If it's quick cash you're after, get a dog-any dog-and head for Ventura. Lee says dog-fighting pays big-time up that way, and he oughta know. Dog-fighting's the kind of racket you figure him for. He's the boozy neighborhood bully come of age, a greasy, two-bit crook who mooches off Mom in a successful effort to stay one step ahead of the law.
He's also the antagonist in True West, playwright Sam Shepard's look at the best and worst in human nature and a pretty good current entry from New Village Arts. A major actorial link falls short, but the production values capture the story's grit in a shameless exploitation of the conclusion, exactly as they should.
Lee gets the ball rolling in a cat-and-mouse game with his button-down brother Austin, a screenwriter, and the guys will reverse roles when a film producer asks Lee to write a western. Shepard says the brothers are metaphors for our best and worst characteristics. More important, he seems to declare, the boundary between both poles is frighteningly tenuous.
There's a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here. Austin (Joshua Everett Johnson) is the introspective Henry Jekyll to Lee's (Francis Gercke) dastardly Edward Hyde, but it's Austin who proves capable of the violence you'd expect from Lee. While Hank and Ed are the same person in the Stevenson story, Shepard's divergent dialogue invites more than one central figure. Gercke and Johnson respond well as a team, but there's a lot going on under Austin's unassuming exterior, and neither Johnson nor Shepard fully explore the layers. Meanwhile, director Kristianne Kurner has prodded Gercke for Lee's every nuance of defiance, and Gercke is outstanding in his responses.
This is the maiden entry at NVA's new Carlsbad digs, which stand in the din of an abutting Coaster station. The sound is sort of endearing in this case-you can imagine Lee scamming his way on board and outsmarting the cops yet again. The amenity punctuates the play's bizarre end as NVA weighs in yet again as a major player in this region's cultural life.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of June 23. True West runs through July 15 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State St., Carlsbad. $20-$22. 760-433-3245.
Carmen, La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere musical season opener, features a scene in which the title character is surrounded by a trio of ne'er-do-wells who proceed to have their way with her. They're interrupted in mid-assault, but not before director Franco Dragone and choreographer Sarah Miles strap us in our seats and demand we watch-such is the scene's wonderment over itself, as if this is the first time the teasy Carmen had ever been in this fix. And so goes the rest of this avalanche of miscalculation.
You'll recall the storyline-about the Spanish gypsy crook Carmen (Janien Valentine) and the lengths to which soldier Don José (Ryan Silverman) will go to woo her-from the Prosper Merimée novella and, later, Georges Bizet's classic opera.
But Dragone hasn't directed a play so much as ritualized this plot to his taste with a bunch of pretty stage pictures, and the dancing is loaded with so many cutesy tricks and nagging bits of business that Miles' bland book is rendered nearly breathless. Add AnnMarie Milazzo's unremarkable lyrics and John Ewbank's vapid score, and you get the kind of flashy, self-indulgent wet dream of which the Playhouse often seems particularly enamored.
Carmen runs through July 22 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $44-$100. 858-550-1010.
My date at the Ira Aldridge Players' Sassy Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One had nothing to say about the show. That's because she was basically under a doctor's orders not to speak for the next 58 years. But as a jazz singer of some local stature, she would have had something concrete to offer, because Vaughan is one of her influences.
She thus can especially relate to vocalist Ayanna Hobson's turn as Vaughan. And she agreed that the script, written and staged by Aldridge artistic director Calvin Manson, doesn't sustain Hobson's efforts. In real life, Vaughan had a model work ethic despite her addictions to booze and drugs. Those kinds of anecdotes make for a good story, and this show needs more of them in place of stock material on Vaughan's career or-inexplicably-her diet. But Caesar's Café is a pleasant enough place to watch a play; eventually, the Aldridge group could fit in accordingly.
Sassy Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One runs through July 1 at Caesar's Café, 801 C St., Downtown. $27.50, $40 with dinner. (619) 283-4574.