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Stage Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Burn This Playing one of the most incendiary, original characters in modern drama, Pale in Lanford Wilson's 1987 oddball romance drama, Bernardo Cubria sets Silver House Theatre's small stage afire. Let's hope Unhinged Productions carries insurance. Cubria lights up the place and the overwrought script with a blazing characterization that borders on the sublime. There's so much life in Pale, such volatile conflict and raw emotion, that he immediately fascinates and mesmerizes, not that we'd ever want to meet him when drunk or after a few lines of blow. He sucks all the air out of the room and leaves you breathless -- and charred. He also frightens Anna (Jennifer Farley), who's in mourning for her dead gay roommate, Pale's younger brother, as well as in mourning for her inability to have a life. These two, of course, are destined for each other, even though Anna repeats her mantra, "I don't want this," while edging closer to Pale. Two others are entwined in Wilson's heated but circuitous pas de quatre: Anna's rich, spoiled boyfriend Burton (Mat Boudreaux) and her bitchy other roommate, gay Larry (Christopher C. Conway). All four are clueless in regards to making satisfactory connections, and the more they try, the deeper they are mired in grief and loss, which is mandatory Wilson territory (Hot L Baltimore, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly). But no matter how life keeps these sad, desperate people adrift without a harbor, far out on the horizon gleams a small beacon called hope. It may be elusive; it may also be a mirage; but for Anna and Pale, it's a lifeline. And for us, there's always Cubria, who burns as bright as any acetylene torch. Through March 10. 1107 Chartres Street, 713-547-0126.

Fools Neil Simon's comic fable was a big fat flop when it appeared on Broadway in 1981 and ran for 40 performances. Although apparently written in his sleep and savaged by critics, this tissue-paper-thin little comedy has plenty of Borscht Belt charm and Catskills know-how in its incessant one-liners, easy-on-the-brain story and characters whose main purpose is to be stupid. What's easier for the master of comedy than put-downs? Leon (Kevin Dean) is the new head schoolmaster in the remote Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. Eager and earnest about his job, he has stumbled into a place that's been cursed with stupidity for 200 years. The shepherd (Cliff House) constantly loses his sheep; the butcher (Ric Hodgin) sweeps dirt into his house; the doctor (Orlando Arriaga) offers up any prescription because "some people like prescriptions"; the postman (Chip Simmons) can never find the right address. Leon discovers he has 24 hours to lift the curse -- which entails the lovely but dumb-as-a-stump doctor's daughter Sophia (Jessica Lewis), with whom he's fallen hopelessly in love, and the pompous Count (Jeffrey McMorrough), who proposes to Sophia twice a day. Pitfalls and verbal pratfalls hound Leon in his quest to educate the girl, but this being simple Simon, the outcome's never in doubt; nor could it be, or this fragile comedy would blow away. A.D. Players, under Marion Arthur Kirby's snappy direction, plays this vaudeville as if it were vintage Sid Caesar, which adds a sprightly and soothing naturalness to the time-worn routines. If exchanges like the following set you aglow, you'll find Simon's merry Russian village much to your liking -- Sophia: "Would you like to kiss me?" Leon: "With all of my heart." Sophia: "No, I mean with your lips." Through March 18. Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Interior Roach (Philip Hays) hunches on his thin futon, flipping pages of his diary but not reading. He stares into the void in his sterile, white-tiled underground bunker. He sleeps fitfully. He eats powdered food out of plastic bags. He plays chess against himself and is jubilant when he wins. He sprays his reading lamp with astringent when he feels dust, then sprays his hands afterward, when not wearing medical gloves. Time goes by in fleeting little scenes. He checks his scanner for evidence of noise from above. Through the static, is that a voice? Supplies low, Roach is running out of time. The water tastes metallic. Maybe the filter's gone bad. He confesses to us his hopes, fears and growing paranoia. He may be the lone survivor of some holocaust above. He sees bugs. He rants at the scanner to talk to him. Then a bang from below, and in a grand coup de théâtre, his hallucinations materialize through the floor tiles as the Intruder (Salvador Chavez) -- or the Intruder's head -- pops out to confront him. "Come on, man," the disembodied head needles Roach. "Pull it together, work with me. What specifically is causing your problem?" Needless to say, Roach freaks out. "I think I'm losing my mind," he says presciently. "Maybe I should have built a spaceship." Later, the provocative head pops up again to ask what's real, while the voice on the scanner becomes more distinct. People have survived up above, but they need his help -- and his food, for the sick. We wait for the head to reappear, but Roach fades into helpless, hopeless insanity before that happens. Playwright Clinton Hopper channels Rod Serling's Twilight Zone for this one-acter from Nova Arts Project, but whether Serling would ever have written in a sassy head from the basement is a more pressing question than what happens to crazy Roach in his bunker. Through March 10. Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 713-623-4033.

Valhalla "I believe that the world should be beautiful." No, that's not Blanche DuBois sighing so plaintively -- it's mad, gay King Ludwig of Bavaria (Godfrey Plata) pleading for not only beauty, but lots more gold lamé, in Paul Rudnick's politically incorrect phantasmagoria, presently on delightful view thanks to Joe Watts's Theatre New West. In Rudnick's madcap whirl, Ludwig isn't really mad, but my, oh my, is he gay. The terribly misunderstood king goes from dreaming of castles in the air to actually building them. "You're no good at reality; go mad," he's advised by hunchbacked princess Sophie (Beth DeLozier), who then offhandedly adds, "I wish I could shrug." Parallel to Ludwig's witty, wicked story is that of James (the ultra-smooth Houston Hayes), a gay boy from small-town Texas who dreams of "out there," a place to find happiness. While his sexual adventures include true love Henry Lee (John Dunn) and a pre-wedding fling with Henry's fiancée, James reaches an apotheosis on army patrol at Neuschwanstein, Ludwig's rococo wet-dream of a castle. Underscored by the radiant operatic strains of Wagner (although smoother sound mixing would immensely enhance the mood), the two men's tales coalesce in a grand fantasy where a modern yenta tour guide (Holly Wilkison) yammers hilariously about Ludwig's plush, erotic subterranean surroundings as "Bed, Bath and Beyond." The young, talented cast of six (including Michael Shukis) plays with effortless guile. Realize your dreams, says Rudnick. No matter how nuts they may seem to others, they're the only road to happiness. It's a premise that holds true for anyone, not just mad kings and sexy bad boys from Texas. Through March 31. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-522-2204

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