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In the 1950s, led by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, British playwrights railed against the establishment’s bankrupt values and hypocrisy. In the 1990s, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, and others became part of the “In Yer Face” theatrical movement, writing dramas that ripped the social fabric and might have shocked even Osborne.

The difference between the two: along with much franker sexual scenes, for In Yer Face, the enemy’s far more deeply interfused. Because his world held still, Osborne had the luxury of slamming specific targets, even naming names. In Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing, everything beyond one’s fingertips is uncertain. And the play’s an ongoing explication of Jean-François Lyotard’s famous line, “Each of us knows that our self does not amount to much.”

Or, as Willy Loman, pinched in the ’50s consumerist vice, put it, “I still feel a little temporary about myself.”

According to Ravenhill, consumerism has become so ingrained it’s a law of nature: I buy, therefore I am. There’s no difference between shopping and sex. Each is just an exchange (a character says, “The having of money is civilization”). To survive such a dehumanized, consume-and-consume-again existence, the worst possible choice is emotional involvement.

Midway through Shopping and F***ing, Mark asks, “Are there any feelings left?” A junkie, Mark abandons his mates, Robbie and Lulu, and goes into rehab, where he learns that people can be just as addicting as drugs. But human relations only result in crippling dependencies. So Mark wants an object of pure transaction — the rent-boy Brian — but makes a grave mistake: he falls in love.

You could call S&F postapocalyptic, only the world went out not with a bang but a cash nexus whimper.

Triad Productions fills a gap in San Diego theater. They stage edgy works that refuse to pander to audiences (their most recent: Martin McDonagh’s Lonesome West). For S&F, however, it’s as if for every beat in the script, the actors don’t think we’re getting the point. They make the loudest possible choices.

The play means to appall — so much that the author wavers between occasional moral urgency and an obvious delight in brutalization (where he actually stands? — a coin flip). But the cast, directed by Adam Parker, begins scenes, emotionally, where they should end. It’s as if they’re performing in the Civic rather than the intimate confines of the Compass Theatre.

The characters are unsubtle beings. But when the writing of a play is “over,” as Ravenhill’s is, the acting should come “under” the text for full shock effect. The combination of over plus over makes for an evening more in your ear than yer face.

* * *

Rhona Gold opens Moxie Theatre’s latest effort with a fascinating speech that devolves with each new word. Gold plays Lady Fossmire (aka “Alice”) and with stolid British intonations shifts from worries about overpopulation to a “modest proposal” — à la Jonathan Swift — for eliminating the surplus. She’s kidding, you say. But Gold’s matronly smile widens, and it’s clear that her Zero Population Party wants to cull at least half the world’s population: all the males.

Mary Fengar Gail’s plays unfold like dreams. They combine fantasy and heightened language with studies of power, its uses and abuses. Some plays verge on, and others become, nightmares. Moxie Theatre has an affinity for Gail’s work, having staged Devil Dog Six with great success. Moxie’s Drink Me, however, is a strange mix. The fantasy elements are boffo, the more realistic scenes, flat and tedious.

Male indigents are disappearing from London. Could it be a highly selective virus or, as some allege, three eerie sisters who practice witchcraft and speak Jacobean English? Detective Fossmire, scion of Lady F. — and potentially the last of his gender — must find out.

Bedecked in Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s wispy blue silks, Jo Anne Glover, Morgan Trant, and Melissa Fernandes delight as the mystical, nursery-rhyme-singing trio: some of the sweetest life-snuffers you’d ever want to meet. As long as they’re onstage, innocently flitting across David Weiner’s two-level London Bridge set, the production’s a charmer.

Nonmystical scenes have problems in the writing and the staging. Gail loads them with so much information that the pace bogs and the storyline disappears (“The trouble with writing a mystery,” a friend who writes them told me, “is you have to be crystal clear”). Though his performance as Detective Fossmire improved during opening night, Stephen Elton’s British accent didn’t. Kristianne Kurner, Laurie Lehmann-Gray (too long from local stages!), and Mark C. Petrich make useful contributions amidst pages and pages of exposition.

Shopping and F***ing, by Mark Ravenhill
Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Adam Parker; cast: Patrick Kelly, Julio Jacobo, Katie Harroff, John Whitley, Kevin Morrison; scenic design, Parker; costume design, John Hyatt; lighting, Scott Andrew Amiotte; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through September 13; Wednesday through Sunday at 8:00 p.m. 619-688-9210.

Drink Me, or The Strange Case of Alice Times Three, by Mary Fengar Gail
Moxie Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD
Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Stephen Elton, Rhona Gold, Laurie Lehmann-Gray, Mark C. Petrich, Kristianne Kurner, Jo Anne Glover, Morgan Trant, Melissa Fernandes; scenic design, David F. Weiner; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Mia Bane Jacobs; sound, Rachel Le Vine
Playing through September 27; Thursday through Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 858-598-7620.

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