Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

On Stage
Fefu and Her Friends -- "Man is not the enemy here, but a fellow victim," feminist Betty Friedan once said. "The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves." That intramural battleground, where women try to work out their complex identities and relationships, is on display in this challenging but continually stimulating show. From the first line, spoken by hostess Fefu, it's clear that there will be issues: "My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are." In 1935 New England, Fefu has invited seven other women to her well-appointed home, where they are planning a fund-raiser. But playwright Maria Irene Fornes is less concerned with that event than she is with exploring the thought patterns of these upper-class women, who find themselves dancing to the tune of society's patriarchal piper. Wheeling precariously from witty Cowardesque dialogue to an impassioned litany of psychic pain, Fornes tosses ideas like a hyperactive circus juggler. Many of the thoughts are dazzling, but the overall dramatic thrust is frustratingly elusive. The best advice is to simply allow this well-crafted production to play out and affect you as it will; it's guaranteed to provide fodder for thought and discussion, even if all you want to talk about are the inventive staging decisions made by the playwright and director, Raymond Bobgan. Through June 17 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Christine Howey

Grease -- When Grease first opened on Broadway in 1972, everyone had a pretty fresh memory of the hoods in their own schools a decade or so earlier, who were incessantly combing their lubed locks and readjusting their upturned collars, when they weren't filching hubcaps. But the further we get from that era, the more the show's Burger Palace Boys -- and their women's auxiliary, the Pink Ladies -- risk being transformed into pale replicas, thereby sapping energy from these icons of the Eisenhower decade. This production at the Carousel Dinner Theatre generally avoids that problem and gets many of the details right, infusing the evening with a tumultuous momentum that serves the material well. The show's energy is boosted by Robert Kovach's visually spirited set design, featuring stacked TV screens at each side of the stage that show vintage images and ad slogans ("Bosco -- That's the drink for me!"). All in all, it's a very good Grease that, with a little more edge, could be great. Through July 1 at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

A Man of No Importance -- Middle-aged Alfie, a bus-ticket-taker in 1964 Dublin, expresses his lust for life through inoffensive amateur theatricals at St. Imelda Church. But unlike the Albert Finney movie on which this musical adaptation is based, Alfie has loosened the reins on his libido and decided to mount a staging of Oscar Wilde's scandalous Salome. It becomes clear that Alfie shares a bit more with Wilde than thespian yearnings, since the well-closeted conductor has a serious crush on the young and studly driver of his bus. There are certainly rich veins of character to mine in this story, and the cast does a splendid job of presenting the material. But the book by Terrence McNally and the score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens prove to be an odd match, even though each by itself is quite good. McNally is a deft writer, and his scenes crackle with sharp dialogue. But the songs frequently do less to advance the story than to draw attention to themselves. Through June 25 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

Nocturne -- At first, blending theater with jazz seems a fascinating idea. In this world premiere mounted by Ensemble Theatre, however, the saxophone jazz is lush, but the script has all the resonance of a tin kazoo. Playwright Saul Zachary has imagined a middle-aged couple with problems: Eldon's a jealous ex-sax player turned wealthy salesman, and Vera is "enigmatic" -- which we know because Zachary tells us, in so many words. This atonal script combines really bad soft porn ("I was so hot, I asked him to open the window") with unbelievable plot devices: Vera somehow winds up cooking meals for a famous black sax player (Robert Williams), who's blind and playing for quarters on the street. As if that weren't enough, Nocturne is also hugely melodramatic and depressingly humorless. Jeff Grover does what he can as Eldon, but Valerie Young is ill equipped to handle the script challenges as Vera; her second-act monologue, supposedly a soul-baring rant, is larded with laughable clichés. On the plus side, Rob Williams (not to be confused with actor Robert) plays sax very nicely in the shadows. Presented by Ensemble Theatre through June 18 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-321-2930 -- Howey

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