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Anna in the Tropics While the cigar rollers toil in a small factory in '20s Tampa, Florida, a new "lector" reads to them to pass the time and alleviate boredom. He chooses Tolstoy's classic tale of adulterous passions Anna Karenina, and their lives change forever. Tradition, morality and dreams dash against modernity, passion and reality. You can almost smell the smoke inside the tobacco-stained factory at Country Playhouse in its colorful co-production with Talento Bilingüe. The mottled walls with transoms angle provocatively across the stage; the slatted doors, the linen pants and the sundresses scream tropics; and the workers' desks are appropriately battered and bruised. It's Nilo Cruz's claustrophobic play that doesn't fit. The foundation's sturdy, but it's the unending linguistic gingerbread he nails on everywhere that hobbles the play. In arch, overripe dialogue, the characters spout such hothouse poetry that the play fairly drips with humidity. They don't talk, their words "nest" in people's hair; a kiss isn't a kiss, but someone who "slips into your mouth like a pearl diver"; and cigar smoke isn't smoke but "the veil of a bride." Who speaks like this? There's so little heat between lector Juan (Jorge Diaz) and eager, unhappy wife Conchita (Cynthia Leal) that we must take their passion on faith. It's up to matriarch Ofelia (Lidia Porto) and husband Santiago (Luis Suarez), owner of the factory, to bring heart and sizzle into the play. Although Ofelia is prone to evocative language that doesn't suit her any more than it suits any of the other characters, Suarez plants her on earthy bedrock and anchors the drama with natural warmth. She's the most real of them all, and the drama brightens considerably whenever she's around. And Marela (Sayra Contreras), the young idealist who's always dreaming of a better life somewhere other than where she is, has a flapper's natural vivacity that neatly counterbalances the ache in her character. Once you get past the overly thick dialogue, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama catches you up in its melodrama as a window into an exotic world. However, the evening's most authentic touch was the professional cigar roller seated in the lobby demonstrating her art. That's what's missing from Cruz. Through October 1 at the Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. From October 7 through 16 at Talento Bilingüe, 333 S. Jensen Dr., 713-222-1213. — DLG

Damaged Divas of the Decades A particularly high style of cabaret is in performance through November at Music Box Theater. This second production from the newly minted troupe is called Damaged Divas of the Decades, and if that title alone doesn't propel you to Colquitt and Kirby, what kind of theater queen are you? As the only cabaret in the Bayou City, Music Box is like a classy Manhattan nightclub of yore, intimate and boozy, sophisticated and in-the-know. The troupe's five performers, all locally known and highly respected in the musical theater world (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry) have musical talent to spare and intriguing personalities to blend together when necessary and to cause sparks when needed. It's a bracing mix and, vocally, is unchallenged anywhere in town. As pros, they know through instinct and training how to put across a song. They also know how to entertain. As a tribute to music's self-suffering icons, from jazz's Etta James and Billie Holiday, to rock's Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks, to pop's Barbra Steisand and Mama Cass, the entire evening is solidly entertaining. The musical spectrum is rich and varied: a Jim Beam-infused rendering from Dahl of "Me and Bobby McGee," Scarborough's patented falsetto in "Big Girls Don't Cry," Taylor's spot-on Streisand in "Get Happy," Wrobel's heartfelt "La Vie en Rose," and Berry's absolutely wickedly hilarious take on Liza or his simpatico treatment of Cline's "Crazy." Guest host John Gremillion plays a William Shatner emcee and an assortment of crafty personae to lead us through the evening. While the divas may be damaged, the show is without blemish and first-class all the way, with formidable talent on display. As the Kander and Ebb song says, if life is a cabaret, then I love a cabaret, especially this one. Cabaret just doesn't get any better. Through November 13. