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Bonfire of the vanities

As my Dad likes to say, sometimes the best surprise is no surprise. Unfortunately, “sometimes” does not include Las Vegas Little Theatre’s Fringe Festival. This year’s is not only smaller than 2011’s, it’s also less revelatory. The shows one expects to be good don’t disappoint, and those that do are colossal downers.

Without question, the finest Fringe offering is Neil LaBute’s Iphigenia in Orem (Olde English Productions), flawlessly paced by director Gus Langley. LaBute’s spellbinding monodrama is the confession of a traveling salesman (Shane Cullum) in a Vegas hotel room. Casually, conversationally, this Utah businessman unburdens himself to an unseen stranger about the “crib death” of his first daughter and the tenuousness of his job … although that’s ultimately not what’s haunting him. His confessional leads us imperceptibly to a chilling revelation that also elucidates LaBute’s arcane title. (Orem is a suburb of Provo; Iphigenia was the daughter Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods when his armada was becalmed en route to the Trojan War.)

Playing a misogynistic, petty and drab man with the face of an insect, Cullum fully humanizes this unsympathetic figure. Behind the buglike spectacles and caterpillar mustache, he finds the universality of a deeply disturbed person, in addition to his furtive monstrousness. It’s pure brilliance and not to be missed.

“Pondering” ponderously

Lurching from the ineffable to the unspeakable, we encounter Fringe’s other monodrama, Eugene Markoff’s 75-minute Expanding the Relative: Pondering Einstein, presented by aptly named Endless Productions. This catastrophic vanity project stars Markoff himself, over whose “acting” a veil of charity should be drawn. Making matters worse, sloppy tech cues ground last Saturday’s performance to a temporary halt.

Nominally, Pondering is a lecture by distant Einstein relative, Ezekiel Beam (Markoff). This disjointed, free-associative harangue is replete with pseudo-profundities like, “What if our yesterdays were today’s tomorrows?” If that doesn’t make you groan, there’s plenty worse in this interminable, smug string of one-liners and faux insights. Markoff comes across as a Beat poet who dropped far too much acid, then hit the vaudeville circuit. Faced with an incompetent protagonist, director Timothy Burris is reduced to reprising sight gags from last year’s Wind in the Willows. If he’s lucky, the self-important awfulness of Pondering will be mistaken for High Art.

The title of Poor Richard’s Productions’ Dick Johnson, Private Eye — three penis references in four words — makes one expect the worst. Instead, Maxim Lardent and Mark Valentin’s nostalgic comedy is very creatively penned and a Fringe smash. Set in the studios of WKZP in 1942, Johnson is couched as a radio serial involving the titular private dick’s search for his missing desk. Interspersed are clever jingles touting the healthful virtues of asbestos, cigarettes and such, while Arles Estes nimbly alternates between providing dramatic musical punctuation and atmospheric, live sound effects. Valentin and Lardent wittily use the radio-drama format to comment on the conventions of the detective genre (the omniscient cabbie, the lady in red), as well as on the ’40s themselves.

Lysander Abadia brilliantly orchestrates the dizzyingly intricate, quick-change staging, and Kirstin Maki’s costuming is the fest’s best. Regrettably, Lardent arrogates the title role for himself. His mumbling, arrhythmic delivery does his writing a serious disservice. Much of the cast is drawn from local improv troupes, with Valentin and Kimberly Scott Faubel distinguishing themselves as cabbie and adenoidal Gal Friday, respectively. Flawless period panache is displayed by Benjamin Loewy — flinging himself with relish into a continent’s worth of accents in four roles — and by Breon Jenay (Femme Fatale). Her plummy, seductive delivery elevates obvious jokes into double entendres. This duo plays it to the hilt and not one scintilla beyond.

Too much ‘Dick’

Watching Johnson back-to-back with A.R. Gurney’s The Open Meeting (LVLT) requires superhuman tolerance for “Dick” jokes. Cutesy, Nixon-era agitprop, it’s a wan allegory of democracy. The oft-referenced, unseen Dick is unreachable in Washington, spinning sinister plots. In his absence, Gurney’s town meeting degenerates into a power struggle between rebellious youth (Dustin Sisney) and the Establishment (personified by Ralph Weprinsky), with vacillating Verna (Teresa Fullerton) representing the electorate. An ostensibly hilarious Oedipus Rex subplot thickens the metaphorical stew. It’s even more didactic than was LVLT’s Yankee Tavern, albeit funnier, too. Weprinsky’s authoritative presence and clarion delivery ultimately prove more sympathetic than Sisney’s oafish hollering.

Worse still was Michael O’Neal’s flaccid Soul (Chaos Theatre), disparate episodes posing as Something Deep about mortality. Jason Niño’s drowsy, disjointed production (more scene changes than action) only sows confusion, as does acting that’s borderline-comatose. A totally random set and a cast of mostly too-old actors muddles locations and relationships alike. Except for Michael Drake — brisk, nasty and dangerous as a drug dealer — the best performances are given by Jamie Carvelli (in a pre-recorded voiceover) and Kiha Akui, representing Death, who says almost nothing.

Theatrical vanities are skewered in Erica Griffin’s Roles for Women (Table 8 Productions), staged with manifest affection by Troy Heard. Five actresses are auditioning — or so they think — for the meaty role of a cannibalistic murderess. Petty jealousies and one-upwomanship escalate, through a corkscrewing succession of twists, into a full-blown brawl (unconvincingly choreographed, alas). The climactic catfight is provoked by a quintessentially Griffinesque, underlying deception. It’s more fully realized than her 2011 “Best of Fringe” winner, Casa de Nada, and just as funny.

Sarah Spraker has the gravy part of the Amazonian, domineering community-theater diva, complemented by Stacia Zinkevich as a hilariously daft, eyelash-batting ingénue. Playing the attitude-throwing, tattooed, wannabe “rebel,” Mary Foresta should provoke shudders of self-recognition among certain local actresses, while Carvelli’s fascinatingly detailed portrayal of the group’s earnest underachiever binds the story together. Natascha Negro riffs amusingly, neurotically on previous tragedy-queen roles but, as the draconian and manipulative stage manager, mild Cathy Ostertag lets the side down.

Not reviewed: Ernest Hemmings’ Asphyxiation Masturbation, which I saw (and loved) in an earlier production at Royal House; Fringe Shorts, an omnibus presentation of three 15-minute playlets; and Deanne Grace’s The Final Four, which will only be performed once, on closing night.

Vegas Fringe Festival Thursday-Sunday, through June 10; Las Vegas Little Theatre, 3920 Schiff Drive, 362-7996 (see for showtimes), $12 (single ticket) or $90 (all-show pass).