April 21, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

An Off Broadway extravaganza!

George W. Bush, Sandra Bernhard, and…Elizabeth Bishop. Read on for our critics’ take on some of the larger-than-life figures inhabiting Off Broadway.

First up: Stuff Happens

JAMES AND JAY O. SANDERS

David Hare’s Stuff Happens, first performed in London in 2004 and in L.A. last spring, is rather maddening. Billed as a ”history play,” Stuff Happens recounts the run-up to the Iraq war through the public statements and imagined closed-door conversations of Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and key figures in both administrations. It’s not hard to guess on which side of the political fence Hare sits. In a coy ”playwright’s note” in the program, the British writer states: ”Nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue. Less than a quarter of the play quotes the public statements of politicians verbatim.” That bit of Clintonian doublespeak suggests just what’s wrong with this exercise, which is intelligently constructed and generally well-performed (ER vet Gloria Reuben is particularly fine as Condoleeza Rice). Conservatives will be inclined to write off Stuff Happens as yet another example of liberal agitprop. Alas, they’d be right. Too often, Hare resorts to the easy joke, dismissing Bush’s adopted hometown of Crawford, Tex., in a throwaway line as ”little more than a crossroads in a scorpion-infested wilderness.” As a result, even politically independent-minded viewers (in which camp I’d include myself) are unlikely to be persuaded by the arguments presented on the Public Theater’s stage. The show emerges as a noble failure, written with more indignation than insight. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. And liberals still incensed about the U.S. invasion of Iraq can contentedly wallow in antiwar nostalgia, reminded all over again about why they were so outraged three years ago. They may especially spark to seeing Colin Powell (Peter Francis James) as tragic hero, a stiff-shouldered Cassandra who reluctantly declines to stand on principle and defend his war-at-last-resort-only position. But Hare does his cause (and his play) a disservice with his cartoonish portraits of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and particularly George W. Bush, here depicted as a mumble-mouthed idiot only a shade more grounded than Will Forte’s caricature on Saturday Night Live. Why is it so hard for some Bush opponents to conceive of him as an equal? It can be fun to joke about his tortured relationship with the English language, but portraying the two-term president as a simpleton seriously underestimates him — and the nature of his power — a mistake that liberal intellectuals continue to make at their peril. (Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com)

Last year, the reigning diva of iconoclastic downtown sensibility turned 50(!), and the question on everyone’s lips was: Would Sandra Bernhard lose her edge? The happy answer is no, as evidenced by her vibrant new Off Broadway offering of song and dish. Looking spectacular and as full of acid-laced bon mots as ever, Bernard takes on the Bush administration, Britney Spears, and dramatic lesbian relationships with typical bile and brio. Oddly, though, it’s the musical interludes that divert your attention even more. When Bernhard and her band, the Rebellious Jezebels, launch into rousing versions of Pink, Lita Ford, and Prince (just for starters), you may convince yourself you’re at the best downtown party in eons. (Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com)

MONK AND GREER

It’s true that there are no people like show people, but the talented cast saddled with Paul Weitz’s Off Broadway play certainly aren’t the luckiest people in the world. Marnie and Jerry (a sly Debra Monk and boisterous Lawrence Pressman) are married journeymen stage actors hired to impersonate the upper-crust parents of wealthy computer whiz Tom (Ty Burrell), in the hopes of impressing his intended fiancée (Judy Greer). The brisk first act vacillates between plot twists involving Greer’s character — who also is not who she appears to be — and one-liners that Monk and Greer make zing. But by the second half, Show collapses under the weight of its drawn-out premise and an attempt to outwit the audience for a preposterous finale. Weitz has proven he can meld comedy and drama on stage (in last season’s Privilege) and the big screen (About a Boy and American Pie), yet those skills falter here. In the end, there’s a lot of talk, but not much Show. (Tickets: Call 212-246-4422 or visit SecondStageTheatre.com)

Image credit: Katherine Moennig: Brian Michael Thomas
MOENNIG

A two-person play composed solely of monologue musings on the tortures at Abu Ghraib and their ramifications seems like a tough sell. But Peter Morris’ thoughtful yet charged political play proves refreshingly frank, and far from any prosaic history lesson. We get the point of view of a sleazy British tabloid lackey identified only as English Boy (Lee Pace) and his desire to move up the food chain, and — more harrowingly — of American Girl (Katherine Moennig), a GI jailed for her actions in the prison torment of Iraqis (think Lynndie England). Moennig, known to many as the lesbian rabble-rouser Shane on Showtime’s The L Word, is especially eye-opening, conveying a perfect mix of guile and hayseed vulnerability that recalls the best work of the young Jodie Foster. (Tickets: Call Ticketmaster at 212-307-4100, or visit Ticketmaster.com)

