Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations

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The Gamblers This one-hour romp, written by Nikolai Gogol and produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art, feels as modern as any production you're likely to see this year. With a sharply satirical style in an adaptation by director Massoud Saidpour, The Gamblers focuses on professional card sharks, who foist treacheries that will not surprise anyone who has seen David Mamet's film House of Games or any similar con stories. But what is extraordinary here is the seamless ensemble performance Saidpour and his live-wire cast pull off. The play takes place in a secluded card room run by the groveling and greedy Alexey (a pitch-perfect Allen Branstein), where slick Mr. Rov is planning to fleece some local players. As Rov, Terence Cranendonk literally squirms with sleazy glee as he wallows in his unapologetic fixation with cheating. There are surprises in store for Rov once the other players show up. Led by Mr. Tesh (an oleaginous Fabio Polanco), the card games lead up to the targeting of a young mark, the son of a millionaire who has left the premises. In perhaps the production's most sublime moment, director Saidpour choreographs a silent and seated blackjack ballet that captures the essence of a con in action. Saidpour animates Gogol's often humorous meditation on the craven, money-grubbing aspects of human nature. And in the process, the company conjures a taut and terrific stage experience. Through June 15, produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art at Kennedy's at Playhouse Square, 1518 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. — Christine Howey

My Favorite Year Based on the film of the same name, My Favorite Year — a musical by Joseph Dougherty — revolves around the soused and skirt-chasing Alan Swann, a guest star on King Kaiser's Comedy Cavalcade. But the central character is Benjy, who's played with earnestness if not inspiration by Shawn Galligan. Benjy is a young writer on King's staff and a closet fan of Swann, a cinema star in the John Barrymore mold. When Swann shows up four sheets to the wind, Benjy is assigned to babysit the actor, so he doesn't turn up shit-faced on live television. The songs, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, get off to a bright start with "Twenty Million People" — a delightful ensemble tribute, choreographed with style by Martin Cespedes. But as the show progresses and Swann mopes about his shallow life, the tunes turn introspective. Matthew Wright brings a matinee-idol elegance and bruised innocence to this lascivious lush. Rachel Spence dazzles as comedy writer Alice Miller, nailing her Imogene Coca-like character with a penetrating voice and impeccable timing. Under William Roudebush's crisp direction, Jean Zarzour harnesses her talents to create a larger-than-life but charmingly intrusive Belle, Benjy's mom. And John J. Polk manages to bluster his way through his scenes as King Kaiser, helping make this an enjoyable trek back to TV long before TiVo. Through June 8 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. — Howey

Two Plays by Gao Xingjian This Chinese playwright won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, but his avant-garde writing got his work banned — and Gao himself exiled — from his home country. In the first of his two plays, Between Life & Death, a middle-aged woman dissects her married life through a series of seemingly mundane observations. Speaking of herself in the third person — which heightens our sense of her disconnection and disorientation — she shares tidbits about her hubby, who hovers in the background ("She can read him like a book"; "She doesn't want to hear his lies"). As the hour-long monologue unfolds under the astute direction of Holly Holsinger, a nicely restrained Anne McEvoy peels away her character's psychic depths. Meanwhile, her silent hubby (Mark Cipra) reappears in a clown outfit, and a young woman (Melissa Crum) adds mute commentary to the proceedings. After an intermission, during which the seating and playing area are totally rearranged, Gao's second work follows a young man (Nick Koesters), both internally and externally, on a journey to The Other Shore. Director Raymond Bobgan orchestrates dance and movement, as well as light and darkness, to fashion a theatrical event that is as fascinating as it is confounding. In sum, Two Plays is a polished and provocative production that will stretch your mind. Through June 14 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. — Howey

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