Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

Cleveland theater

AtTENtion Span While they vary in accessibility and wit, these eight comedic sketches are performed with infectious energy — even when the writing doesn't deserve it. In "My Date With a Zombie," Saidah Mitchell is a sexy undead chick who puts the rigor in rigor mortis. The jokes are predictable, but the actors sweep us up in their spot-on portrayals. "Blind Man's Bluff," directed by Mindy Childress Herman, features a svelte young woman (Sarah Kunchik) who is waiting for her blind date. The man (Derek Koger) eventually arrives, white cane in hand. In the most successful effort of the evening, "Find Mucking," Kunchik and Margi Herwald Zitelli play college women who are lustily attracted to all manner of intellectual arcana, not to mention each other, and director Greg Vovos keeps the pacing so taut, none of the sexual or comedic tension goes limp for even a second. Less entertaining are sketches with promising premises that just don't develop: "Make Yourself Plain," "Henry and Louise and Henri," "Antarctica (purity)," and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool." The entire show, as produced by Vovos, is staged in different areas of the theater, with audience members instructed where to point their plastic chairs for each scene. This seat shuffling is gratuitous. But the final sketch, "Scream," happens high in the balcony of the theater, and it actually makes use of that location. Author/director Vovos has imagined a literally drop-dead party for happy fatalists, but like the other skits, the running gag gets tired, and the takeaway is pretty ho-hum. Through October 27 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727. — Christine Howey

Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit As musical-revue franchises go, they don't come much healthier than Forbidden Broadway, which has enjoyed several iterations over the past 25 years. Featuring comedy knockoffs of popular musicals, this most recent version is a mix of old material (Les Miz lampoons) and newer stuff, like spoofs poking The Lion King, wherein headdress-abused actors bemoan their lot in "Can You Feel the Pain Tonight?" The hardworking players throw themselves into one costume and wig change after another, with Greg Violand crooning a clever Robert Goulet parody and Tricia Bestic spoofing hyper Liza Minnelli. Also fine are Brian Marshall (his Cameron Mackintosh peddles show souvenirs such as chocolates shaped like orphans) and Carmen Keels, who nails a brassy Ethel Merman. Keels and Bestic also turn in a great duet as dueling Anitas (Chita Rivera vs. Rita Moreno) in West Side Story. Some jokes are fresh, as when they make fun of all the shows featuring puppets ("If you want a Tony/Flash a cloth cojone"). But a lot of the lyric gibes are repetitive, and some Broadway in-jokes get lost here in the hinterland. But it's fast and fun, and the voices are Broadway-quality. Through December 2 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street, 216-241-6000. — Howey

Osama the Hero If you're thinking of Googling the title of this Cleveland Public Theatre show, realize that you might be put on the government's list of terrorist sympathizers. As a result, you may qualify for a mandatory, government-paid trip to a picturesque foreign land (the waterboarding in Syria is fabulous this time of year!). That kind of justifiable paranoia is explored in this provocative piece by Dennis Kelly. With garages being blown to smithereens all over town, the local gentry focus on Gary (Benjamin Gates), a young outcast who has voiced strange ideas about bin Laden. Via the play's straight-ahead and oblique approaches to the material, we see how the bland and cosseted comfort of celebrity queen Mandy (Katelyn Rae Cornelius) and her older consort Mark (Mark Cipra) contrasts with the downscale rage of Francis (Jeffrey A. Wisniewski) and snarky Louise (Chris Seibert). The script plays it a bit too cute in places, but director Raymond Bobgan keeps his talented cast on point, luxuriating in the playwright's finely detailed descriptions while painting a mural of reflexive, destructive fear. Through November 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727. — Howey

Pump Boys and Dinettes Pump Boys is about some gas-station grease monkeys and the waitresses next door, and it's challenging to pull off: Its songs are only serviceable, and the jokes are old. If it's going to work, it needs down-home simplicity. But director Sean Cercone and lighting designer Paul Black are too fond of the haze machine, which fills the stage area with mist and makes visible the colored beams from swiveling spotlights. The rednecks who sing the show's blues/country/rock/ gospel tunes are attacked by shafts of hot pink and throbbing purple. Playing the lead Boy is Pat McRoberts; he hits the notes, as do most of his compatriots, but the meanings of some songs disappear in the ever-present mist. Pianist and singer Steven Ray Watkins turns in a diggin' version of "Serve Yourself," even though he comes up short in two other songs that require him to be amusing. And as for the Cupp sisters, hot Rhetta (Kate Margaret) is only lukewarm, and pixie-ish Prudie (Sarah Nischwitz) finds herself groping for the right melodies. If only this production had the straightforward honesty of director Cercone's program notes, in which he recalls the bluegrass music his dad played — now that could be a great show, no swiveling spotlights required. Through October 27 at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. — Howey

A Shayna Maidel That phrase is not only Yiddish for "a pretty girl," it's also the name of a fine play, executed with tender skill by the Mandel Jewish Community Center in association with Tri-C East. While so many plays concern themselves with the raging dysfunctions of family life, this one reminds us of the horrific damage done to Jewish families during the Holocaust. Two grown sisters are reunited in 1946 Brooklyn; the younger of them, Rose (Bernadette Clemens), had fled the Nazi onslaught with her father, Mordechai (Mitchell B. Fields), while their mother (Jeanne Task) stayed behind with Luisa (Lara Mielcarek). Playwright Barbara Lebow employs memory flashbacks — involving Luisa, her mother, and her best friend Hanna (Natalie Green) — woven together with inevitably awkward moments, as the two women struggle to discover and understand each other and their domineering dad. Luisa resists many of these overtures, since she is intent on finding her husband Duvid (Ron Cuirle), another refugee from the war. Director Fred Sternfeld wisely allows this wrenching story to play out deliberately and quietly, finding acute moments of pain — particularly when the father calls out the names of family members, and Luisa, reading from a list she has kept, ticks off their often horrendous fates. Through November 4 at Tri-C East Performing Arts Center, 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Heights, 800-766-6048. — Howey

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