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Ether Dome The 19th-century "invention" of surgical anesthesia, demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 by dentist W.T.G. Morton, is the centerpiece of Elizabeth Egloff's extremely earnest biographical drama, an Alley Theatre world premiere. Unlike the similar biopics of golden-age Hollywood (The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, Madame Curie), of which this could have been a worthy descendent, the play veers disastrously from a solid central narrative and divides Egloff's lengthy story into three main characters, all involved in the discovery of ether as an inhaled anesthetic. But they're so sketchily drawn, they waft away like the fine mist that permeates the Neuhaus stage. We, and the play, drift away with them. Dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen, in a finely modeled performance) wants respect; his young, eager partner William Morton, a wily opportunist (Sean Lyons), wants fortune; and master geologist/chemist Dr. Charles Jackson (Jeffrey Bean), who colludes with Morton in his dubious patent for ether, wants fame. All three are terribly flawed, as the historical facts bear out, but each could be his own play, they have so many facets. Egloff sets them spinning in cinematic short scenes that skim the surface, cut off abruptly just when things get interesting, or are tangential to the great themes at hand. Although sequences are staged with a movie's fluidity by acclaimed director Michael Wilson, the play arrives in fits and pieces, like its own anatomy lesson. The scenes in the operating theater are appropriately grisly and medieval, but the others pass by without effect. We never feel we're a part of this play, just spectators watching it unfold. As if to compensate for the lack of sustainable drama, the production is luscious: period costumes, lively sound and light design, bizarre yet accurate medical props, and a cabinet-of-wonders for a set. All the space needs is a play with characters we care about to fill it. Morton's use of ether during surgery was the great moment medicine so desperately needed to move forward. Sterilization of instruments and hands would come later, but unendurable pain was, at last, conquered. Egloff's drama needs a lighter touch. A sniff of Morton's own ether wouldn't hurt. Through October 9. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Farragut North It's certainly no surprise that politics is ugly, so political junkies won't find much to disagree with, yell at or protest in Beau Willimon's down-and-dirty insider's dissection. Willimon worked on Howard Dean's flamed-out 2004 presidential campaign, so he knows where all the skeletons are buried. Backstage at the Iowa presidential primary is the setting for Willimon's drama, where quasi-hero whiz kid Stephen (Jordan Jaffe) is press secretary for candidate Governor Morris. The play's neat trick is that we never see the candidates, only their handlers. Twenty-five years old, Stephen is the golden boy with Washington at his feet. He has impeccable credentials, the trust of mentor Paul (Seán Patrick Judge), an insider's friendship with the press, represented by a Maureen Dowd type (Danica Dawn Johnston), and a fawning subordinate, Ben (Andy Ingalls). Stephen plays in the big leagues, MVP material for sure, so it's no surprise when other political operatives start aiming for his head. Double crosses, leaks and potential leaks are used as weapons to disable him, and Willimon neatly places red herrings to keep us guessing what will happen next. Will teen campaign volunteer Molly (Alexandria Ward) sell him out? What about that other old campaign pro, Tom (Joel Sandel), who represents the other candidate? Can he be trusted? Can any of them? There's a neat little All About Eve twist at the end to keep our spirits from soaring too high, but there's not much here that's really original. Sandel and Judge, smooth veterans, play their characters with such easy panache that they seem to be in HD. Jaffe doesn't vary his outbursts, so, as Steven gets more desperate, there's no build-up; each crisis is handled like the one before. And there's just no plausible way to explain that offstage snow machine at the beginning of each scene that lightly covers a desktop or actor's head — like the "fog of war," is this supposed to mean that politics is the ultimate "snow job"? Some metaphors are best left unseen, even in Iowa. Farragut North will validate your every Washington nightmare. If not the most insightful, the play's awfully relevant since another presidential campaign has already begun (!). It's always good to be reminded yet again not to take anything — or any candidate — at face value. Through September 24. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-417-3552. — DLG

