L-R Chip Bolcik, Amy Motta, Robert Craighead, Alexander Hitzig, Ken Korpi, Nina Brissey, and Nicole Olney (missing: Dave Florek)


Santa Monica’s own Ruskin Group Theatre, which helped launch the play “Sideways,” may just have another hit on its hands.

“Sneaky Ole Time” is a zippy, feel-good musical based on the songs of Grammy Award-winning country songwriter Paul Overstreet. He’s written more than 27 Top Ten tunes; the show features 22 of his hits.

The plot is a thin skein of a yarn; Stephen Mazur’s book starts out as a somewhat clich√©d male/female point-counterpoint but later turns on a surprisingly clever conceit.

It’s a little over 2 hours, plus intermission but the time just zipped by. For starters, not one of the singing, dancing and instrument-playing cast hits a sour note. In fact, their collective talent blew me away.

Set in a honky-tonk in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, two raven-haired beauties, Janine the bartender (Amy Motta) and local barfly Sheila (Nina Brissey) watch as the repairman (Chip Bolcik) with an impossibly long Eastern European name attempts to bring the jukebox back to life. Local curmudgeon Red (Robert Craighead) just wants some quiet to drink his booze and read his paper.

Sexy blond bartender trainee Lexi (Nicole Olney) manages to confound the stereotype by expounding on the mystical nature of turtles, later explaining the theory of quantum physics and parallel universes—and it’s all germane. Meantime, boastful stud Lucky (Ken Korpi) drops by to test his skill as a ladykiller.

A sudden screeching outside and in stumbles injured guitar-playing, song-writing musician, Jack (Alexander Hitzig) whose motorcycle has crashed while attempting to avoid hitting Lexi’s pet turtle, who tried to cross the road without her knowledge.

While Jack washes himself off, the others poke around in his guitar case, finding a song he’s writing, “Forever and Ever, Amen” and an engagement ring, leading the ladies to ooh and ahh over what at first seems obvious: Jack was heading off to meet up with his gal to propose marriage. That is until one of the men points out that Jack was heading in the opposite direction, which means he may have changed his mind.

The women try to convince him love matters, the men try to convince him he’s better off without it. Red’s unhappy in marriage, Lucky gets all he needs from one-night stands, and then we hear from the voice of wisdom, “The Old Man” (Dave Florek) who’s had but one love all his life, and he misses her everyday.

It’s not until Jack is on the phone with the towing company and pulls out his credit card to pay for repairs that we learn all four of these men are the same person at various ages and stages of their lives. It’s a nifty little twist, and it plays out satisfyingly in song and story.

Jack’s girl Maggie (Lara Jones) heard about the accident, shows up to see if he’s OK, but after discovering he had doubts about committing to marriage, decides she should leave because she doesn’t want to get in the way of his music career.

In yet another twist, she’s back and the men finally come clean, admitting they’re not really love skeptics after all. Red misses his wife, who left him a few weeks ago, Lucky remembers the one time he was in love and there’s a powerful performance by Florek, singing the title song “Sneaky Ole Time” with a tear running down his face (and mine, I’ll admit), till it all resolves sweetly.

There’s a live band and in addition to singing, harmonizing beautifully and performing some seamless choreography, the performers also play various instruments throughout the production.

I recommend this play. It’s light, the music’s fun, it’s a perfect little summer entertainment, and in case you think it’s a corny premise, so what? The performers do a terrific job making it feel fresh and bright. It’s already garnered interest from a few theatre houses across the South.

“Sneaky Ole Time” plays at The Ruskin Group Theatre Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, through September 6. Parking’s free on site, 3000 Airport Drive, Santa Monica. Visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com or call (310) 397-3244.

‘Bent’ at the Taper

Where love is concerned “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Set in Nazi era Germany and directed by the renowned Moises Kaufman, Martin Sherman’s story reveals the horrific treatment of homosexuals, who ranked even lower than Jews in the hierarchy of persecution inflicted by Hitler’s regime.

Homosexuals were considered “bent” or “fluffs,” and this play revolves around Max (Patrick Heusinger), the son of a privileged family who has left to pursue a hedonistic gay lifestyle and his lover Rudy (Andy Mientus), a dancer in a Berlin nightclub. Forced to flee following a night of debauchery that’s interrupted by SS storm troopers bursting into their apartment, they’re put on a train to a concentration camp. It is there that Max meets Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), who gives him a tip that keeps him alive but ends up killing Rudy.

Max, who has traded in deal-making, finagles to get Horst to share his job, the Sisyphean task of moving rocks from one side of the camp to the other and back again, to no purpose. His ultimate understanding of love ends shockingly (literally) and we are left to ponder their hell and whether or not love can transcend such horror.

“Bent” ends on August 23. For info call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org.

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.

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