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Cuttin' Up The chrome on the three barber chairs gleams brightly in Janelle Flanagan's "kitchen sink" set for Charles Randolph-Wright's rich, if sketchy, tapestry of black life as witnessed in a contemporary Houston barbershop. Clippers buzz, scissors click and men talk as an entire panorama of everyday and extraordinary characters sit in the chairs and spin their tales. It's history seen through hair. Old man proprietor Howard (the always exceptionally vivid Wayne DeHart) calls his place the "final black frontier...our sanctuary," and it is that and more as every type of character comes in and has a say. Howard's employees are as much of a cross-section as is the multitude of clients. Rootless Andre (the solid Henry Edwards Jr.), shell-shocked from childhood trauma, feels the urge to keep moving on, while young Rudy (the constantly bopping, audience-favorite Joseph Palmore), though a slacker and always out for a good time, learns about life through osmosis from his older, wiser brothers. These three are surrounded, sometimes swallowed up, by the constant stream of clients and drop-ins who appear in memory flashbacks, such as a butch lesbian who knows exactly how she wants her hair cut, to a flamboyant reverend whose car plays Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" when he unlocks the door, to a homeless jive master who displays his stolen CDs in the lining of his shabby trench coat. Even electric-haired boxing promoter Don King and Oprah Winfrey's kindly barber father make an appearance. All of these many, many characters are given lush detailing by Jason Carmichael, Troy Hogan, Broderick Jones, Robert Marshall and Detria Ward. They come and go so quickly, we often lose focus on the main guys, but their appearances work as a quick, loving glimpse of black experience. Lively and full of warm humor, the play stalls once or twice, but the comic situations and gentle characters always draw us in, as do the veritable time-machine costumes by Shirley Marks Whitmore. The lessons learned may not be the freshest ever put on stage, but when depicted with such generosity by all eight superlative actors, the play's heart, humor and hopeful message are universal. And gratefully applauded. Through April 15. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. — DLG

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) A period play with modern overtones combines science, sexual humor and unlikely events to create a pastiche that somehow earned a Tony nomination as Best New Play in 2010. The central character in a sense is The Machine, prominent, upstage on a raised platform, and wheeled out to provide vaginal stimulation to women as a cure for hysteria. This is in the 1880s, and the costumes by Claire Verheyen are exceptional, as is the set by Claire A. Jac Jones and Jodi Bobrovsky. The medical entrepreneur is played by David Matranga, an actor with enormous vitality and charm, who here plays a stuffed-shirt and bore. His wife is portrayed by Tracie Thomason, beautiful and likable, but compelled by the script to have strange mood swings. Kristin Warren plays a patient cured by The Machine, which seems to have a Prozac-like after-effect. Her husband is played by Steve Irish, whom I admired greatly, until the narrative propelled him into folly. Garrett Storms plays a painter, and his treatment from The Machine is played for farce. He creates a vivid portrait of an impulsive artist, but ultimately joins the others in becoming a cartoon. Pamela Vogel plays a nurse, and yes, her behavior joins the list of oddities. Only Courtney D. Jones as a servant manages to survive with her dignity intact. Ruhl provides us with a series of scenes in which characters behave without motivation. Ruhl seems to have no respect for her characters or for the audience. Stages Repertory Theatre has mounted an impressive re-creation of a period, but director Leslie Swackhamer hasn't solved the problems inherent in the script. A handsome production of a flawed play teeters between farce and drama, satisfying the demands of neither. Through April 8. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

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