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Brief reviews of current shows

 After Ashley. We first meet Ashley while she's watching one of those smarmy television shrinks with her teenage son, Justin. The shrink, Dr. Bob, is giving advice to a sexually incompatible couple, and this leads Ashley to reveal far more than Justin wants to know about her relationship with his father, Alden. Ashley is bored, frustrated and unhappy. By conventional standards, she's also a rotten mother. Her saving grace is that she adores her son. And it's her son who finds her body after she's been murdered by a schizophrenic homeless man -- whom her liberal, do-gooder husband insisted she hire to take care of the yard -- and makes a frantic 911 call that gets him in the news. Three years later, Alden has written a book called After Ashley, and -- over Justin's furious objections -- is participating wholeheartedly in the falsification and kitschification of his wife's memory. The play skewers the media's fascination with violence and grief and explores the boundary between private and public emotion. But there's more to it than that, particularly once a young goth girl called Julie picks up Justin in a Florida bar. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 3, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 27.

Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., where Impulse Theater performs, is crowded, loud and energetic. Impulse does no prepared skits, nothing but pure improv -- which means that what you see changes every night, and so does the team of actors. These actors set up and follow certain rules and frameworks; they rely on audience suggestions to get these scenes going or to vary the action. Your level of enjoyment depends a lot on whether or not you like the players. Charm is a factor, and so is the ability to take risks. Fortunately, the performers are clever and fast on their feet, willing to throw themselves into the action but never betraying tension or anxiety, perfectly content to shrug off a piece that isn't coming together. The show is funny when the actors hit a groove, but equally funny when they get stymied. So in a way, the improvisers -- and the audience -- can't lose. Presented by Impulse Theater in an open-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 1634 18th Street, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com.

Insignificance. Terry Johnson's play is set in 1953, and Marilyn Monroe is in New York filming the scene from The Seven Year Itch in which she stands over a subway grating with the skirt of her white halter-top dress flying around her. Nearby, Albert Einstein, in town for a conference on world peace, putters around his hotel room. The play imagines a meeting between the two icons. The other characters in this strange little tale are Joe DiMaggio -- who doesn't recognize Einstein, but is incensed to discover his wife in another man's hotel room -- and Senator Joe McCarthy, come to remind Einstein of his obligation to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The text is intelligent and hugely entertaining, but despite all the talk about history, politics, science, war and peace, and the shape of the universe, you won't find a coherent message here. Once you've accepted that, though, you can simply sit back and enjoy John Ashton's well-cast production. Presented by the Mizel Theatre Company through May 20, Pluss Theatre, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360, www.mizelcenter.org. Reviewed April 27.

Man of La Mancha. Creaking and shuddering, a ladder descends, admitting the sixteenth-century author Cervantes and his manservant into what looks like one of the lower circles of hell. There he will remain at the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition, he's told, for perhaps an hour, perhaps a lifetime. To mollify his fellow prisoners, Cervantes tells them the story of his novel, which concerns Don Quixote, a country gentleman infatuated with the age of chivalry who imagines himself a knight errant, and who sets out on a quest with his servant, Sancho Panza. Quixote sees a small country inn as a castle, a barber's bowl as a helmet, a brutalized prostitute, Aldonza, as his fair lady, Dulcinea. Periodically, however, his fantasies desert him, and he's forced to deal with the wretched world that everyone else around him sees only too clearly. Some of the songs in this musical edge toward sentimentality, but the script does not downplay the horrors of Cervantes's time -- the casual brutality, the miserable lives of the poor, the terror of the Inquisition. This Country Dinner Playhouse production of the musical is full of fine performances and good voices, and though there's hope at the end, it feels as insubstantial as Quixote's dreams -- but perhaps also as enduring. Presented through May 14 at Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed March 30.

