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Contrived Ending. This play is local author Josh Hartwell's homage to the movies and, in particular, to the old-fashioned art house. All the action takes place on a beautifully detailed and realistic facsimile of a cinema lobby, and the play actually sounds and feels like a lot of movies — Reality Bites, High Fidelity — that follow the activities of restless young guys trapped in dead-end jobs, outsiders who lack the energy to be outlaws. Here the guys are Nathan, recently returned to his home town after a stint as a would-be filmmaker in Los Angeles, and his longtime friend, the manic, wild-eyed Jack. Jack is semi-permanently high and prone to reciting chunks of speeches from his favorite films. Shane is the misfit school friend they both enjoy mocking. The tone and milieu may be familiar, but Hartwell brings the situation to life with fizzy, funny, smart and unexpected dialogue. Under the skilled, supple hand of director Jim Hunt, there are some wonderful moments. But by the time the real drama hit, I found myself disliking these self-absorbed people in their hermetic little world and was indifferent to their pain. Nathan is the center of the action— — desired by everyone, but apparently without desire himself, too asexual to really come on to Laurel, too blind to even sense the depth of Jack's despair. He's a hard character to care about. In scene after scene, he absorbs energy rather than emitting it, the way black felt absorbs sound. Presented by Conundrum Productions through March 15 at the Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 303-601-2640, Reviewed February 28.

The Gin Game. Two old people connect on the seldom-used porch of their retirement home, a dusty, cluttered place of battered chairs and cast-off household objects. Weller, a manipulator who fiddles with cards, begins teaching Fonsia to play gin, and it turns out she has an uncanny knack for the game — or perhaps she's an expert playing him for a sucker. The more wins Fonsia piles up, the angrier and more unreasonable Weller becomes. The Gin Game touches on loneliness, family members who never visit, the way a lifetime looks to someone approaching the end of it, the bitter fact that in this country old people often have to spend everything they possess in order to pay for the care they need — care that's deeply resented, even when indispensable. What gives the script power is the fact that it confounds stereotype. It tells us that old people aren't necessarily sweet old dears, that they carry their flaws and weaknesses with them into the end game; that the disappointments of a lifetime don't dissipate, but can wither and harden a person's soul; that wisdom, humility and empathy don't necessarily come with the imminence of death. There's a reason these two people are alone on their porch, and it isn't — as Weller would like to believe — their intellect, liveliness and proud singularity. He is plagued by demons of rage, failure and loss; her pinch-mouthed judgmentalism reveals itself slowly. This first-rate production offers a lot of insight and entertainment as the two wage their battle over the card table. Presented by Paragon Theatre through March 15, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-300-2210, Reviewed February 28.

The Last Five Years. This intimate two-person musical involves the breakup of a marriage. When Jamie and Cathy met in New York, he was an aspiring writer and she an actress. Success came for him fast, while she continued to inhabit the dreary, ego-pummeling world of auditions and summer stock — with predictable results for their relationship. The songs — solos, with one exception — reveal a triumphant Jamie noticing his effect on other women and fighting the desire to utilize it, with a sulky Cathy refusing to attend his publishing party. He resents her neediness and insecurity, she his arrogance and self-involvement. Playwright Jason Robert Brown has hit on an interesting device to make this relatively commonplace story more poignant and more complex: While Jamie relates events as they happened, Cathy reveals them backwards. At the very beginning, she weeps over Jamie's goodbye letter, and minutes later, he erupts onto the scene singing rapturously about the "shiksa goddess" he's just met. Chris Crouch and Shannan Steele are both terrific performers, brimming with energy, poised and charismatic, possessed of lovely, expressive voices. Crouch makes Jamie real and funny and quirky, and Steele is often touching as Cathy — though I wish both would avoid that awful, dissolving-into-self-pitying-tears style that's come to dominate singing in musicals these days. Still, this is an emotionally exuberant production, staged in a smooth, comfortable style, and enjoyable even though it's far from thought-provoking. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 29 at the Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed February 14.

