On Stage 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For 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."

Baby -- It comes down to this: This 1984 multiple Tony nominee is a musical about the miracle of childbirth, and if that by itself sounds perfectly darling, you may enjoy it. Sybille Pearson's book is a simple sketch about three couples' giddy reactions to the Big News: remarkably clueless college students, thirtysomething gym teachers struggling with infertility, and astonished fortysomething empty-nesters. An amiable cast attacks the material with energy in Lois Grandi's bare-bones Playhouse West production, but it's wasted on the flimsy material and inane characters. If you stick around for Act II, there are finally some tuneful numbers that aren't invaded incessantly by other incompatible melodies, but overall Richard Maltby Jr.'s lyrics are crammed awkwardly into David Shire's music by any means necessary, and the most saccharine songs get reprised over and over. -- S.H. (Through June 25 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-943-7469 or DLRCA.org)

Cherry Docs -- Canadian playwright David Gow is well aware that skinhead violence is a sober and serious subject, and takes pains to address it in a fair and balanced way. In that sense, Cherry Docs is an important play about an important topic. But although Traveling Jewish Theatre gives it a smart staging for its West Coast premiere under the direction of TJT cofounder Naomi Newman, the play itself could stand to develop the medium for its message. A middle-aged liberal Jewish lawyer is appointed to represent a white-supremacist skinhead who kicked an Indian man so brutally that he died of the injuries sustained in the beating. They have to work together to assemble a defense and try to get at what motivated the defendant to do such a thing, and in the process learn something about themselves. It's like a buddy flick except that they hate each other. The verbal sparring is where all the tension lies. -- S.H. (Through June 19 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts; ATJT.com or 415-285-8080.)

Picasso at the Lapin Agile -- Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso walk into a bar. That might sound like the setup to a long joke, but it's natural enough because that's also the premise for this play by comedian Steve Martin. He is playing with some heady stuff in this fictional encounter in 1904 Paris, 1904, just before Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso broke out of his Blue Period and started moving toward Cubism, each in his own way setting the tone for the 20th century. It isn't exactly a play of ideas, but it plays with ideas beautifully. The supporting cast is strong. J.D. Nelson is delightfully curmudgeonly as salty old codger Gaston, a barfly always either mourning his long-lost sex life or running off to take a leak. Anthony Nemirovsky struts in loud and proud as a peacock as art dealer Sagot, a flamboyant huckster with a Super Mario mustache. Juliet Tanner effectively lights up the room when she enters as Picasso's sometime lover Suzanne, which is nice because she does so several times more as several extravagantly colorful women. Patrick Sieler's solid but relatively understated bartender Freddy almost gets lost amid all these outsize personalities, which is a shame because he's the one with distance on it all. The leads are more troublesome. Johnny Moreno is all sex as Picasso, but his intensity is very much the fickle one of the ladies' man, rather than the fixed one of an artist keenly aware of his own historical importance. Taylor Valentine's Einstein is too childlike by half, a wide-eyed naïf who speaks of the importance of his work with the type of giddy pride usually reserved for potty training. The sparring between Einstein and Picasso feels too juvenile for that great moment in which they recognize they are kindred spirits to feel in any way believable or earned, and unfortunately that's the very moment that redeems the central conceit of the play. Without it, the play is just like one of Picasso's little trysts -- good for a few laughs, but hollow at heart. -- S.H (Through June 18 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

The Taming of the Shrew -- Let's face it: Shakespeare's subjugation-of-women storyline? Not funny. Rather than undermine it by suggesting shrewish Kate is just playing along, Tom Bentley's Subterranean Shakespeare production uses a Promise Keepers setting to say that yes, her will is crushed, and no, that's not funny. This reimagining doesn't enrich the story so much as work against it, so it's hard to get past the cynical deceit even in the young-lovers subplot. The performances are animated and articulate, but cold and creepy. Mary Mackey's Kate is pretty tame to begin with, her barbs merely playful, and Scott Nordquist's Petruchio blurs the line between boisterous yahoo and borderline psychotic. But it's a stylish production, from the mournful a cappella renditions of popular songs to Nicole Hollis' slick black suits for the men and corseted couture for the women, and the "I will be master of what is mine own" speech has never been so chilling. -- S.H. (Through June 24 at Berkeley Art Center; 510-276-3871.)


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