The Clean House. Hot young playwright Sarah Ruhl is on a roll. Still only in her mid-30s, she has won a MacArthur Genius Award; her recent production of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), produced at Berkeley Rep, is about to open on Broadway; and this play, The Clean House, was a 2005 Pulitzer finalist. She deserves all the accolades — her writing feels fresh, entertaining, and important. The Clean House covers a lot of ground, delving into the complex relationships among sisters, lovers, and even the hired help. Carolyn Power is dynamite as Ana, the Argentine whirlwind who enters the somewhat unhappy and stuck lives of the other characters. There's a touch of South American magical realism and Jewish mysticism at work here as they tap into their deeper longings. It takes a delicate balance and commitment to make this script work, and certain amateurish acting choices and production values threaten to undermine it at times. But Ruhl's writing accesses some beautiful and profound places in the heart, and that shines through in this production. Through Oct. 24 at Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster ), S.F. $15-$25; 510-420-0813 or www.womanswill.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 14.
First Day of School. In Billy Aronson's raucous comedy — making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse — well-to-do parents attend to their six-year-old children's prospects with a ferocity arising from barely repressed sexual frustration. We've seen this before, but Aronson adds an ingenious twist: His soccer moms and dads end up planning an annual swingers' party that feels less like a gangbang than a slightly off-kilter PTA function. Unfortunately, as with too many farces, the setup is more involving than the chaos that follows; the carefully modulated tone of the first act can't be sustained throughout the sexual shenanigans of the second and third. Still, the playwright offers a few dazzling speeches for his characters along the way, and all of the actors in director Chris Smith's sharp production relish the intense cleverness of the play's smartest passages. It's too bad that Aronson felt the need to include a blandly comforting ending — at its best, First Day of School is pretty devilish stuff, and it deserves a conclusion with more ironic punch. None of this is to say that you shouldn't see it. An ambitious new comedy is always worth checking out, even if its rewards don't quite negate its shortcomings. Through Nov. 7 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $40; 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Oct. 14.
South Pacific. There are so many wonderful songs in South Pacific that it's almost impossible to experience a revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1949 musical set on an exotic island during World War II without humming along and tapping your feet. The national tour of the 2008 Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher in some ways provides the perfect setting for maximum enjoyment of hits like "Bali Ha'i," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Happy Talk," "Younger than Springtime," and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy." Set designer Michael Yeargen's simple, almost dowdy-looking island backdrops, Catherine Zuber's period costumes, and Donald Holder's warm, sunset-tinted lighting design are all calibrated to create a balmy, old-fashioned atmosphere without upstaging the music and performers. There are no complicated or flashy scenic effects. Unfortunately, the audience's enjoyment of the singing is hampered by two major details: fussy, extraneous movement by background characters during the production numbers and a lack of any really strong voices onstage. Through Oct. 25 at Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), S.F. $30-$99; 512-7770 or www.shnsf.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 30.
Under the Gypsy Moon. Storylines don't really matter in a Teatro ZinZanni production; they just provide a loose framework for the circuslike acts everyone comes to see while they enjoy a fancy five-course meal. In the group's latest three-hour show, the Spiegeltent is invaded by thieving gypsies (so much for political correctness), who, in addition to being skilled swindlers, are also (surprise) skilled blues singers, jugglers, and acrobats. As one would expect, the trapeze work is impressive, especially the comic rope-play by Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr, who manage to fall over themselves without falling down. The evening's most satisfying moments, however, happen on the ground. A juggling number set to Prince's "Kiss" is simple but delightful, and Mat Plendl dazzled the audience with his mastery of the hula hoop. Unfortunately, too many of the cabaret's comedy bits are lame. Punny punchlines delivered by a Henny Youngman-like character played by Geoff Hoyle (the original Zazu in the Broadway production of The Lion King) are especially groan-inducing. Those cheesy moments leave a bad taste in your mouth, as does some of the food, which is passable but not stellar. While Under the Gypsy Moon does deliver some magical moments, unless you've got a lot of disposable cash, it's an evening perhaps best left to the tourists to enjoy. Through Jan. 17 at the Spiegeltent, Pier 29 (at Battery), S.F. $117-$195; 438-2668 or www.zinzanni.org. (Will Harper) Reviewed Sept. 30.
Bald Soprano: Eugène Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece about dinner. Starting Oct. 23, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through Nov. 22. Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 931-3847, www.sffringe.org.
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.; Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m.; Fridays, 6:30 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.
Brain-Dead Alive: The Primitive Screwheads bring the blood. Sat., Oct. 24; Thu., Oct. 29; Fri., Oct. 30; Sat., Oct. 31. Great Star Theater, 630 Jackson (at Kearny).
Breve: An abbreviated version of Under the Gypsy Moon, for lunch. Saturdays. Continues through Nov. 21, $73-$94. Teatro ZinZanni, Piers 27 and 29 (Embarcadero & Battery), 438-2668, www.zinzanni.org.