is given a sharp community-theater workout by director Daren A.C. Carollo. That's not to say it couldn't be sharper: The first act is a little slow, but the second act is hilarious, with lots of nicely paced slapstick. There are three acts, however, and the third -- sheer chaos by design -- isn't finely-controlled-enough chaos. But these are quibbles in a generally delightful diversion with a charming cast (though the British accents come and go, and probably should just go). Ralph Miller is nicely deadpan as the nearly deaf old drunk, Ben Ortega endearingly dim as the jealous leading man, and Kerry Wininger very funny as the clueless starlet in knickers. The second intermission, starring the versatile set itself, is worth watching in its own right. -- S.H. (Through November 20 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; CCCT.org or 510-524-6654.)

Out of Sight, Out of Murder -- The title alone should tell you this ain't Uncle Vanya. Lightning strikes while a mystery writer slaves away in an old country manor, bringing all his characters to life -- or rather all the stock characters he has called into active duty for his equally cliched whodunit. Then he is stuck with them until whoever dunit does it and is inevitably unmasked. It's a cute concept, cutely written by Fred Carmichael and cutely executed in this San Leandro Players production directed by Bob Aven. The community-theater cast has a blast playing stock types -- the wide-eyed ingenue, the ever-complaining spinster, the golddigger, the hysterical maid, and of course the butler -- with the effect of making the "real" characters seem more cartoony. -- S.H. (Through November 21 at San Leandro Museum Auditorium; SanLeandroPlayers.org or 510-895-2573.)

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