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Capsule Stage Reviews: Ashes to Africa, The Heiress, Time of My Life, The Wedding Singer, You Can't Take It With You

Ashes to Africa Everything from death to sexual dysfunction troubles the Henderson family. Grandma's about to kick it, Mom's overworked, Dad's got his nose in girly mags and Junior's hooked on video games. Such are the family struggles in Mark Clayton Southers's sitcom-style Ashes to Africa, now on the boards at The Ensemble Theatre. These poor women don't get any breaks. Carrying most of the burden is hardworking, tired, middle-aged Martha Henderson (Bebe Wilson). Upstairs she's got her feeble mother, who can't even walk herself to the toilet. Downstairs is Martha's teenage son Martin (Joseph Palmore), who's too busy doing nothing to give her a hand. And soon enough Isaac (Byron Jacquet), the "king" of the house, slams in from work. But before the Big Issue can come along, Grandma's got to die. After 45 minutes of setup, the issue arrives in a note left by the dead woman. The most successful child, granddaughter Marta Henderson (Jordyn Lorenz), arrives home from college and finds a poem left by her grandmother expressing a desire to be cremated and have her ashes scattered over Africa. Trouble is, as one character puts it, cremation's "not customary, not for black folk." Most of this feels patched together, and worse, some feels like a rehashing of stereotypes. But director Eileen J. Morris and her cast do about as well as any group could with Southers's script. Through May 25. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — LW

The Heiress Concisely adapted by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, Henry James's short psychological novel Washington Square (1880) became a successful Tony-winning Broadway play (1947) and then an equally successful Oscar-winning movie (1949). Writing of just one family — the rich Slopers of New York City's Washington Square — was unusual for James, who limited his usually sprawling canvas. Imbued with parental disapproval and the stifling effect of being plain in a world insistent upon beauty, the deceptively simple story takes on epic flavor. Despised by her father for lacking her dead mother's qualities and lovely outward appearance, shy and socially inept Catherine has become enamored of handsome wastrel Morris Townsend, who has swept her off her feet. Dr. Sloper, with a cruel honesty that borders on the sadistic, warns her that Morris only loves her money — for she has nothing whatever to offer any man. Is Morris sincere in his ardent declarations? Is the plain Catherine doomed to a life devoid of love? Directed with mounting tension by Jeannette Clift George, A.D. Players brings this snappily written play vibrantly to life. Sarah Cooksey is all fidgets and thumbs as ordinary Catherine, who, through love and love denied, is frighteningly transformed into the very thing she most abhors, her father. Marty Blair makes a most charismatic Morris, sparkling and bright as fool's gold. Lee Walker supplies the emotionally distant Dr. Sloper with a terrifying heart of ice. And Christy Watkins bustles and frets most wonderfully as busybody Aunt Lavinia. The handsome set by Mark Lewis and the eye-catching costumes by Patty Tuel Bailey add luster to this production's genuine shine. Through June 1. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Time of My Life English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn is not only one of theater's most prolific writers (some 50-plus works since 1959) but also one of its most experimental and innovative. His work is complex, captivating, a little crazy, revelatory and achingly funny, as the middle class gets its nose tweaked. Don't ever pass up an Ayckbourn. In this little jewel from Company OnStage, love and marriage get dissected, but so does time. After we meet the family of six boisterously gathered to celebrate Mom's birthday at their favorite restaurant, the scenes fragment into a series of intensifying duets — and duels. The parents (Carl Masterson and Cheryl Tanner) stay in the present, full of regret and incriminations; philandering oldest son and mousey wife (Brian Heaton and Kristi Jones Pewthers) move into the future; and spoiled youngest son and girlfriend (Norm Dillon and Renata Santoro) move backward through time, until their last scene is their first meeting. Various waiters at the restaurant pop in and out, too, all lovingly played by John Patterson. The nonchronological order of the scenes lifts what appears to be mundane and ordinary into a realm of heightened sympathy and understanding. It's quite a beautiful effect, pushed even higher by the superlative Masterson and Tanner. The exquisitely shaded performances of these two pros have it all — the faded passion, nitpicking and thousand little cuts that happen as a marriage slowly bleeds to death. If you want to experience unobtrusive acting at its finest and truest, watch these two. The same could be said of Ayckbourn's intimate, yet universal, play. Through June 7. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

The Wedding Singer The shameless moneymaking Broadway musical The Wedding Singer is indeed based on the 1998 film starring Adam Sandler. But here's the thing — despite its less than fabulous lineage, the tawdry show that celebrates everything ugly about the 1980s is actually a lot of sugarcoated fun. The story follows the film. Robbie Hart (Merritt David Janes) is a wannabe pop star who ends up singing for weddings. He falls in love with waitress Julia (Erin Elizabeth Coors) after his wild-child fiancée dumps him, and the musical follows the two through their difficult but inevitable courtship. But some very Broadway-like moments have been added to the story. We get treated to a flash dance routine (created by Rob Ashford) and a Vegas wedding chapel full of '80s characters such as "fake Imelda Marcos," "fake Billy Idol" and "fake Cyndi Lauper." I went in expecting to hate the ripped-off silliness. But by the end of the show, the music by Matthew Sklar, the often inane lyrics by Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the book with Tim Herlihy) and the fired-up cast had me on a wicked sugar high. Through May 18. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700. — LW

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