Party of 1. This is a good play to go to with a date, or to attend in hopes of finding one. The show is a sequence of cabaret songs dedicated to the joys and pains of singlehood, slightly reminiscent of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, though without the monologues; fizzier and more light-hearted than Sex and the City, but less weighted with ego and pretension. Four appealing people spin through songs with topics ranging from the insecurities raised by meet-and-mingle functions to the intense ambivalence you feel when someone with whom you're having a great relationship actually takes the next step and moves into your apartment. Party of 1 ran forever in the Bay Area, where writer-composer Morris Bobrow is famed for his clever lyrics and bright, listenable tunes. Good-natured and enjoyable, with just an edge of grown-up irony, the show deserves its popularity. Presented by the Playwright Theatre in an open-ended run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.

Phantom of the Music Hall. You really haven't lived until you've heard Johnette Toye singing Gilbert and Sullivan's "Poor Wandering One." She preens and staggers and makes her mouth into a dark, wide-open square from which emanates a cascade of extraordinary sound. This woman could sing the difficult coloratura parts beautifully if she wanted to -- and every now and then she does emit a tantalizingly perfect trill -- but for the most part, she's too busy barging around like a drunk, demented and utterly delighted-with-itself duck to worry about aesthetics. This isn't Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, although it's based on the same Gaston Leroux story. T.J. Mullin has transposed the events to an early-twentieth-century English music hall, where a strange caped figure coaches a beautiful young ingenue into stardom, then abducts her. The plot is only the plain shortcake base on which the skillful cast piles layers of frothy improvisation, hilarious bits and all kinds of songs, some from the appropriate time period, and others that they just bloody well feel like singing. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through May 28, 18301 West Colfax Avenue D-103, Golden, 303-279-7800. www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed April 6.

Quartermaine's Terms. At first, Quartermaine's Terms seems like one of those gentle, wistful British comedies in which all the meaning lies beneath and around the actual lines. It's set at a school in Cambridge where foreign students come to learn English, and the action takes place in the staff room over a period of two years, during which the lives of seven teachers shift and change. Mark wants to be a novelist. He's so obsessed with his writing that, at the beginning of the play, his wife has left him, taking their child. Eventually, she will return. Another teacher, Henry, talks about his high-strung daughter; toward the play's end we realize just how troubled she is. The youngest member of the staff, accident-prone Derek, struggles to survive on his tiny paycheck. And in the center of things is St. John Quartermaine, a politely smiling empty vessel who has been at the school for decades and has long since given up any attempt at actual teaching. Although these people socialize together periodically, they never really see or hear each other, and the actors mock and display their characters rather than inhabiting them. The play may be all about subtext, but there doesn't seem to be anything going on beneath the surface here. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through May 7, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed April 20.

Red Scare. This is a hit-and-miss proposition, with mildly amusing moments alternating with laugh-yourself-silly skits and a few out-and-out clunkers. There's nothing particularly sophisticated, surprising or cutting-edge about the renowned Second City's Red Scare, but there is some funny stuff. In one scene, a teacher in a rough school comes into her classroom after hours to find a student planning to rifle her purse -- but in the end, he tells her in song, he couldn't steal from her because "I Saw Your Paycheck." In another, a suicidal Shakespearean heroine is talked out of her despair by a sassy gay friend. There's a good sketch about the exaggerated way white people talk to their black co-workers; a sad-funny bit involving a coach and his cancer-stricken wife; a monologue in which the talented Amber Ruffin gives grandmotherly advice about marriage and childbirth. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 21, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 16.

Waitin' 2 End Hell. This play feels like the revenge fantasy of a man who's been dumped a few times too often. It tells the story of a career-minded black woman, Diane, who's cold and unfeeling toward her noble and long-suffering -- though quick-tempered -- working-class husband, Dante. Once Dante has left her for a warmer, sexier woman, Diane weeps alone on the sofa, finally realizing just what a bitch she's been. The women are paper-thin stereotypes: Diane is the cold-hearted sister who's succeeded in a white man's world; Shay's either a slut or a woman deeply in love with Dante -- depending on the kind of mouthpiece playwright William Parker needs at any particular moment; and Angela is the sweetly subservient Oriental woman who knows how to honor her man, giving him appreciation and lots of exotic sex. But there's vitality in the scenes where the men tease, mock or confide in each other, and when Waitin' 2 End Hell is funny, it works. When it goes for drama, though, it's obvious and excruciating. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through May 6, Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed April 20.

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