Ed Krieger

FAMILY STRUGGLES: Erin J. O'Brien, left, and James Denton perform a scene in Susan Johnston's "How Cissy Grew," at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. (Ed Krieger)

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.