Helluva Night: No Exit and Tape. This is one lopsided double bill. Expression Productions' Helluva Night offers two plays that have almost nothing in common in treatment or tone; the only vague similarity is that each offers a vision of something like hell, where remorse is pretty much meaningless. Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit is the better-known of the two, but here it suffers from broad performances and sluggish pacing. Avoid it. Stephen Belber's Tape, however, is gripping stuff. Set in a grimy Motel 6 in Lansing, Michigan, the play concerns a burnt-out drug dealer (Tim Meehan) who secretly records his friend (Don Keenan) confessing to date rape, then calls up the victim (Melissa O'Keefe) for an impromptu reunion. Tense, funny, and unpredictable, the play benefits from a pair of beautifully realized performances. Meehan is hilarious and a little heartbreaking as a stoner out of his depth; O'Keefe is even better, the sort of actress who can command attention with a smirk. They're well served by a clever, insightful script that packs a fair number of reversals within its 60-minute running time. That maybe doesn't qualify as a "helluva night," but at least it's one hell of a one-act. Through Aug. 15 at Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa (at Harrison), S.F. $25 per show, $40 double bill; 621-8277 or www.helluvanightsf.com. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed July 29.
Maidrid's Bow. In this quirky and amusing fantasy, heterosexual couples have to fear the wrath of a society that believes the sexes should mix only once a year. It's a world inspired by Amazon lore, where women are warriors and men swoon at fine jewelry. Playwright Morgan Ludlow and the cast and crew do a good job of setting up the aura and rules of this world — perhaps a little too good, as much of the show's two and a half hours are taken up explaining all the details of how this society works rather than on the developing relationship between the hotheaded Maidrid and her wistful suitor, Fars. Yet there is still much to enjoy, including beautiful masks and costumes created by Elise Barley and a delightfully hammy performance from Jason Jeremy as the local soothsayer, Mighty Magora. Even as we titter at the bizarre local customs, such as the mating dance performed the only time the sexes are allowed to intermingle, they also serve as a sly reminder of the bizarreness of some of our own laws about which people can marry and which can't. Through Aug. 9 at Stage Werx, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $12-$24; 302-9182 or www.maidridsbow.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed July 29.
Now and at the Hour. Calling it just a "magic show" doesn't seem quite right. Christian Cagigal's Now and at the Hour is part sleight of hand, part personal revelation, and part straight-up creepiness. Some magicians look and behave as if they belong on used-car lots, but not Cagigal — he's rumpled and affable, and it's a pleasure to let him snow you. At a recent performance, he chose me to participate in his first trick, a mind-reading exercise in which he seemed to pluck a fairly random and startlingly specific memory from my brain. I don't know how he managed to do it, but the appearance of occult powers was strong enough to leave me feeling unsettled and slightly violated for the rest of the evening. Between each bit of magic, he tells stories of growing up with his father, a Vietnam vet who suffered from schizophrenia; by show's end, you get the sense that learning the art of illusion was young Cagigal's way of exerting power over a messy reality. Magic is a lonely discipline, full of secrets — but here, at least, is a performer who managed to put all of his childhood loneliness to thrilling use. Through Aug. 15 at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), S.F. $15-$25; 673-3847 or www.sffringe.org. (C. J.) Reviewed July 8.
The Unexpected Man. "Bitter" may be the first word spoken in Yasmina Reza's ruefully comic strangers-on-a-train duet, but the lasting aura is of disarming geniality. Reza's text, as translated from the French with characteristic mellifluousness by Christopher Hampton, makes superb fodder for Spare Stage cofounder Stephen Drewes' mission-specific presentation: All it requires are two people, two benches, and two pools of light. He is a weary, aged novelist, and the author of the book she happens to have in her purse; she is the thoughtful, loyal reader he's always wanted and never really expected. En route from Paris to Frankfurt, they take turns talking to themselves, spilling banalities and profundities alike from parallel streams of consciousness, and we wait for the golden moment when finally they'll talk to each other. Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, both quite obvious veterans of intimate dramatic simplicity, make as much with silent moments as they do with their respective inner-life soliloquies. Their choices seem singular and organic enough to elasticize the play's conceptual austerity. Bitter it isn't, but instead highly gratifying — both a literary and a theatrical affirmation. Through Aug. 15 at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), S.F. $20-$30; 673-3847 or www.sparestage.com. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed July 29.
