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Capsule Stage Reviews: Anna in the Tropics, Ether Dome, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Republic Day, A Texas Romance, Woof

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

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, this 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

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change A series of musical vignettes about relationships springs into comic life as polished material is mined for laughs by talented actors, who find the laughs and deliver them — in spades. There's little mystery to the success and broad appeal of this long-running, widely produced musical. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of dating — the angst of waiting by the phone, the concern about performance, the marriage jitters, the impact of children and all the far-too-familiar pitfalls and joys that go with the battle of the sexes. But it does so with such good humor and grace that we see ourselves up there onstage, as memories of just such experiences come flooding back. Originally done with four actors playing the myriad characters in its long off-B'way run, here we have three men and four women winning our hearts and our laughter. Gregory Magyar plays Dad when called for, and his dynamic energy, expressive face and body language enhance his lines and performance. Lisa Connolly plays the occasional Mother with relish and deft comic timing. Both are great in "Single Guy," one of my many favorites. Cory Kelley plays everything from a bridegroom to a widower cruising funerals for pick-ups, and does so with panache, even keeping the charm alive as a fumbling tennis player. Chris Mason plays the younger yearners, and has great reactions and smooth deadpan glances. Brittney Thorne is a lovely bride, and she's superb in nailing the role of a divorcee recording her first dating video, a piece of brilliant writing. Bethany Smith won my heart with a stunning performance as woman waiting by the phone whose phone actually rings — and she can sell a song. Lauren Bowler plays a bridesmaid (never a bride) and captured the complexity of the character — and she turns a walk-on as a video operator into a scene-stealer. India Aquino provides the compelling music on a keyboard, and does it justice. Neophyte director Erin Eder marshals her troops with astonishingly professional flair, and the many scene changes are done adroitly with the help of rotating flats and, yes, a turntable! I felt a few of the props might be upgraded, and the theater itself has earmarks of a work in progress. Sharing the credit for the evening's success of course are writer Joe DiPietro for book and lyrics, and composer Jimmy Roberts, the duo whose seamless synergy created this comic masterpiece. Through Oct. 2, Encore Players at Katy Visual and Performing Arts Center, 2501 S. Mason Rd, Katy, 281-829-2787. — JJT

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