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On Stage 

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

Johnnie Taylor Is Gone -- Insult comedians often say they kid because they care, and the same holds true for the rest of us -- we joke with our friends simply because we like them and it would be too cloying to do anything else. This world premiere at Karamu is built on that same taunting gamesmanship. Playwright Gregory S. Carr has fashioned a delightful if not particularly insightful evening around 10 denizens of the Golden Zodiac Lounge (picture a black Cheers) in north St. Louis. Within these cozy confines, the employees and patrons spend their idle time signifying, playing the dozens, and generally tormenting each other -- usually for fun. The serious thread running below the steady stream of gibes is the fact that the faltering Zodiac caters to an aging clientele, while the hot clubs are attracting the Nelly and Ashanti crowd. That fact is accentuated by photos adorning the walls of Johnnie Taylor, an old-school gospel and blues singer, now deceased, who once stopped by the joint when his limo broke down. This lively production is a fortuitous convergence of a hilarious script, several finely calibrated performances, and pace-perfect direction by Caroline Jackson Smith. Through February 20 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- Howey

The Piano Lesson -- August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning look at life in the post-Depression 1930s centers on a family that's migrated from the South to Pittsburgh, where railroad porter Doaker has offered a home for his niece Berniece and her daughter. Also occupying space is an old piano, on which Berniece's great-grandfather had long ago carved images of their family and its travails. It's a well-polished and omnipresent symbol of their contentious past -- both an item of pride and regret. Soon, their peaceful life is interrupted by Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, and his buddy, Lymon, who have just arrived with a truckload of watermelons to sell up north. Boy Willie plans to combine those profits with the sale of the piano to buy the farm where the family's forebears had been enslaved. Trouble is, Berniece won't part with the piano; to her, it represents a unique and powerful legacy that cannot be relinquished while, for Boy Willie, it's the key to a new life of freedom. Thus, controversy ensues. The strengths of Wilson's play reside in its compelling theme and finely crafted scenes, and director Chuck Patterson does a masterful job of helping his cast craft memorable characters. Still, due to an overlong, repetitive script, plus some curious staging decisions, this production never fully succeeds. Through February 27 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. -- Howey

The Real Thing -- Some people have accused British playwright Tom Stoppard of being self-consciously witty. If that's true, it's a shame we all aren't so self-conscious. For proof, stop by and see this brilliantly acerbic work by Stoppard, presented by Case Western Reserve University's graduate acting students at the Play House. Though none of the actors has the age or maturity truly necessary for this challenging script, there is so much lively banter that the evening trips along beautifully. Directed by Jerrold Scott, the play touches on the cruelty of infidelity and the agonies of writing well. The best performance, in the key role of urban playwright Henry, is Joshua John McKay, who possesses the blankest deadpan since Revere started making skillets. Between quips, Henry takes on serial wives while the story line swerves from his personal life to the play he's written, featuring excerpts of each. It's borderline confusing, but Stoppard's comedic touch is surefire. (Referring to an insecure actor, one character observes, "His sentence structure would come apart, closely followed by his sphincter.") And you simply must hear the comparison of the writing process to the construction of a cricket bat. Smashing, that. Through February 19 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. -- Howey

Rush Limbaugh in Night School -- If you're going to write a two-hour satire about right-wing commentator and fact-challenged hatemonger Rush Limbaugh, you've at least availed yourself of a big fat target. Even so, playwright Charlie Varon manages only a few political bull's-eyes in a show that attempts to humanize Limbaugh by having him fall in love with a radical lefty named Nina (without a single reference to Feminazis!). Even though the plot is tortured beyond all reason -- Limbaugh is supposedly losing ratings points to a barely understandable Hispanic broadcaster, so Rush and the ex-Weathermen chick meet in a Spanish class -- director Yvonne Pilarczyk's spare production benefits from an excellent Rush clone in Jim McCormack. Daniel McElhaney also stands out, nailing a number of roles, including a hilarious impression of Garrison Keillor playing Iago in Shakespeare in the Park. But McElhaney misses in a longer bit as a new-agey lecturer by playing funny instead of being funny. Pilarczyk doubles as Nina, employing a cutesy middle-aged sponginess that doesn't echo her character's past. If you cut out half the unbelievable plot contrivances, ditched the pseudo-dramatic minute-by-minute narration, and shrank the whole megillah down to 80 minutes, this could be quite a hoot. Through February 26 at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre's River Street Playhouse, 56 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955. -- Howey

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