On Stage

Capsule reviews of current area stage shows.

The Cult -- Raymond Bobgan's new experience (one hesitates to call it a play) is akin to being stuck in a room with five distressingly earnest people who keep launching pseudo-meaningful bon mots like intellectual confetti. Despite energetic and often engaging actors, and highly disciplined direction by Bobgan, the show's 75 minutes easily feel twice that long. Audience members are asked whether they are eager to acquire knowledge, then are led to a seat inside a tent, where the five performers, three of whom are dressed similarly and appear to be participants in a cult, start spewing. There is plenty of sampling in the script, from snatches of Shakespeare to Plato, but the one unifying theme is an almost impenetrable aura of spiritual and intellectual pretension. As the actors scream or whisper their lines, crawl on the floor in agony, or play games with each other, nothing is ever connected to anything so mundane as a plot or characters. "Explanation is irrelevance." They didn't say that. Or did they? Either way, who cares? Through May 8 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Christine Howey

Entanglement/Thief's Knot -- As Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, when you utter the words "I love you" to another person, you put a big matzo ball out there. At Dobama's New Works Festival, presented in the Night Kitchen format, two short pieces grapple with that dreaded gesture of commitment. In Entanglement, choreographed and danced by Marissa Nesbit with others, feelings of attraction are expressed to music ranging from Patsy Cline to Rachmaninoff -- and reach a strong crescendo in the last dance, featuring Nesbit and Jenny Burnett. This leads into the one-act play Thief's Knot by Steven Christopher Yockey, a gymnastically convoluted confrontation in which two men and two women declare their love for each other, in all directions, with tightly engineered overlapping dialogue. More tone poem than traditional play, Yockey's script raises some poignant questions, among them: "What if you never hear ['I love you'] again?" Under the direction of Adrienne Moon, the cast of Scott Esposito, Sadie Grossman, John DiAntonio, and Christa Heidrick admirably conveys the tension created by our urge to connect, along with the fear of rejection. It all just shows that productions don't have to be long or involved (this all takes less than an hour) to express profound ideas. Through May 16 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-932-3396. -- Howey

Free Will and Wanton Lust -- The always intriguing Convergence-Continuum group does what it can with this tarnished work about a wildly dysfunctional family by playwright Nicky Silver. Early on, he seems on track in developing a daffy comedy around some seriously screwed-up but fascinating characters. But once the second act begins, it seems as if we've been forcibly shunted into a different play entirely, as the edgy farce devolves into pseudo-serious melodrama. Director Clyde Simon can often squeeze every ounce of humor and meaning from a juicy script, but he's got his hands wrapped around a dried turnip this time. In attempting to comment on the trenchant subjects of physical bonding, solitude, and identity, Silver ultimately became more enamored of his own wordsmithing than of the story at hand. And that's a recipe for wanton mediocrity. Produced by Convergence-Continuum through May 8 at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. -- Howey

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change -- The promotional material dubs this musical revue "Seinfeld set to music." But in reality, it's more like The Bachelor set to a metronome, with predictable book and lyrics by Joe DiPetro and a mechanically repetitive musical score by Jimmy Roberts. Just pick your courtship cliché, and there's a song to address it, whether it be the serious shortage of desirable single men or the characteristics of testosterone-poisoned males who date chicks. The first act focuses on the foibles of the dating scene, and the second plumbs about an inch or two into the depths of marital misunderstandings. It's rescued by some amusing dating and family-life gibes, and a cast of Cleveland-based performers that squeezes every ounce of good humor out of what, in lesser hands, would come off as threadbare material. Larry Nehring, in particular, is a delight to watch in every role, from dazed boyfriend one moment to TV huckster the next. Through June 27 at the 14th Street Theater, 2037 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

The Last Five Years -- There's only one thing wrong with relationships: They too often require the participation of others. Perhaps this is the conundrum Jason Robert Brown had in mind when he wrote this two-person musical about a relationship in which the characters almost never relate to each other. Their separation is further exaggerated by the artificial structure of having the husband, Jamie (played by Scott Plate), croon his side of the story in chronological order, ending in the present, while his wife, Cathy (Sandy Simon), sings her experiences in the opposite direction. The result is more intellectually satisfying than emotionally fulfilling, since the actors hardly ever bounce off each other. But there are so many telling, wistful, and hilarious moments along the way that the show succeeds in spite of its arch conceits. The undeniable star is Brown's song cycle, and director Victoria Bussert's staging is detailed and briskly paced. Through May 16 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-932-3396. -- Howey

Oliver Twisted -- It has been claimed that there's a gene in some people's DNA spiral that compels them to seek out risky, potentially harmful activities, such as rock climbing, deep-sea diving, and parking at expired meters in Cleveland Heights. True to their risk-adoring genes, the seven-member group titled Oliver Twisted (made up of former members of the now-defunct Second City Cleveland) does audience-inspired material exclusively, without the safety net of scripted modules. And thanks to a fortunate blending of physical types and personalities among the performers -- along with their determined insistence on yanking every loose comedic thread -- this is an improv experience that will leave you laughing far more often than wincing. The troupe's resident nutcase, Randall Harr, is a fairly normal-looking fellow who transforms into a maniacally, often hilariously intense embodiment of whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral he's been assigned. Mondays at Hilarities Comedy Club at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 E. 4th St., 216-736-4242. -- Howey

Underneath the Lintel -- Human desire to leave a mark of our existence behind is the impulse that drives a nebbishy Dutch librarian on a globe-trotting quest in Glen Berger's one-person play. Its central conceit is that the librarian is lecturing about his search for a person who returned a way-overdue book. The philosophical core of the fable is finally reached when the fussbudget traces the book's borrower back to the moment when Jesus stopped to rest in an archway of a cobbler's shop on his way to crucifixion. Christ was turned away by the cobbler, and Jesus then condemned the man to a deathless and rootless existence. Clearly, Berger has big issues on his mind: dealing with a small man's newly ignited passion for life and hunger for an identity. Ironically true to its title, however, this production constantly teeters on the threshold without ever firmly charging off in any direction. This is due to a script that is almost too clever for its own good and a performance by the lone actor, Joe Gunderman, that never fully engages the imagination. Presented by Cesear's Forum through May 8 at Kennedy's, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey