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Pot o' Gold

Riches await Houston theatergoers

December might have been the gloomiest time of the year for theater, but good things come to those who wait. Just look at the stunning lineup of plays that will be offered all across the Bayou City in the coming season. In fact, each and every month offers at least one exhilarating reason to buy a ticket to the theater.

Haunting the long, dark nights of January will be Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten at the Alley Theatre. The gorgeously titled play will feature the mighty James Black as James Tyrone Jr., a failed alcoholic actor, and Annalee Jeffries as Josie, his powerful workhorse of a tenant. The aching, very grown-up love story takes place one lonely moonlit night and leads to the sort of poetic heartbreak that only a writer of O'Neill's caliber can dream of. If this production is as good as its pedigree of actors and script promises, it just might be the theatrical event of the entire season.

A February feature comes from the folks at Main Street Theater, who are bringing Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul to Houston. The play that left Ben Brantley of The New York Times "stirred, frightened and consoled at the same time" takes place in 1998, before the events of 9/11. But its prescient politics swirl around a bored English housewife who runs off to Afghanistan after reading an out-of-date travel book. When she disappears into a world she never imagined, her family goes looking for her in strange country where they confront their own identities. Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his ambitious Angels in America, manages to be lyric, profoundly emotional and deeply political all at once. And he's apparently a bit of a psychic, as he wrote the first drafts of this play well before the events of 9/11 made us all aware of the dangers of the Taliban.

Grown-up love story: Moon for the Misbegotten, with Annalee Jeffries and James Black.
Joel P. Johnson
Grown-up love story: Moon for the Misbegotten, with Annalee Jeffries and James Black.

Opening in March will be August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone at The Ensemble. Wilson borrowed his title from an old blues song by the same name. Joe Turner, it turns out, was a vicious Southern planter who illegally enslaved blacks during the early part of the 20th century. Wilson's epic tale focuses on Harold Loomis, a stranger from the South who shows up in a Pittsburgh boarding house, searching for his long-lost wife. Rightfully embittered by his past, the angry man is prone to strange fits. Loomis makes everyone around him nervous, and that includes a large cast of characters representing much of Philadelphia life in the 1910s. This drama is one of the most powerful of Wilson's historical cycle of plays that examine African-American identity during each decade of the 20th century, and Wilson's writing is -- as always -- glorious.

Happily, April will certainly not be the cruelest month this year -- at least, not for theater buffs. Stages premieres Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife in H-Town. The one-man show, which won the 2004 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, will star the luminous Philip Lehl as a German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf who survived both the Nazis and the Communists. The Village Voice called the "beauty" of Wright's script "extraordinary" mostly because Wright does such an astonishing job at capturing the paradoxes of von Mahlsdorf's survival. Wright appears as a character in his own script, and during the play he realizes that Charlotte's story doesn't always add up. It is the space between truth and survival, the gray morality of the real world that Wright captures so completely in this story. And since no actor in Houston does a better job than Philip Lehl at inhabiting the odd dualities of life -- that might include a man who loves to dress as a woman -- we all should be ordering tickets today.

May winds up the season with two terrific shows. From Theater Under The Stars comes Monty Python's Spamalot, the hysterical musical that not only rips on the Arthurian Legend but also Broadway itself. Anyone who's seen a Monty Python film needs no further explanation. Down the street, the Alley brings us the regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl's award-winning The Clean House. About a Brazilian maid who hates to clean but loves comedy and two neurotic sisters who are obsessed with order, the play is whimsically absurd and strange. Matilde, the maid, who believes that "if the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling," searches for the perfect joke, while her boss deals with an errant husband who leaves her for a dying woman. Lauded by The New York Times as "a provocative new theatrical voice," Ruhl won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the script, and she was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Most impressive of all, the playwright is still in her early thirties.

There are other interesting shows coming up in the winter/spring season, including a brand-new script called Rot from local playwright John Harvey produced by Mildred's Umbrella and Bobbindoctrin, a production of Eugene Ionesco's The Killing Game from Infernal Bridegroom Productions, and several presentations of Suzan-Lori Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays, a year-long series of very experimental short plays Parks wrote in 2002. Look in this space next week for more on this innovative festival.

 
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