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Magdalene Emerging playwright Sara Kumar tackles the New Testament in Magdalene, presented by Paragon Arts and the University of St. Thomas Center for Faith and Culture. The story is told from the point of view of Mary Magdalene as she moves from debauchery to redemption. This is an ambitious project, with a cast of 22, but it lacks dramatic flair and fresh insights. We see Mary Magdalene in the throes of sin so many times that it is tedious. The good news, paradoxically, is that the Devil steals the show. Richard Hubscher is a ballet dancer, and, in tattered formalwear, his pantomime, sinuous movements, silent reactions and seductive mien, replete with reflective green nails, lend quality and distinction to the production. James Monaghan plays Jesus and does well, but the costuming doesn't distinguish him from his disciples. The lead role of Mary Magdalene is a difficult one, and Briana J. Resa does not succeed in convincing us either of her allure or of her conversion. As Martha, Lyndsay Sweeney is so brisk as to seem to be in a sitcom instead of a quasi-religious pageant, and Brian Jones doesn't find the authority for Lazarus. Brandon del Castillo is effective in a minor role as a market vendor, as are Robin van Zandt as Dina, Sam Stengler as Simon, the very young Laura Hester as Miriam and Jeff Dorman as Doran. Magdalene is directed by Stewart Hawley, and he has failed to create the acting ensemble essential to a pageant; the acting styles are all over the lot. But the central flaw is the writing, as Kumar gives us narrative without drama. Through May 20. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 713-412-8478. — JTT

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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