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."

Emma -- The line between theater and life is very fine in Michael Fry's clever new stage adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. Funnier than the lifelessly accurate 1943 Gordon Glennon adaptation and more accurate than the funny Alicia Silverstone vehicle Clueless, Fry's Emma brings Austen's three-volume masterwork down to a manageable size and keeps it moving at a brisk clip. Suggested by some as the predecessor to today's vast wave of "chick lit," Austen did in fact write about young women trying to make a place for themselves in a changing world by marrying well. But she did it slyly, using her novels to explore the restrictiveness of Regency-era British society, where women had few other options but to marry. She also wrote incisively about class, and that comes through strongly in Fry's gloss, where five contemporary young people decide to while away an afternoon playing out the beloved story of Emma, a charming meddler who fancies herself a matchmaker but has no idea of the true havoc she wreaks. The play could do with less unbelievable simpering, but the subtext around class is finely drawn, and it's a loving and clever tribute to the original. -- L.D. (Through December 19 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822).

Meanwhile, Back at the Super Lair -- Pity the Human Fly. His girlfriend, Leopard Woman, doesn't understand him, Paxil weight gain makes him look bad in his spandex, and the other members of the Super Tribe are upset because he didn't take responsibility for this week's chore wheel back at headquarters. Being a modern superhero ain't easy. Especially if you really don't have any superpowers, you're racked with existential angst, and the mayor is sending over an efficiency expert to see if your band of merry good-doers are a strain on city resources. It's enough to make a man wish there were some real supervillains around, something to give his life purpose. That's the basic premise of Greg Kalleres' Meanwhile, Back at the Super Lair, a goofy, risqué romp through the underside of superherohood. In Kalleres' distressingly crime-free Sate City, there isn't much for four costumed-yet-powerless do-gooders to do, besides hanging around playing cards and going to the shrink. At least until the mysterious Eidolon, a vicious criminal mastermind, arrives to stir things up. Playwright Kalleres makes fun of everything here, from D&D to whether men pee sitting down or standing up. Impact's hit-to-miss ratio has been improving steadily over the past few seasons, and Meanwhile is definitely in the first column. Even if it gets a little precious in places -- the extended monologues on the Meaning Of Life could be a little less, well, extended -- the concept is good, and the story is sure to amuse anyone familiar with the genre Kalleres is lampooning. -- L.D. (Through December 11 at LaVal's; or 510 464-4468.)

Social Security -- Andrew Bergman got his big break collaborating with Mel Brooks on Blazing Saddles. His wicked sense of humor was already manifest in his Broadway play Social Security, about a sophisticated, childless couple who find themselves unexpectedly saddled with the wife's 78-year-old mother. First time around, the play was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Marlo Thomas and Ron Silver as the urbane art dealers Barbara and David Kahn. The decision to cast this couple as slightly older in the current California Conservatory production is an interesting one, and it's great because it reinforces one of the show's larger ideas, that affection, romantic love and, yes, sex, aren't limited to the young. Into the Kahns' chichi Manhattan apartment tumble Barbara's clenchingly square sister Trudy and Trudy's husband Martin. They're in the middle of a family emergency, and need to leave matriarch Sophie with the Kahns until things are settled. Bergman's dialogue is hilarious, and director Greg Schuh works the script for all available humor. So while the characters of Trudy and Martin are really caricatures, Betty Grandis and her praying-mantis physical tension is still really funny, and Robert Hamm's lugubrious, nasal Martin still has nice sympathetic moments. Catherine Bucher as Sophie, the elderly mother who isn't anxious to go back to Minneola where Trudy has her mother's death notices all written out and filed in the recipe box under "casseroles," is vaguely reminiscent of the late, great Madeline Kahn. Spitting out half-eaten sourballs into the plants, shucking her housedress at the wrong time, and generally irritating her family, it turns out that Sophie is actually the wisest of the batch. In fact, Sophie isn't really that bad, but Bergman is using her to illustrate a dynamic between mothers and daughters. Loaded with surprise twists, groan-inducing jokes, and family tension, this one is an affectionate little gem for California Conservatory. -- L.D. (Through December 19 at the California Conservatory Theatre; or 510-632-8850.)

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