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Capsule Stage Reviews: Below the Belt, Cactus Flower, Crimes of the Heart, Cuttin' Up, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

Below the Belt Existential comedy gets an effective workout at the intimate Black Box theater inside Country Playhouse. That the audience comes out a bit stronger afterward is testament to the ensemble cast that gives these Everyman ciphers real flesh and blood. Playwright Richard Dresser depicts the inhuman grind of the corporation, a nameless behemoth in some forsaken land spoiling the ecology and chewing up its workers. Crusty veteran Hanrahan (John Stevens) and new guy Dobbitt (Todd Thigpen) are "checkers," a rung above the drudges on the line. Is this a factory or a prison? Hell, perhaps. Manic supervisor Merkin (Kurt Bauer) wields a "void" rubber stamp like a guillotine, bringing it down on his stack of papers with an ominous, reverberating thud. Hanrahan and Dobbitt type up daily reports and feel lucky they have such jobs, mindless as they might be. They play at word games, as much to pass the time as to keep us in the dark as to what's happening and where we are. For a long time we feel stuck in an endless loop from Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, but then the magic of theater sweeps us along — with the actors' sterling ability to make the abnormal quite normal — and we actually settle in, even anticipating the verbal sparring and Dresser's artsy round-robin dialogue. Stevens, always a marvel, overlays Hanrahan's crust with layers of hidden hurt. When he thinks his wife has written him, he glows from the inside and does a little leap and lovely cackle of pure joy. As innocent Dobbitt, Thigpen reacts like someone thrown to the lions without knowing why. He's corrupted slowly, and looks the part. Bauer takes inept Merkin very nearly over the top. Totally unmoored from reality, he's frighteningly true. Director Cone keeps everything moving like a fever dream. I haven't a clue what the title means, but Dresser isn't big on hope. Through April 7. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Cactus Flower Abe Burrows's 1965 farce about a dentist pretending to be married to escape the shackles of marriage gets a lively presentation at Company OnStage, with some attractive and talented actors giving the vehicle a push when necessary. The lead is Casey Coale as Julian, a mature dentist with an attractive young girlfriend and a roving eye. His girlfriend, Toni, is played by Melanie Martin, and she has a truly remarkable gift for comic timing. Martin's enthusiasm, her beauty and a series of stunning outfits ensure the evening's delight. Her energy and charm work against the credibility of her love affair with Julian, as Coale gives the role a professional gloss but doesn't provide zest, nor much indication that Julian is enjoying life. A handsome writer, Igor, has the apartment next door to Toni, and they bond as he thwarts a suicide attempt on Toni's part. He contributes boyish charm, and carries off a flirtation with an older woman with aplomb. The object of this attention is Stephanie, Julian's assistant and receptionist, portrayed by Heather Gabriel; as she emerges from wallflower to hot babe, the play takes on added firepower. Midway through Act II, playwright Burrows layers in some complexity and irony, and we suddenly have a sophisticated and eminently satisfying contemporary comedy. Glenn Dodson plays Julian's wingman, Harvey, and Jim Walsh plays Senor Sanchez, a dental patient smitten with Stephanie, and both are good. Marianne Lyon directed, and is to be thanked for helming this warhorse so successfully and breathing new life into it. Comic timing and acting skills enliven this farce by one of Broadway's master showmen, and a stand-out performance by Martin makes this 1965 comedy a gem. Through April 14. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — JJT

Crimes of the Heart Sisterhood blooms at Texas Repertory Theatre, strong and resilient, in this Pulitzer Prize-winner by Beth Henley. The three MaGrath sisters bond and bitch in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, as only sisters can do. Realized by TRT with the company's usual precision and accuracy, and sufficient warmth to bake a pecan pie, Crimes aims straight and strikes right into our hearts. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better ensemble cast than this one assembled by director Steven Fenley, who knows exactly how to balance Henley's gothic against the comic. Caretaker for Granddad, who's raised the trio since their mother's suicide, frumpy Lenny (Lyndsay Sweeney) celebrates her 30th birthday alone, wishing on a stale cookie with a candle stuck into it. Married sister Babe (Lauren Dolk), who has just shot her politician husband because she "didn't like his looks," moves in with Lenny while out on bail. Wild child Meg (Eva Laporte), supposedly living the high life in L.A., returns home when she hears of Babe's arrest. The three MaGrath sisters collide and coalesce on this particular day, prodded by Doc (David Walker), Meg's former flame now married; Barnett (Zachary Lewis), Babe's young lawyer who's taken a professionally inappropriate shine to his client; and snooty cousin Chick "the Stick" (Julie Fontenot), who's all about propriety and what the neighbors will think of her relatives' trashy scandals. Family secrets and sisterly dreams cascade through the comedy, interspersed with heartfelt emotion as each of them reveals her aches, unfulfilled desires and waylaid ambitions. Each is damaged, but when they sit at the kitchen table and lay bare their souls, the play soars. They take heart from each other. The sweet optimism that runs through the comedy warms us like the best of summer's breezes. From the first view of designer Trey Otis's faded kitchen-sink set with its rusty hot water heater and banging screen door, we know we're going to be in fine hands. Once the three leading ladies appear, there's no doubt. Under TRT's careful handling, Henley's Southern Gothic valentine to the ultimate strength and resiliency of women is sent sailing. It feels like being embraced by six powerful arms. Through April 7. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

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