Even if the title is a bit misleading (Brel hasn’t been alive since 1978), the Belgian Renaissance man’s spirit lives on in this energetic revival of the smash Vietnam-era revue, which ran for four years Off Broadway before finding less-revered life on Broadway and on film. Smartly staged in the funky, car seat-stuffed Zipper Theater, Gordon Greenberg’s cabaret-style presentation of 27 Brel tunes is a tad overextended and occasionally bombastic (the actors are overmiked, despite being mere feet away from the audience). But the songs themselves — like the haunting ”Marieke” and the oft-recorded ”Ne Me Quitte Pas” — are textured and often moving, and the hardworking cast of four prove their mettle (Gay Marshall, as the elder of the two chanteuses, is especially potent). The show’s political undertones seem to have blunted in the years of indifference following the original run, but when this show takes off, it rivals most of what you’ll hear on a Broadway stage. (Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com)

The oft-heard advice for writers is ”Write what you know.” And playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa takes that to heart in the comedy Based on a Totally True Story. The author, who pens The Sensational Spider-Man at Marvel Comics and turned his play Dark Matters into a script for Warner Bros., has fashioned a show around Ethan (Carson Elrod), a writer caught in a pressure cooker of deadlines while juggling a job writing The Flash comic book and adapting his play for a mercurial Hollywood producer. Adding to Ethan’s stress is an impending breakup with a new boyfriend (Pedro Pascal) and a father (Michael Tucker) asking for help to end a loveless marriage. This semiautobiographical navel gazing might’ve come off as a two-hour therapy session on a pretty set, were it not for the sharp writing and Elrod’s charming, manic turn as Aguirre-Sacasa’s alter-ego. But when the focus shifts from Ethan’s dysfunctional relationships to a commentary on art versus-commerciality, the show veers off track and emerges as a pale imitation of The Player. ”It’s a slightly familiar story,” says Ethan in act 1, ”but that’s okay because nobody likes things that are too original or challenging.” Actually, that’s not totally true. (Tickets: Call 212-581-1212.)

Amy Irving takes on Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, a New Yorker who called ever-changing Brazil her home in the 1950s, and whose personal life was equally tumultuous. If only Brazilian playwright Marta Góes gave us any reason to care in this slow-moving, 80-minute solo show. Irving shows her fiery side in scenes that depict Bishop’s feisty hauteur and have her reciting too-brief snippets of the famed poet’s oeuvre (which succinctly captures all of the ardor the play desperately misses). But Irving is significantly less balanced in the more melodramatic moments, especially in rendering Bishop’s histrionic relationship with her lover Lota, who is treated as an offstage figure for Irving to shout through walls at. And don’t even get us started on the rotating set. (Tickets: Call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200, or visit Ticketcentral.com)

Let’s cut to the chase. Yes, the nudity that’s teased on the poster for Karoline Leach’s new play makes a striking appearance late in the second act (courtesy of whom, we’ll remain mum), but it’s not enough to save the playwright’s Edwardian-era tale from descending into sheer melodrama. Maxwell Caulfield (grown up — and visibly pumped up — from his Grease 2 days) stars as George Love, a dodgy con man who flatters and fleeces well-off spinsters out of their bankbooks. Not completely without a heart, he always gives the gals ”a good time” before cutting loose, and is thus stunned when his latest conquest, a mousy milliner played ably by Amelia Campbell, resists his buff bod for a game of cards. Thanks to a series of gratuitous plot twists, he (and the audience) soon learns precisely why. Less clear is why Leach, a smart and lyrical writer, transforms her thriller into a lesson in pop psychology. (Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com)

Sexy, ballad-belting chanteuses don’t often share the stage with decapitated heads and mentally challenged former Good Humor men, but all piece together compellingly in the Signature Theater Company’s revival of John (Six Degrees of Separation) Guare’s odd patchwork of a play/musical/family drama/whodunit. Set in 1977, the story centers on Betty Yearn (Lili Taylor), a single mom from Maine sent by her mother to retrieve her sister Rosalie (the brassy and highly entertaining Sherie Rene Scott) from the Big Bad Apple. When Rosalie is killed in a freak cycling accident, Betty easily slips — perhaps too easily for her liking — into her sister’s sordid life as a travel agent and part-time porn actress. Given her lifestyle, Betty also becomes the prime suspect in her own son’s death when his body turns up sans head in the West Village — a gruesome mystery that is narrated in flashback by a back-from-the-grave Rosalie. Surreal, jarring and oftentimes just plain weird, Guare’s Landscape is a work of art worth examining up close and sticking your nose into.

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