Republic Day Playwright Tom Stell directs the world premiere of his own play about just how savage class warfare can really be, using cinematic techniques and a largely talented young cast to create vivid snapshots of unrestrained brutality. A bare stage is populated with simple props as needed, which disappear as quickly as they arrive, while projected images suggest a location or a violent action. The starkness suits well the theme of man's inhumanity to man — especially in times of violent revolution. Here the aristocratic "Browns" control the wealth while the plebian "Grays" struggle for survival. Playwright and director Tom Stell plays the patriarch of the Rivers Family, an imprisoned revolutionary leader. He enters late in the drama but is convincing as a conflicted leader with few illusions. Leighza Walker plays the wife he abandoned for the cause, and she is warm and wise as intended. The lead role is that of son John Rivers (Kurtis von Krueger), who aspires to escape poverty and does so by hook or by crook, mostly the latter. Von Krueger captures moments of drama, and some humor, but John's moral compass is so changeable that a convincing characterization may not be possible. The opposite is true of his brother Simon, a hot-headed, single-minded revolutionary acted with fire and enthusiasm by James Monaghan, who puts his brand on the role. Lindsy Greig is tall, blond, beautiful and in admirable physical shape — she is interestingly persuasive as a "Brown" slumming with John Rivers. The Rivers family is rounded out by daughter Beth (Liz King), who is quietly effective in the first act and noisily so in the second. I liked less well her paramour and father of the child she is carrying, Trevor Winchester. Tucker Rhodes plays him and looks like a very young Beatle, but speaks rapidly with little variation and even less diction. Rod Todd and Sandi Morgan play the parents of Trevor and other roles and are quite good in them all. Shawn Everiss and Norm Dillon play brutal soldiers — Everiss etches a vivid portrait. Playwright Stell leaves some of the brutality offstage with sound effects only, but there is enough onstage, effectively presented, to service several plays. This is Stell's first full-length work and shows talent worth cultivating, but some of the many scenes go on too long, and their points might be telegraphed instead of spelled out — irony needs to be brief. And the pantomime ending is much too subtle for a play with such bravura power. Judicious trimming would heighten impact, but playwright Stell has fashioned an ambitiously epic drama and found a young and capable cast to flesh out his parable. Through October 1. Big Head Productions at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837. — JJT

Woof Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Superstar NFL quarterback kills dog! Award-winning playwright Y York (who also wrote ...and L.A. Is Burning, another Main Street Theater world premiere) adapts the story of former Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick and transforms his criminal act into an ultimately sympathetic tale. Unlike Vick, who had been dog-baiting for years, York's fictional LJ Freeman (the charismatic Timothy Eric) goes gaga just once, but the fatal canine choking is filmed by a security camera and goes viral over YouTube. LJ's stellar career collapses; his marriage to Karen (Eva Laporte), a former Miss Alabama, teeters precariously; his hotshot lawyer (Brian H. Thornton) wiggles back into Karen's life wanting to revive their affair; his mom Ruby (Alice M. Gatling) refuses to hear anything negative, having pulled out all the TV cables and buried the phone in a drawer; his former elementary school science teacher, Mrs. Jones (Joyce Anastasia Murray), continues to inspire; and LJ's preteen, adoring daughter Jackie (Maya M. Wilson) eyes her newborn brother, who's suspiciously, awfully white, as threat and competition. Complications pile up, but nobody deals directly with LJ's heinous act, content instead to dance around it, along with every conflict York ignites: combustibles like interracial marriage and infidelity. Daughter Jackie wants everybody to look at the condemning video, but the adults have their heads planted firmly in the ground. Still, the play's a treasure chest for the deft Main Street ensemble, who, under skillful director Troy Scheid, find real heart and soul among the soap opera suds that York whips up. Eric, brimming with machismo, leads the way magnificently. Gatling, as LJ's mom Ruby, makes the most sense of anybody in the play and imbues this no-nonsense woman with deep intelligence and snappy wit, even though her character is constantly referred to by others as daft and loopy. She's the beating heart of York's drama, and Gatling savors every moment of her multilayered performance, as do we. Torn from the headlines, York's drama verges on movie-of-the-week, but the precise production and whiplash acting keep the play from going soft. "Love conquers all" is her message; let no dead dog put it asunder. Through October 9. 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. — DLG

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