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Stage Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 Anna in the Tropics In this show, the heat's on right from the beginning. Awaiting the new "lector" who's been hired to read to them while they roll cigars, three women daub their faces and wipe the sweat from their necks during the Gulf summer of 1929. Reading great novels "with gusto" to the factory workers passes the time and relieves the drudgery. Unfortunately, it also awakens desires and gives them ideas. When the book happens to be Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's classic tale of adulterous passions in ice-cold Russia, we know there's trouble ahead. Author Nilo Cruz doesn't disappoint, but he doesn't surprise either. In arch, overripe dialogue, the characters spout such hothouse poetry, the play drips with Floridian humidity. However, it's all rather artificial -- Cruz's language is top-heavy, and it can't support his predictable plot. Ilich Guardiola, as new lector Juan Julian, looks smoldering in his Panama hat and white linen suit, but there's no natural heat emanating from him. We must take on faith the effect his words -- and Tolstoy's -- have upon Conchita (Laura Kaldis), unhappy wife of cheating husband Palomo (Joel Sandel). And though sleek in her sundresses, Kaldis plays too prim and proper to be so quickly thawed by Juan's seductive words. Matriarch Ofelia's dialogue is inappropriately rich and evocative. It doesn't suit her any more than it suits any of the other characters, but Luisa Amaral-Smith endows her with earthy bedrock. Strong and resolute, she anchors the family and the drama with a natural fire. She's the most real of them all, and the drama brightens considerably whenever she's around. Through April 15. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.

Corpus Christi Unhinged Productions presents a play that, in 1998, inspired both American Catholic condemnation and a London-based Islamic fatwa -- it was pronounced blasphemous before either group read or saw it. But Terrence McNally's gay-based life-of-Christ tale is far from being either controversial or sacrilegious. It's no more threatening to one's salvation than Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, and not nearly as entertaining or inherently heartfelt. This is the hoariest of gay "coming out" stories. Set in Texas, it's given a superficial Biblical gloss for distinction and, perhaps, publicity value -- publicity the play received in spades when it opened off-Broadway, along with screaming protesters, metal detectors at the theater's doors and cover stories in the New York press. Unfortunately, the hype had more heft than McNally's little dramedy, which is deflated and flabby. It's also tasteless, which isn't a McNally trait (he wrote Master Class; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; and Lisbon Traviata), queasily weaving sentimental pageant-play religiosity with bits of profane contemporary gay life and the lowest vaudeville shtick. During the Crucifixion, one of the Roman executioners hits his thumb with the hammer as he drives the nails into Christ. It's a jaw-droppingly awful moment, and the audience reacted in appropriately stunned silence, with one lone nervous twitter. Except for Nicholas Lewis as a suave, sexy Judas, the cast is adrift trying to match the correct tone to the mismatched skits -- if, in fact, there is any right way to play this jumble of Holy Writ and Castro Street. McNally's universal plea for gay tolerance and brotherly love, old hat for sure, is nonetheless sincere, but glibly using Jesus and his disciples as poster boys demeans His message for everyone. Through April 21. Silver House Theatre, 1107 Chartres, 713-547-0126.

The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams's first success on Broadway contained the central themes that would define his idiosyncratic work throughout his entire career: Dreams turn out to be crippling illusions, while sensitive loners are doomed to defeat by insensitive, brute males. The palette in his 1945 "memory play" is softer and the gay subtext subtler, but by no means is the resolution any less harsh and unforgiving. Tom (Tom Long), breadwinner for his failed Southern family, aches to break the strangling hold of his mother Amanda (Helen Myers), whose charms are pinned to the past like a faded corsage. His sister Laura (Kay Allmand), fragile as one of her beloved glass figurines, is pathologically inept, suffering under Amanda's shadow. Tom, for now at least, finds solace with "companions" at the movies, but Laura's fulfillment -- according to her mother -- lies in the futile hope that a "gentleman caller" (Bill Diggle) will come to the rescue. Myers gives Amanda a backbone of steel under the crinolines, but she's trapped in Act II under a comically inappropriate cotillion dress that erases her character instead of enhancing it. Long gives a defining portrait of the conflicted brother unable to save his pathetic sister from life's free fall. Diggle's breezy "caller" -- all the more heartbreaking because he's no real brute -- becomes the inadvertent destroyer of illusions. Tom escapes his past, but can never forget it, and Williams's haunting play is one that swirls in your head long after you've seen it. Through April 14. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573.

The Most Lamentable & Tragick Tragiful Tragedy of the Ambassadors (A Tragedy of Tragical Proportions) If the title of Nova Arts Project's latest production strikes you as the height of comedy, you'll probably like this "improvised," communally written and staged Commedia dell'Arte. If, however, you find the title unbearably fey and witless, you're more likely to find this free-spirited romp tiresome and unworthy of the newest theater group in town. This over-the-top farce really belongs in the category of masturbatory theater -- that self-involved, indulgent breed that's a lot more fun to perform than to watch. The actors -- inmates running the asylum, if you will -- are unfettered with such mundane theatrical devices as a script or, God forbid, a director. They seem pretty much on their own as they attempt to bring roustabout Renaissance theater up to speed and in our face. Modeled on classic types from the Commedia, such as wily Pantalone, dirty old man Doctor, shrewish wife, abased husband, etc., the characters have been thrown into the stew without much of a recipe. It's such a free-for-all, anything-goes type of play -- two young lovers travel to the enemy country to seek peace -- that you know it's not going anywhere. Bernardo Cubria and Pablo Duran Rojas instinctively make the most out of the outrageous situations, but Cubria (recently so incandescent in Burn This) disappears after the initial scenes, leaving a void none of the others completely fill. Talking back to the performers is encouraged, as are singing along and dancing. "Theater nap time is over," says their "audience behavior permission slip." Beer drinking is supported. I suggest a six-pack. Through April 15. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-623-4033.

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