The Last Session is a musical that overcomes an uninspired, predictable story line with solid songs and a vibrant production. Originally staged off Broadway in 1997, it tells the story of Gideon (Gary Waldman), a singer/songwriter who's given up his fight with AIDS. All that's left to do is down a shot glass full of pills and finish an unconventional suicide note, a musical recording to be left to his partner, Jack. This is one day in a Los Angeles recording studio with Gideon and his not-clued-in friends creating his final work. But wait! There's the X factor. One singer doesn't show, and he's replaced by Buddy (Dean Swann), a country-comes-to-town Baptist who -- like every off-the-shelf Bible thumper -- is uncomfortable with homosexuals and can't see shades of gray. Needless to say, friction ensues with a handful of unoriginal exchanges about what is truly sin and whether anybody can judge anybody else. Just when things can't seem to get more banal, Buddy and Gideon find common ground and, aw-shucks, the suicide plan becomes less certain. Fortunately, this is a funny show. Some laughs are had with Buddy's naiveté, but the best lines come from Tryshia's (Lyrehc Jordan) and Vicki's (Jeanne Lynn Gray) steady bickering. Overall, the acting is good enough to sell the jokes. The play's obvious strength lies in Steve Schalchlin's gospel-pop songs, which are in good hands. The Last Session may be heavy-handed, but there's so much rhythm and zeal that it's hard not to get caught up in it. (Through June 19 at Hollywood Playhouse, 2640 Washington St., Hollywood. Call 800-655-1773.)
The Good German: David Wiltse's 2003 drama about a German couple who shelter a Jewish publisher during the Hitler era features plenty of articulate debate about prejudice and personal responsibility, but all the talk never results in dramatic fire. Louis Tyrrell's production is solid if not stellar, with a skilled acting ensemble backed by a production design of somber earth tones. The result is appropriately Germanic -- thoughtful, solid, and rather dull. (Through June 12 by Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd, Manalapan. Call 561-585-3433 or 800-514-3837.)
Lips Together, Teeth Apart: Terrence McNally's 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart invites you to wander through the body-strewn battlefield of the early war on AIDS. Sally and Sam (Patti Gardner and Oscar Cheda) find themselves spending Fourth of July at the beach house willed to Sally by her recently dead younger brother, David. Sam's sister Chloe and her husband, John (Angie Radosh and Gordon McConnell), are along for the ride. As you'd expect, the play's four characters have packed along their own secrets from musty hetero closets. To really understand the play, you must hear from not just four characters but five. The fifth is the play's setting -- Fire Island, where a vacation is like spending time in a gay oxygen tent without much to do except swim, eat, party, and have sex (not necessarily in that order). (Through June 5 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Call 561-514-4042.)
The Pull of Negative Gravity: Jonathan Lichtenstein's play is a here-and-now weighing-in on the Iraq War. It's a soldier-coming-home story set in Wales, which, as part of the United Kingdom, is part of this bloody war too. "Bringing home" is the key phrase here, and the play's "home" is the hilly Williams family farm, where brothers Rhys and Dai and their mum, Vi, struggle to ward off creditors. The boys flip a coin to decide who joins the Army and who stays behind to manage the farm. The loser is Dai, who also leaves fiancé Bethan as he heads off to fight Tony Blair's war. For Bethan, life waiting is further complicated by infidelity with Rhys and her nursing job at the nearby Army hospital caring for burn-injured soldiers. "I want to hold them with my voice," she says of the burnt men she dare not touch. But what will Dai's face be like when he returns? Performances by all four are heartfelt, but the play leaves you hungry for more insight not just about the pain of the returning wounded but about the pain of those still over there fighting. (Through June 5 at the Mosaic Theatre American Heritage Center for the Arts, 12200 W. Broward Blvd., Bldg. 3000, Plantation. Call 954-577-8243.)
House and Garden: Alan Ayckbourn's two comedies share one large cast of characters and myriad plot lines, including failed marriages, adultery, and other romantic permutations. One play is set in an English country house, the other in the adjacent garden, and all must run in perfect synchronization: An exit in one show means an immediate entrance into the other. House's superior comedic plot is quite entertaining, but Garden's is rather soggy. Although performances range widely in caliber, Gary Marachek shines in his role as a philandering country squire. (Through June 5 at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Call 305-444-9293.)
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