"The End"—of corruption, of civility, of life itself—is the theme of this West Coast premiere of three one-act plays by filmmaker/playwrights David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Titled Death Defying Acts, the series was a long-running hit Off-Broadway, but the writers seem to be living off their reputations in this surprisingly dull evening. Only one of the pieces works, and you can bet your life you'll be eyeing the exits well before the last play comes to its long-delayed conclusion.
Mamet's oblique, short An Interview is supposed to be about a sleazeball Attorney (Quinn K. Redeker) defending his life to an Attendant (Michael Rothhaar) at the gates of hell, but that's never really clear until the clichéd lawyer-joke punch line. The fact that director Jules Aaron's staging does nothing to illuminate that sense of place could be forgiven—even forgotten—if the two actors knew how to deliver Mamet's trademark staccato dialogue. But they don't, so the play simply meanders as they stumble and pause, sounding for all the world like two actors who don't know their lines.
Such sloppiness is nowhere in sight during May's uproarious Hotline, however. Foul-mouthed hooker Dorothy (Beverly Sanders) calls up a suicide phone bank, berates first-time counselor Ken (Rothhaar) and then hangs up after thanking him for pushing her over the edge. Sanders' misanthropic whore is both sympathetic and witheringly cruel, with Rothhaar, her human punching bag, heroically rising to the occasion as circumstances get grim. Aaron's staging here is energetic, and he does a fine job tuning into the play's razor-sharp subtext that despite the ugliness of others, it's important that we attempt to help them, even when they seem unworthy of that kindness.
But the underrehearsed feeling is back with a vengeance right after intermission in Allen's Central Park West. A psychoanalyst (a brilliant, mordantly profane Eileen T'Kaye) discovers her adulterous husband is sleeping with her best friend (Sanders, stumbling and bumbling over nearly every line) and invites her over for a drink. It's a premise that hints—as ever—at autobiographical elements in Allen's life, especially when an even younger woman enters the picture. But it's little more than warmed-over Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with nastier insults. Aaron's unsuccessful attempt at a farcical staging and unfocused performances by Sanders and other cast members make this piece wear out its welcome well before the halfway mark.
Death Defying Acts at International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 436-4610. Thurs.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through July 15. $15-$35.