The Seafarer Guess who's coming to play cards? If you're hell-bent on seeing Conor McPherson's brogue-laced Christian tall tale The Seafarer, read no further, because here comes a spoiler. It's Christmas Eve, and blind Richard (John Tyson), now in the care of brother Sharky (James Black), has asked buddies Ivan (Declan Mooney) and Nicky (Chris Hutchison) over to play cards. But Nicky brings an unexpected guest, someone he met at the pub who's looking for Sharky, a Mr. Lockhart (Todd Waite), mysterious but willing to join in the alcohol-fueled game. Here's the spoiler: Lockhart is the Devil. Yes, the actual ruler of Hell has come to claim Sharky's soul, which Sharky gave him 25 years ago when he beat a murder rap. Lockhart will play poker with the boys. Unbeknownst to the rest of them, if Sharky loses, it's eternal bye-bye. (Why Mr. Satan is required to play games at all for the souls he collects is never explained. Maybe the Big Guy Upstairs sets the rules.) While filled with clipped and jagged dialogue that has the air of verisimilitude, McPherson's play doesn't really surprise. The guys are lovable losers even when sloshed and acting stupid, but the story is right out of Twilight Zone, albeit punctured with nonstop profanity and regional color. The ensemble is above reproach, layering their woebegone losers with a fine Irish whiskey fog and impeccable technique, but the real surprise is newcomer Mooney, an understudy when the play opened on Broadway in 2007. His style is refreshing and unaffected. He's continuously tipsy throughout and blighted by farsightedness, and even his smallest gestures carry immense comic weight. He's just another average bloke blindly stumbling through life. The production is ravishing, with Hugh Landwehr's dank, decayed setting a major character. Director Gregory Boyd keeps the action taut, even when it flags under McPherson, and there's a lively rhythm between the guys that keeps us involved and amused. McPherson's comic little ghost story resolves into a nifty morality tale, and it's sort of shocking to see such naked faith given such a positive nod. We should be thankful for the life affirmation, if we all don't go to hell first. Through May 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

The Unexpected Man Acclaimed playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage) explores the inner life of a successful male novelist and a female admirer of his work, as they sit facing each other in a railroad carriage. Like the wildly successful Art, this is an actor's vehicle, designed to showcase talent. James Belcher plays the writer, and he creates a vivid portrait of a literary lion discovering that age does not soften vanity and pettiness, but increases the importance of regularity in bodily functions. He barely moves, but his powerful voice cascades with nuance and subtlety, and we see why playwright Reza saw fit to create this challenge for actors. The performance of Sally Edmundson, who has an interesting voice and an expressive face, is more problematic. Interior thoughts place her in the twilight of her life, but Edmundson has middle-aged robustness and the attractive legs to prove it. The play's director, Seth Gordon, interprets her as vivacious, with broad gestures as she ruminates. This destroys the illusion of the railroad carriage, as the writer would have noticed these gyrations. One passage is brilliant — the writer imagines the woman and a lover in Frankfurt, and the detail and wit of the description let us see his power. At the denouement, an affirmation by the woman becomes significant. Or does it? The ensuing conversation would have been revelatory, but the play ends. We should be grateful to Stages Repertory Theatre for presenting this work, and it may become a perennial as deft actors clamor to attempt it and directors to put their stamp on it. In this case, skilled acting meets and surpasses the challenge of a static play, allowing an acclaimed playwright to successfully pull off a high-wire act. Through May 13. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

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