A View from the Bridge. A View from the Bridge is the most Greek of Arthur Miller's tragedies, featuring an intractable hero (Richard Harder) whose hubris lies in the delusion that his house is his castle — a delusion that leads only to jealousy, betrayal, and revenge. Off Broadway West has a tendency to select large ensemble dramas that exceed the depth of the company's ensembles; as a result, its productions always offer a few strong lead performances accompanied by much weaker supporting casts. This is especially problematic in a high-tension drama requiring a fair amount of dialect work, since even the strongest moments tend to falter when the wrong performer stumbles onto the scene. The company (now in its third season) might make better use of its obviously limited resources by choosing plays with smaller casts, giving dynamite actors like Harder more of a chance to control the stage. It might even be a good idea to let Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, and Tennessee Williams fend for themselves, and opt instead for more contemporary scripts by lesser-known playwrights. That's how Off Broadway West can begin making a more vital contribution — and avoid the risk of becoming just another middle-of-the-road community theater. Through Aug. 22 at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), S.F. $30; 510-835-4205 or www.offbroadwaywest.org. (C.J.) Reviewed July 22.
Aaron Trotter and the Incident at Bikini Beach: The Thunderbird Theatre Company catches a wave. Mondays, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 15. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 931-3847, www.theexit.org.
August: Osage County: Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize–winning drama. Starting Aug. 11, Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Sept. 6. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Taylor), 551-2000, www.curran-theater.com/.
BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage. Sundays, 7 p.m., $5-$8, www.improv.org. Bayfront Theater, 16 Marina (at Laguna), 474-6776, www.improv.org/shows/bayfront.htm.
Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. Now with Rod Blagojevich! Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m., $25-$80, www.beachblanketbabylon.com. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.
Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15-$20, www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100, www.sheltontheater.com.
East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player: Don Reed's solo show about growing up in Oakland. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 30. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.
Ecstasy: A Water Fable: Denmo Ibrahim's adaptation of a Sufi fable. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 16, www.goldenthread.org. The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Post), 989-0023, www.phoenixtheatresf.org.
The Grapes of Wrath: Starting Aug. 7, Wednesdays-Saturdays. Continues through Sept. 12. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Taylor), 345-1287, www.actorstheatresf.org.
Grease: The Young People's Teen Musical Theatre goes to Rydell High. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 9. Randall Museum, 199 Museum (at Roosevelt), 554-9600, www.randallmuseum.org.
habeas corpus: Original work by the Real Kim Harmon Performance Collective. Through Aug. 8, 8 p.m., $15-$20. Mama Calizo's Voice Factory, 1519 Mission (at Van Ness), 690-9410, www.voicefactorysf.org.
Deano's Rat Pack Tribute: J'Lachic Productions brings back the Rat Pack. Aug. 7-8. Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (at Embarcadero), 433-3939, www.theatre39-sf.com.
James Judd's Whoop Click!: A mix of comedy, theater, and variety show, with rotating guests every week. Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through Aug. 22, $20, brownpapertickets.com/event/70440. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987, www.darkroomsf.com.
Lady of the 'Loin: Don Seaver and Sean Owens' ode to the TL. Through Aug. 15, 9 p.m., $15. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 931-3847, www.theexit.org.
Monday Night Marsh: On select Mondays a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others takes the stage at this regular event that's hosted local celebs like Josh Kornbluth and Marga Gomez in the past; see www.themarsh.org for a lineup of future shows. Mondays, $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.
Not a Genuine Black Man: Brian Copeland's long-running drama about San Leandro. Through Aug. 23. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 820-1656, www.cafearts.com.
Only the Truth Is Funny: Rick Reynolds'one-man show. Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through Aug. 30. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.
Pearls Over Shanghai: Thrillpeddlers brings back the Cockettes. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through Sept. 20, $30. The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 377-4202, www.thrillpeddlers.com.
Putting It Together: A revue of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Continues through Aug. 8. The Custom Stage, 965 Mission (at Sixth St.), www.custommade.org.
Rent Boy Ave.: A Fairy's Tale: Nick Olivero retells Hansel and Gretel in an urban rock fairy tale. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 9. Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Sixth St.), 776-1747, www.boxcartheatre.org.
South Pathetic: Jim David's comedy about directing. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 23. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.
Sultry Summer Magic: Teatro ZinZanni's new show features a rotating crew of headliners during the run, including Melanie Stace, Edna Wright and Honey Cone, Melba Moore, Sally Kellerman, and Darlene Love. Wednesdays-Sundays, $117-$200, 438-2668. Teatro ZinZanni, Piers 27 and 29 (Embarcadero & Battery), www.zinzanni.org.
Uptown, Downtown, Motown Madness!: Musical celebrating Motown's 50th anniversary. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through Aug. 28. Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (at Embarcadero), 433-3939, www.theatre39-sf.com.
Wicked: Meet the witches of Oz. Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Sept. 27. Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 551-2000.