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Barefoot in the Park Neil Simon's spectacularly successful 1963 Broadway comedy has a winning mixture of showbiz savvy and youthful exuberance. He writes with a Midas touch. Married six days, stodgy Paul (Houston Hayes) and irrepressible Corie (Kelly Walker) awaken from their honeymoon daze to discover bumps on what they assumed would be their golden road of happiness. That they trip over innocuous obstacles is part of the fun. Their fifth-floor walkup and the breathlessness caused by the climb garner genuine laughs, as does Corie's widowed mom (Zona Jane Meyer), whose propriety dissolves in the presence of rapscallion bohemian neighbor Victor (Robert Lowe). This is an absolute pleasure of a romantic comedy, fresh and youthful, yet knowing and wise. Hayes and Meyer deliver knockout comedy performances with spirited nuance and presence, and Lowe brings the aging rou#&142; to rousing life. Making her Houston stage debut, Walker could use a bit more screwball as counter to stuffed-shirt Paul -- she's more Long Island than Greenwich Village -- but she comes into her own during the "drunk scene" and is adorably feisty during their ensuing fight. Directed by Lisa Schofield, who knows when to play the scenes for laughs and when to play the scenes for more laughs, this production at Country Playhouse is a sprightly rendition of a comedy classic. Through October 1. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

The Fantasticks Nine U.S. presidents have come and gone since Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) created this simple little off-Broadway musical, which opened in 1960. The critics were unkind to The Fantasticks, an intimate anti-musical with play-acting dramatics, minimum production values, no stars, an orchestra of piano and harp, no chorus line, a ton of whimsy and fey poetry, and a story that boiled down to a proto-hippie mantra: Without a hurt, the heart is hollow. The producer was so disappointed that he wanted to close the show after the first week, but he kept it open. It would go on to play for 42 years. A revival opened in NYC last month. This musical refuses to go away. While its best numbers are now considered standards ("Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "Try to Remember"), the entire score is a lot livelier than the second-rate book or pseudo-sentimental lyrics. It's sweet and gooey with faux simplicity that grates on the brain, but the show gets a lot more interesting in Act II when the young protagonists, so crazy in love in the first act, discover disillusionment and seek worldly pleasures on their own in the big bad world. With a picturesque, high-gloss production set in a traveling circus, Texas Repertory Theatre Co. makes this treacle palatable and immensely watchable. The overall design is reason enough to see it, as is the ace direction by Craig A. Miller, but the real attraction is the dandy ensemble cast who give their all, pretending this schlock is on a par with Oklahoma or Gypsy. Now that's acting. Through September 30. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573.

The Normal Heart Larry Kramer's prescient novel Faggots, published in 1978, graphically detailed -- and railed against -- the hedonistic gay scene of New York City during the era, with its soulless, disease-spreading anonymous sex. He received death threats; his best friends turned against him; the nascent gay press condemned him; and NYC's lone gay bookstore banned the book. Kramer's unofficial title is "Angriest Gay Man in America," and his semiautobiographical play The Normal Heart, which premiered in 1985, is his revenge -- and his testament. Though not the first in the subgenre of gay theater known as AIDS plays (that would probably be Jeffrey Hagedorn's 1983 one-acter One), Heart is certifiably the best. A primer on the physical and emotional beginnings of AIDS, the story is imbued with paint-blistering condemnation, righteous anger and bitchy humor. Theatre New West's production, under the stylish and prudent direction of Joe Watts, is everything Kramer's drama aims to be, and then some. The play builds inexorably, so that the final scene, the quiet hospital-bedside wedding between protagonist Ned (Steve Bullitt) and dying partner Felix (Joseph Zoellers), becomes overwhelming -- the distillation of all that's come before. It has showstopping (and heart-stopping) impact. The production is marvelously cast with an acting dream team. Bullitt's self-effacing dignity grounds them all. Through September 30. Bering & James Gallery, 805 Rhoda. For tickets, call Theatre New West, 713-522-2204.

The Trip to Bountiful It's exhilarating -- not to mention rare -- to watch an artist at the peak of her form. Jeannette Clift George, playing Carrie Watts in Horton Foote's beguiling drama, sets the bar at Olympian heights for the entire cast of this production. Foote's gentle, impressionistic play is a mighty fine work that oozes humanity, compassion and humility. It's also an ideal vehicle for an actress of a certain age; even better, in this stirring production from A.D. Players, George is surrounded by an incomparable cast of younger actors who shine even brighter in the light she radiates. Carrie Watts, emotionally stifled in the small drab Houston apartment she must share with her beaten-down, drab son (Ric Hodgin) and his controlling, conventional wife (Luisa Amaral-Smith), has one obsession that has kept her going: She wants to "go home" to visit her family's Gulf Coast farm in Bountiful. That dream, along with the family dynamic, is about all there is to the play, but Foote fills the scenes to overflowing with the drama of everyday life and its quotidian disappointments, as well as its joys and simple pleasures. You need only hear George fervently recite the 91st Psalm to a young bride, separated from her husband, who she meets on the bus -- "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust" -- to know we're in the presence of a distinctive, mesmerizing stage presence. What Foote doesn't supply, George shows. And her co-stars Hodgin, Amaral-Smith and Christy Watkins, as the young woman on the bus, portray their very real characters in lifelike relief. Director Sissy Pulley, assisted by Jeff LaPrad's sets, Patty Tuel Bailey's costumes and Lee Walker's lighting, supplies the vivid atmosphere that allows these fine artists room to live. And that produces theater at its best. Through October 15. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

 
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