'How Cissy Grew,' 'Blood Brothers,' 'Good Bobby' and 'Eagle Hills, Eagle Ridge, Eagle Landing' are reviewed

What's past is insidiously prologue in "How Cissy Grew," Susan Johnston's absorbing if underdeveloped chamber piece now at the El Portal Forum Theatre.

Darla (Erin J. O'Brien) can't forgive Butch (James Denton) for taking his eyes off their infant daughter in a grocery store aisle just long enough for the girl to be snatched by a stranger.

The baby was miraculously returned, but as a teenager the reckless Cissy (Liz Vital) doesn't seem to be quite all there.

Has she been traumatized by an event she can't possibly remember -- or is it her parents' scars that have shaped her fugitive soul?

Johnston writes short, distilled encounters, and director Casey Stangl finds a graceful rhythm for her cast as they move through the frequent scene changes on Laura Fine Hawkes' abstracted playground set.

Well-served by her grounded cast, Stangl creates a sustained yet fragile emotional world; this is one of the best directorial efforts I've seen in L.A. this season.

There are some wonderful moments: Butch educating Cissy's first boyfriend (Stewart W. Calhoun) on the facts of fatherly life; and Johnston's monologues for the guilt-stricken Butch, beautifully underplayed by Denton, are the show's highlights.

Still, "Cissy" lacks a propulsive dramatic center and plays more as an extended character study than a satisfying story about someone -- or something -- gone missing.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"How Cissy Grew," El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends Nov. 23. $20-$40. (818) 508-4200, (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

A pond-hopping 'Brothers' falters

One of the longest running musicals in the West End, "Blood Brothers," Willie Russell's proletarian parable about twins separated at birth, is a quintessentially British tale that explores the evils of the class system. Despite director Bryan Rasmussen's praiseworthy efforts to make the material relevant to an American audience, his current staging at the Whitefire fails to strike the same atavistic chord that raised the show to near-cult status across the pond.

Rasmussen keeps the original time frame of the 1960s but resets the action from a Liverpool slum to an American inner city. The language, however, retains an indelibly English flavor that defies Americanization.

Parallels to Greek tragedy are obvious. The central characters are doomed from the outset, and a Narrator (Gil Darnell) acts as a one-man chorus, contributing Rod Serling-esque commentary -- in verse, no less.

The catalyst for disaster is Mrs. Johnstone (Pamela Taylor), a poor single mother who can't stop getting pregnant. Mrs. Johnstone's reproductive carelessness may have been meant as the fatal flaw of a tragic heroine, but her feckless fertility, in this contemporary context, is merely unsympathetic.

Pregnant with twins, Mrs. Johnstone agrees to secretly give one up to her wealthy employer, Mrs. Lyons (Judy Norton). Unaware that they are brothers, impoverished little Mickey (Eduardo Enrikez) and privileged little Eddie (Ryan Nealy) wander outside their respective neighborhoods -- and classes -- to become friends, an alliance that does not bode well, especially when each falls in love with working-class lass Linda (Sita Young).

The actors and creative team bring admirable energy to the piece, but sloppy writing undermines all. The final cataclysm results largely from the madness of two main characters, a twist that strains the plot -- and our credulity -- to the breaking point. More problematic, though, is the fact that a fair portion of the cast must act like little kids for much of the action -- an unfortunate device that reduces this "tragedy" to inadvertent parody.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Blood Brothers," Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 23. $25. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Engaging portrait in 'Good Bobby'

In October 1962, nuclear war was averted in part by a socially awkward, politically inexperienced 36-year-old long eclipsed by his flamboyant siblings. "Thank God for Bobby," JFK reportedly said after the Cuban missile crisis, referring to his younger brother Robert's canny diplomacy. In Greenway Arts Alliance's "Good Bobby," playwright Brian Lee Franklin explores the younger Kennedy's legacy and also performs the title role; he certainly looks and sounds the part, evoking RFK's diffident physicality and Boston stammer.

Franklin focuses on Bobby's battles waged across desks and phone lines, a shirt-sleeve brinkmanship. The production attempts to move back and forth from cramped offices to a sense of historical sweep via newsreel footage projected onto the upstage wall, courtesy of Fritz Davis' effective sound and video design.

"Bobby" covers RFK's salad days chasing Jimmy Hoffa through his decision to run for president in '68. All the backdoor negotiations make for good theater, and Franklin displays some genuine wit. ("I must have been adopted," Bobby mutters, upon learning of his father's and brothers' vigorous extramarital activities).

As a piece of theater, however, "Good Bobby" is still finding its dramatic syntax and overall shape. Pierson Blaetz's direction feels tentative, and Franklin writes halfway between screenplay realism and something more theatrical.

The final scene doesn't do justice to the play's ambitions; surely RFK deserves a less reductive denouement than sharing tears with his paralyzed father (Stephen Mendillo).

But in this current presidential campaign, when almost everyone's played the experience card, it's worth considering the figure of RFK: a novice whose dampness behind the ears didn't reflect the considerable moral wisdom between them.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"Good Bobby," Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 23. $18-$22. (323) 655-7679. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

As drama, 'Eagle' is a featherweight

It doesn't take much to kick start the gabfest among the three principal characters in Brett Neveu's "Eagle Hills, Eagle Ridge, Eagle Landing."

Neveu provides his characters with stylish dialogue that carries the drama along on a syntactical riptide. "Eagle Hills," currently playing at the Hayworth Studio Theater, offers much in the way of quirky one-liners but the story itself turns out to be as substantial as a bowl of bar pretzels.

Kevin (Johnny Clark) is a 30-ish white-collar worker living in an anonymous Midwestern suburb. His drinking pals Mike (Jon Amirkhan) and Andy (Jeffrey Stubblefield) keep him company at a smoky dive bar where they talk about everything and nothing. (The play's title refers to a series of bland community developments in the area.)

Directed by Ron Klier, the play listens in as the trio of friends exchanges enigmatic slacker koans like "Sleep is the new sex" and "Living life is what life is all about." The second half of the play jumps ahead four weeks after Kevin has returned from a life-altering journey into the woods.

Neveu is a promising playwright whose fast-moving repartee suggests a keg party among Mamet, Pinter and Albee. But there's little depth behind his dialogue, which only seems to be about its own cleverness.

The writer's verbal pyrotechnics dazzle but ultimately leave us stranded in a dense cloud of bar smoke.

-- David Ng

"Eagle Hills, Eagle Ridge, Eagle Landing," Hayworth Studio Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. $20. 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 15. (323) 960-7738. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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