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Capsule Stage Reviews: Brief Encounter, Orphans, Rock 'N' Roll

Brief Encounter Remember when an affair with a married man resulted in utter heartache and devastating guilt for all parties? Houston Grand Opera remembers, and so do the old pros, composer André Previn (he of MGM fame under the legendary Freed unit, and, later, as maestro of the Houston Symphony) and director/librettist John Caird (he of East End fame with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Nicholas Nickleby). They have adapted the 1945 Noël Coward/David Lean weepie, which itself was adapted from Coward's 1936 one-acter, about two ordinary people going through hell because of an illicit, brief love affair. It's so faithful an adaptation, except in length — the movie's over in a breezy 89 minutes; the world premiere opera takes a bit longer — there's nothing left to do but underscore it, which Previn does with masterful strokes of lush, old-fashioned movie music. Although we keep waiting for the opera to start and the passion to erupt, we do get exceptional, dramatic singing from Elizabeth Futral and Nathan Gunn as the besotted lovers, smooth familial understanding from Kim Josephson as the bland husband, and the deepest chest tones and comic business from Meredith Arwady as randy, guilt-free proprietress of the train station cafe, where the affair starts and ends so poignantly. Maestro Patrick Summers lends sympathetic support to the cinematic soundtrack, while director Caird keeps the trains running on time. English reserve with its stiff upper lip is much in evidence all around. Where's opera's heavy breathing? This needs it badly. Through May 9. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Orphans Lyle Kessler's Orphans has all the elements of a suspenseful postmodern psychological thriller. The story — about two feral-seeming orphan brothers who raise themselves in a Philadelphia row house and the also-orphaned gangster who comes to call one desperate night — is full of strange moments of violence and dark humor. Guns and knives are included in the prop list. But as played out by the very suburban cast at the Country Playhouse, Kessler's script stumbles along, never gaining any of the energy the story promises. None of the potentially hair-raising moments are there, despite all the hand-wringing that Jordan Real does as the lonely, homebound brother Phillip. The most miscast of the three actors is John Mitsakis as older brother Treat—a young thug who snatches purses and robs folks at knifepoint for trinkets and pocket change. Nothing about Mitsakis, who is about as scary as a civil engineer, is remotely sinister. As younger brother Phillip, Real is sweet and compelling, but director Joe Viser has the young actor telegraphing all his feelings in melodramatic gestures. Allen Dorris plays Harold, the gangster who shows up in the second scene to get the plot rolling. Again, though one might believe he could be as slimy as, say, a real estate agent, he's no gangster. Terror—both psychological and physical — is the gas that fuels Kessler's tale. Without it, this show goes nowhere. Through May 9. 12802 Queensbury Lane, 713-467-4497. — LW

Rock 'N' Roll As Jan, a Czech lover of music, Todd Waite is the guiding force of the Alley's compelling production of yet another of Tom Stoppard's magical gifts to the theater. Of course, Stoppard's astonishingly brainy writing gets almost equal billing with Waite's lovely performance. The story skitters over 20 years of recent history, examining the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia from the late '60s all the way up to 1990. The lens through which we get to see these events is the hapless Jan, a smart Cambridge student who decides to return to the motherland once the Soviet tanks roll into his home country. The only thing Jan takes home with him from Cambridge is his much-adored collection of records, which includes everything from the Rolling Stones to Plastic People of the Universe, an outlawed Czech group that gets labeled as subversive simply because the lead singer won't cut his long hair. Jan, who just wants to listen to his music and be left alone, instead gets swept up in politics. The entire Alley cast, under the direction of Gregory Boyd, handles the performance with the sort of grace and wit Stoppard's writing demands, but it's Waite who makes us fall in love, once again, with Stoppard. Through May 24. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW

 
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