The Break Up Notebook: The Lesbian Musical — Thirtysomething Helen is the dumpee, left alone in her Los Angeles bedroom, wearing the dress of her departed lover of two-plus years. She is soon joined by a predictable support network consisting of her gay co-worker Bob and a butch-femme couple, Monica and Joanie, who are on their way to a commitment ceremony. Helen works her way through a quick series of failed dating encounters, including a recovering-addict line-dance instructor (a "12-stepping two-stepper"), until she finally meets Frances. This quiet motorcycle chick attracts Helen in a most compelling way. In the demanding role of Helen, the vocally strong Jodi Dominick is loose and endearingly gawky. But the most riveting person onstage is Tracee Patterson, who imbues Frances with such a smoldering sexual intensity, it seems she might spontaneously combust at any moment. When she saunters up to Helen, it's as if a cougar is approaching a defenseless lamb. Also excellent are Eric Van Baars as swishy Bob, Kayce Cummings as Casey and the "other woman," and Alison Garrigan as uptight, Paxil-popping gal pal Sheila. But as good as she is, even Garrigan can't save the show's worst tune, "Polynesian Dance," a supposedly comic ditty that lumbers on forever without triggering a chuckle. Similarly, the play itself is too long, but it's worth the wait, since the last two songs, "Lucky, Lucky Me" and "Do It All Again" are tender, touching, and the best of the bunch. Through March 22 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. — Christine Howey
Brooklyn Boy — At the core of this episodic tale is Jewish author Eric Weiss, who's written a novel based on his formative years in Brooklyn. When the book hits it big, he must navigate his newfound success through the dangerous shoals of personal relationships involving his dying father, Manny (a sweetly crotchety Bernard Canepari); his ex, Nina (touching, rueful Dawn Youngs); and his old neighborhood buddy, Ira (a most amusing and human Noah Budin). The separate scenes with those individuals have the snap and heft of truth, as Eric tries to grapple with his past and his faith. But the playwright loses his direction once Eric lands in la-la land to pursue his movie deal. First, he winds up in his luxurious hotel room with a young literary groupie named Alison, played by a game Jane Conway. Even though it's not hard to accept a middle-aged man hooking up with a young chick in the abstract, it's not made clear why Eric makes this particular decision. In the next scene, Eric meets with Melanie, a film producer, and Tyler, the mimbo actor who will be involved in turning his book into a movie. Maryann Elder is a delightfully over-the-top Melanie, and Ron Cuirle poses artfully as Tyler, but the whole scene is contrived and predictable — appropriate for a sitcom, but not a play with more serious aspirations. Through March 9, produced by the Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland in association with Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus Theatre Arts, 4250 Richmond Rd., Beachwood, 800-766-6048. — Howey
Essential Self Defense — In March, when Bang and Clatter opens its new theater venue in Cleveland, it will be committed to producing 16 shows a year that have never been seen in Ohio. That may be foolhardy, since there can be valid reasons why some shows are never staged. Case in point: the tedious exercise now on the boards at their Akron location. Written by the eager but tin-eared nihilist Adam Rapp, it's two and a half hours of preening weirdness and pretentious pseudo-intellectual disdain for popular culture. Centered around the clearly psychotic Yul, a former television-knob installer and now a human dummy in a self-defense academy, the play has nary a moment of credible human interaction. After student Sadie accidentally knocks out one of Yul's teeth, she becomes fixated on getting close to him, even visiting his rat-infested apartment. Then there are the extraneous characters and pointless scenes, including the cartoonish butcher Klieg, a karaoke bar that prohibits karaoke music, and lots of missing kids (if any of that sounds interesting in any way, it's not). The actors work hard and can't be blamed, since the script is aggressively self-congratulatory and director Jim Volkert appears clueless about, among other things, pacing. Through March 22 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company, 140 E. Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. — Howey
Two Rooms — The inhabitants of the two rooms in question are Michael Wells, an American professor working in Beirut who has been taken captive, and his wife, Lainie, who has removed everything from her husband's office except a small mat, to try to share the deprivations and terror Michael is undergoing. While Michael is almost always alone, Lainie has a couple of visitors: a reporter named Walker Harris, who's trying to land an interview, and Ellen Van Oss, a government functionary who wants to keep Lainie quiet. The most difficult role here is Lainie, and Sarah Morton does a masterful job of balancing her character's loss, hope, and cynicism. Jeffrey Grover's Michael is a most believable victim. As he speaks the "letters" he would write to his wife — if only he could — he captures moments in their life together that are sweetly touching. As Walker Harris, the excellent Jason Markouc seems strangely detached, his eyes often shifting away from the action to land momentarily in some vague middle distance. As a result, we don't totally appreciate the tug-of-war between Harris' desire to score a reportorial scoop and his growing affection for Lainie. Also uncertain is Mary Alice Beck, who seems unsure of herself from the start as Van Oss. Director Jacqi Loewy creates some real tension as the drama of Michael's incarceration continues to build. But the uncredited set design becomes an unfortunate obstacle. Consisting of bare white walls with a scruffy, scratched-up floor, the single room is used for both Michael and Lainie, but doesn't work ideally for either. Through March 8, produced by Cleveland Public Theatre and the Charenton Theater Company. At Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. — Howey
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