Little Shop of Horrors. This show began in 1960 as a seventy-minute black-and-white movie, featuring Jack Nicholson in a small role and shot by director Roger Corman in two days. In 1982, the musical Little Shop of Horrors opened off Broadway, where it ran for five years. In 1986 it was made into a second film, with Steve Martin giving a brilliant performance as Orin, the sadistic, black-leather-clad dentist. A big reason for Little Shop's success is Alan Menken's catchy, rhythmic music, much of it a takeoff on the hits of such 1950s girl groups as the Chiffons, Crystals and Ronettes — and in fact, the trio of vocalists who accompany much of the action are named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette. There's also the brilliantly spoofy central conceit: An alien embodied in a cannibalistic plant is determined to proliferate and consume the human race. To do this, he employs the unwitting services of Seymour, an innocent nerd employed in a skid-row florist shop. Seymour is in love with comely blond shop assistant Audrey, but she's been claimed by Orin and is afraid to leave him. As the tiny plant he discovered in an alley reveals its murderous nature to him, Seymour is confronted with a Faustian dilemma: The plant can help him win wealth, fame and Audrey — but only if he feeds its insatiable appetite for blood. Boulder's Dinner Theatre does a great job of capturing the show's lighthearted, capering energy. The costumes are witty, the set well designed and the orchestra's sound infectiously effervescent. But it's the actors who give a show its soul, and there are several good ones here, foremost among them strong-voiced Brandon Dill as Seymour. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 3, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, Reviewed February 21.

Of Mice and Men. Is there anyone who doesn't remember the two central figures in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men: quick-witted, enterprising George and his friend Lennie, with his child's mind in the body of a hulking, preternaturally strong man, who tends to kill small, smooth-furred things like mice and rabbits by petting them too hard? Scraping a living as itinerant farm workers — or bindle stiffs — the men sustain themselves with the dream of a ten-acre farm, but the bitter poverty of the rural world they inhabit shreds dreams and constricts lives. Since Steinbeck published his novella in 1937, George and Lennie have embedded themselves in the popular imagination. We also encounter other compelling characters, most particularly tough-minded, thoughtful Slim, who serves as the working men's moral arbiter; a tormented woman known only as Curley's Wife, trapped in an all-male world and attempting to use her sexuality to gain kindness and attention; and the friendly, talkative old farmhand Candy, who's accompanied wherever he goes by the ancient dog he raised from a puppy.  Of Mice and Men is set in Northern California, and a sense of place is crucial to its meaning and poetry. Director Terry Dodd has done well by the text: He's woven the sound of birdsong and rushing water into the action and set it on a convincingly detailed set. He has also assembled an excellent cast, and every one of them performs with conviction. Of Mice and Men is a period piece, and that's how this group plays it. But it's precisely because of the production's fidelity to a specific time and place that it feels universal. Presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through March 9, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, Reviewed February 21.

Starship Troy: Fame. By 8 p.m. the place is jammed. The audience looks young, some as young as high-schoolers, others in college; there are couples, gay and straight, and a scattering of older folk. Starship Troy is one of Buntport's informal efforts to create cheap, fun, accessible theater. It is a dramatized cartoon, each episode lasting about 45 minutes. The premise: A dump truck orbits space on a mission to clean things up. Its addled crew includes all the usual Buntport suspects: Erik Edborg, who for some reason has dryer-duct tubing sticking out of his front and who cuddles a white stuffed animal; cynical Hannah Duggan; Erin Rollman as an expressionless android (watching Rollman trying to remain expressionless is a comic feast); half-ape Brian Colonna; and Evan Weissman as something, well, something epicene and highly sexualized. An audience member volunteers as Ensign McCoy, who — in a tribute to South Park's Kenny, and perhaps to the Goon Show's Bluebottle before him ("You have deaded me again!") — gets killed in every show. This is throwaway theater in the best sense. If a line thuds to earth, no matter; it's gone as soon as it's said. If a piece of business is pure brilliance — too bad! It'll never be seen again, either. But what the hell, there's always another episode. Presented by Buntport Theater every Tuesday and Wednesday through May, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, Reviewed November 15.


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