HARD LIFE: Laura Gardner plays a woman on the lam and Edward Tournier is a sheltered boy in “Razorback.” (John Perrin Flynn)

A crime thriller heavily laced with violence and cruelty, John Pollono's "Razorback" is a trendy new black comedy for a post-"Sopranos" mind-set. Fine performances in a handsomely staged premiere production from Rogue Machine show much promise in a script still in need of considerable work.

What Pollono's play gets very right is an intriguing assortment of vivid characters, starting with the morally ambiguous Deano Goretti, an ex-mobster who's reinvented himself as a business and family man in coastal Maine. Richard Fancy's gruff portrayal of Deano sets the right tone as he tries to toughen up his sheltered, college-age son, DJ (Edward Tournier). "Life is hard," Deano growls, "be harder."

There will be ample opportunity to put this advice into practice as Deano's dark past catches up with him. First, his estranged hoodlum son, Rocco (Jack Maxwell), shows up with his pregnant girlfriend (Melissa Paladino) and Deano's floozy ex-wife (Laura Gardner) in tow. The three are on the lam from a transgression Rocco committed against his boss, and their intrusion is an unwelcome surprise for Deano's current wife (Suzanne Ford), as numerous skeletons come tumbling out of the closet.

"Razorback" may be only the third production from Rogue Machine, but there's nothing fledgling about these high-quality performances under Elina De Sabtos' skillful direction. Structurally, however, the piece is seriously lopsided -- the first half is spent entirely on setup, with relatively little at stake. Pollono holds tension and edgy menace -- his trump cards -- in reserve until the second-act appearance of vengeance-minded Leftie (Ron Bottitta) and his muscle (Patrick Flanagan). Bottitta's Leftie is far and away the play's most complex and intriguing character, a brutal psychopath who savors the existential implications of his actions. Get him onstage sooner!

Just as seriously, behavior is frequently stretched beyond the bounds of believability to serve plot twists. Pollono is clearly aiming for Quentin Tarantino territory, but his dialogue lacks the latter's crisp, luminous economy of expression.


Philip Brandes

"Razorback," Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 2. $25. (323) 960-7726. Running time: 2 hour, 15 minutes.

Short works by Neil LaBute

Jolts of caustic brilliance and nascent tenderness vie with trademark manipulation in "The Way We Get By" at Gardner Stage 3. In its West Coast premiere, this well-acted program of one-act plays by Neil LaBute upholds his reputation for sour-tinged realism.

All six direct-address works are variations on the themes of games and the price paid for playing them. As in "Stand Up," in which Ben Kenber convincingly portrays an office dweeb at open-mike night. His lame comedy chops give way to a startling confession, followed by a rug-pulling hairpin turn.

Perhaps the high point is "Coax," a Pirandello-esque exercise in perverse calculation. As blind date Walter A. Lutz Jr. muses on the gap between drama and reality, he grows creepier with each grin. Simone Sullivan is quietly effective as potential serial killer's prey, while Lutz keeps us unsure up to a climactic twist that throws culpability back in our laps.

Another standout, "Land of the Dead," begins as domestic abortion duologue and ends in 9/11 territory. Either topic really merits fuller examination, but Scott Brady's vintage chauvinist and Heather Ann Smith's affecting enabler are impressively emotive.

"Love at Twenty," where collegiate home-wrecker Rebecca J. Hansen shares her detached itinerary, doesn't build its premise, with Hansen competent yet slightly on-the-nose. "Persuasion Paper," a post-feminist rant, is a scabrous goof, though Claire Meehan, who designed the resourceful set, dithers agreeably.

"I Love This Game," a shaggy-dog allegory, is at once shameless and heartfelt, and Little League dad David Jay Barry exudes as much sensitivity as bombast.

Though director Maninder Saini's thoughtful staging cleverly links each play, it's a tad showcase-rudimentary at times, and LaBute remains an acquired taste. Nonetheless, devotees should find it fascinating.


David C. Nichols

"The Way We Get By," Gardner Stage 3, 1501 N. Gardner St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Nov. 1. $15. (818) 685-9939. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.