A look at such plays as ''The Scarlet Pimpernel,'' ''This Is Our Youth,'' and ''Zora Neale Hurston''
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Broadway
Long before Seinfeld, Sandra Bernhard was doing the irony thing, and in the 100-minute show I’m Still Here…Damn It! — Broadway’s most twisted treasure — the Roseanne alum still does it better than anyone. Clad in a sheer gown, backed by a band (she’s going to sing, whether you like it or not), Bernhard, who also wrote the show, takes hip, smart jabs at Mariah Carey, Princess Di, Mother Teresa, and Fiona Apple, for whom she has these wise words: ”Get out of that dirty bathtub.” A

A year after opening, The Scarlet Pimpernel has found its emotional core. Some striking changes have turned a plodding, vapid musical into an often sleek and unexpectedly moving one. The show is still marred by some flavorless numbers, but director/choreographer Robert Longbottom has given the finest song, ”Storybook,” greater prominence. Most important, audiences now care about the strained love between swashbuckly Douglas Sills and his vivacious new leading lady, Rachel York. A passionate Rex Smith has also joined the cast as the heavy. Would that more flawed musicals could reinvent themselves. B-

Memory plays can be tricky, but Warren Leight’s harsh, often hilarious riff based on the off-key ’50s marriage of his jazz-musician father and emotionally unstable mother is a beautiful reverie about familial absolution. Originally mounted Off Broadway and directed by Michael Mayer, the play has been heralded for its melodious ensemble acting by Frank Wood and the priceless Wendy Makkena as Dad and Mom; as well as Joseph Lyle Taylor, Kevin Geer, Michael Mastro, and Angelica Torn. Now Christian Slater, who recently signed on as the play’s son and narrator, heightens Side Man‘s charm with his wry warmth, and the cast remains as tight as a real combo. A

Off Broadway
In numerous incarnations, the Forbidden Broadway franchise has been skewering the Great White Way since 1982. Composer Gerard Alessandrini’s latest version — one of the wittiest yet — mocks The Lion King (”Can you feel the pain tonight?” the cast groans while lugging heavy puppets) and warhorses like Les Miz (”the Victor Hugo ride”). High points are Bryan Batt’s dead-on imitation of Mandy Patinkin’s high-pitched squeals and Kristine Zbornik as Ann Miller, belting ”I’m still weird” to the tune of ”I’m Still Here.” Luckily, Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its Act! is still here, too — and (even if you haven’t seen the objects of ridicule) still one of the funniest shows around. A-

Kenneth Lonergan’s three-character play This Is Your Youth has the uncomfortable appeal of a penetrating documentary; you’re looking at something you shouldn’t be privy to. In this case, the subject is a rare breed — wealthy, overeducated, jaded young adults indigenous to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Set in the apartment of a college-age drug dealer (Mark Rosenthal) and smoothly directed by Mark Brokaw, it’s a good play blessed with a great performance by Mark Ruffalo as a drifting postadolescent with a heart full of pain and a pocket full of $15,000 stolen from his father. His masterfully quirky turn gives the play its resonance. B+

Harry Gibson’s potent, if bleak, stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s celebrated 1993 novel Trainspotting is even darker and less plot-driven than the 1996 film, but it has the same captivating energy. The pack of heroin-saturated working-class Scots is given entertaining life by a strong cast of four, led by the magnetic Seth Ullian (in the Ewan McGregor role) — though the play’s action sequences do suffer inevitable comparisons to the powerful fantasies of the film. Grabbing a pill from a toilet can’t compare with diving into it. B

The cast is a draw, no doubt about it: John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Spore. But the revelation of Andrei Belgrader’s soft-spoken production of Samuel Beckett’s funny, despairing 46-year-old play Waiting for Godot — the favorite of anyone who was ever a mournful teenager! — is in its fresh line readings. Turturro and Shalhoub are particularly thoughtful as the tramps who keep each other company against utter loneliness, waiting for salvation that never arrives, and maybe never will. A-

The turbulent, controversial life story of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston seems like ample fodder for the stage: The author railed against stereotypical gender roles and set wartime chins awag with her outspokenness and scandals involving young men. The play begins well enough, fueled by ebullient performances from Elizabeth Van Dyke as Hurston and Joseph Edward as the men in her life. The second half, though, wobbles into preachiness, forcing its talented players to become more caricature than character. B-

Washington, D.C.
Director Daniel Fish’s dreamy, Dali-esque stage pictures and deliberately languid pace make for an intriguingly moody production of Twelfth Night, one of the Bard’s darker comedies. Ted van Griethuysen plays up the meanness in Toby’s jests, and Floyd King (D.C.’s reigning classicist clown) renders Malvolio’s hollow dignity pitiable instead of risible. The result is a sobering tale wrapped in a visual triumph. B+

Jess Cagle, Chip Deffaa, Joe Newmaier, William Stevenson, Stephen K. Friedman, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Clarissa Cruz, and Trey Graham

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