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The Flu Season We got our first savory taste of writer extraordinaire Will Eno last year with Nova Arts Project's Thom Paine: Based on Nothing, a searing, angst-filled monologue that seemed to peer directly into our souls, whether we wanted it to or not. Now Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company is offering his slice of theater-of-the-absurd dramedy, and it's one of this company's finest productions. The Flu Season is marvelously served here by a most talented sextet of actors under the guiding hand of director Matt Huff, who keeps this unpredictable play on course and always heading true. It looks great, too, with set designer Greg Dean's incomplete tiled walls, Philip Hays's evocative sound design and John Wind's clinical, then autumnal, lighting. It's a love story, of course, that Eno spins like an expressionistic gyroscope, as Man and Woman (Caleb George and Jessica Janes) fall in love in an asylum in which Doctor and Nurse (Wayne Barnhill and Lyndsay Sweeney) are both ineffectual and maddeningly professional. The story is watched over, commented on and glossed by two contradictory yet omniscient authors, Prologue and Epilogue (Seán Patrick Judge and Bobby Haworth), who can't seem to get it right. Sometimes even authors are powerless to change one's fate. Eno fills his tale to the brim with wondrous wordplay that intertwines and grows back upon itself, using plenty of snarky humor and sometimes just plain weirdness, yet he makes it all work without too many seams showing. We hang on for the ride, breathless, with muscles aching from the strain — you can't relax at an Eno play — and the outcome is quite unlike what we may want. But it's all most satisfying, even when we're lost in a most tantalizing maze. Through March 13. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0973. — DLG

Machinal This 1928 Broadway antique has more life and freshness than any half dozen contemporary dramas. Playwright Sophie Treadwell, whose rich bohemian career could easily be its own play, wrote a very personal example of "expressionist" drama — that curious style that had a few years of prominence in the roaring '20s. Unlike in Elmer Rice's Adding Machine or Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, here alienation has a very human face, as Young Woman (Meghan C. Hakes) searches for love and heartless murder results. (All expressionist plays made use of such general character names and scene location.) Young Woman's husband (Mark Roberts) is a kind one, but a bore nonetheless, so when she meets The Man (Jovan Jackson), who personifies freedom in all guises, she can't cope with the crushing choices. She gets lost in her guilt. Nothing, no one, can help her, not rock-ribbed Mother (Heather Bryson), whose older-generation attitudes might as well date from ancient Egypt, nor soulless work, where everyone speaks yet never communicates. In Main Street Theater's exemplary production directed by Troy Scheid, the tone of endless, over-the-top misery is pulled taut scene by scene until the outcome is inevitable, if not preordained. You'll not forget the opening scene in the office, with its stream-of-consciousness sound and overlapping dialogue. It's good to have Treadwell back where she belongs — onstage. Her play is prefaced by Caryl Churchill's A Number, a clever if one-note take on the ethics of cloning, which is really a disquisition on parenting and what it means to be a son, or have one. David Wald and Rutherford Cravens parry and thrust like Olympic fencers, leaving each other bloody and scarred for what's left of their lives. Through March 14. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, now running at Unhinged Productions, is a slightly irreverent, very gay retelling of the Genesis story. In the 1998 comedy, Adam and Eve become Adam (Travis Blount) and Steve (Giddony Sanchez). These two familiar stereotypes — Adam's a fussbudget and Steve's a hottie — frolic in the garden, amazed at the new world and with each other, wearing nothing but leather G-strings. Hidden in another corner of Paradise, butch Jane (Andrea Hyde) and airhead Mabel (Eva LaPorte) have set up lesbian house, and all is beautiful. But then Adam decides he wants to see what's on the other side of Paradise, which sends every human out of the garden and into the world of hardships, which includes an enormous flood, a big boat, sex with animals and the discovery of heterosexuals (who live on the other side of the earth and make babies!). Now love isn't quite so much fun anymore, and questions about god and fidelity abound. The second act fast-forwards the two couples into the present time, where even more troubles, like children and death, loom large. As directed by Dennis Draper, Unhinged Productions is very clever with its little bit of money — the ocean, for example, is made from a large sheet of blue plastic. And many of the one-liners for which Rudnick is known remain amusing — when Mabel is asked why she's wearing clothes after being kicked out of the garden, she says it has nothing to do with shame — "I need pockets," she says. But the naughtiness built into this play that has the characters questioning the standard Judeo-Christian version of spirituality feels a little dated — something no comedy can survive with all its hilarity intact. Through March 28. FrenetiCore Theater, 5102 Navigation, 832-250-7786. — LW

The Women How can you resist a play that credits a "catfight coordinator"? And could that play be any other than Clare Boothe Luce's bitch-fest from 1936? There's none like it in the comedy canon; it's as unique as its formidable playwright, with a huge cast and not a male in sight. These married ladies from Park Avenue hold onto their husbands and/or lovers with both hands. They run the world from their living rooms, fitting rooms, powder rooms and bathtubs. This is upper-crust female power — with sex as constant warfare or irritant — and when nice and proper Mary Haines gets the marital stuffing knocked out of her (she learns of her husband's affair through a blabbermouth manicurist), it takes her until the end of the play to figure out how to fight for her man. Her friends are an assortment of double dealers, backbiters and blasé do-nothings, and when they're all together, it's a marvelous, sharp-tongued conversation you wouldn't want to join without at least two cocktails in hand. The play's amazingly deft and witty, and laugh-out-loud funny. It's rich in scenes, and if the changes at Theatre Southwest aren't as speedy as they could be, the musical interludes never disappoint. It's wonderful to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Ginger Rogers and Vaughn Monroe (even if he didn't record "There I Said It Again" for another decade). The ladies of the cast are nice and stylized, some looking like they stepped nimbly right out from the covers of Vanity Fair (Malinda Beckham, Pam Green, Emily Colvin, Kathy Drum). Rebecca Seabrook, as sweet but done-wrong Mary, grows into the role as she becomes more feisty; Kelly Walker, as hard-hearted Crystal, luxuriates in her home-wrecking; and Melody Gray, in the juicy role of Sylvia Fowler, brings a nice spider's touch to the mother of all bitches. As for that catfight, it's a beaut. Through March 13. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

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