Capsule Stage Reviews: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Little Shop of Horrors, The Psychic, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, Travelsty

 The Dark at the Top of the Stairs This portrait of a small-town family dealing with the changing world of the 1920s features playwright William Inge's talent for authentic characterizations, and his abiding interest in family dynamics. In a small town near Oklahoma City, Cora and Rubin Flood bicker. Cora is a well-meaning, goodhearted wife, but controlling as well. Rubin, a free spirit who courted Cora on a horse, is chafing at the reins, and his business of selling said reins is dwindling as automobiles rise. Daughter Reenie is painfully shy at 16, and the ten-year old son, Sonny, won't stand up to the bullies tormenting him. Act I is slow, but things pick up in Act II as Cora's sister Lottie and her husband Morris arrive for dinner. The acting is excellent. Sharon Appel plays Cora and captures her spirit, but the script consists of such a drumbeat of her controlling demands that variety becomes difficult. Michael Thorpe, as Rubin, beautifully captures the rhythm of a steed tethered too tightly. Michael Gallegos creates a memorable character in Morris. Brenda Kuciemba, as Lottie, succeeds in a difficult, complex role. Mollie Mae Herron plays Reenie — she looks wonderful and captures her character's insecurity and painful shyness. Hannah Finney plays Flirt, a friend of Reenie, with teenage enthusiasm. Parker Hearon, in his first role, plays ten-year-old Sonny, and his reactions are breathtakingly accurate, adding a fresh dimension to the drama and providing contemporary relevance. Young Hearon has remarkable stage presence, and director David Hymel is to be commended for finding such a talent and nurturing such a performance. This play about the 1920s from a master craftsmen is well-acted and made surprisingly relevant by its extraordinary, fine-tuned performances. Through July 1. Cast Theatrical Company, 1909 Avenue G, Rosenberg, 832-889-3808. — JJT

Little Shop of Horrors You don't go to Dionysus Theatre for slick. Its sets are rudimentary, its lighting is sketchy and the direction concentrates on getting the actors out of the way. You don't expect shattering insights into a play's emotional core. This is bare-bones theater with an aura of let's-put-on-a-play. But there's one attribute that Dionysus possesses that puts all other companies in the shade — heart. You see it in the actors' faces. They're having a ball with all this make-believe, and their joy from performing is infectious, deliciously so. Dionysus is an "inclusive" company, a nonprofit that weaves together actors with disabilities with those who are not disabled. This mesh of pros and not-so-pros adds up to something much better than you'd expect. Inspiration emanates from the stage like a halo. Cheery and cheesy, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's funky little off-Broadway musical sensation, Little Shop of Horrors (1982), about nebbish Seymour (Michael J. Escamilla), who sells his soul to a man-eating alien plant (Theodore M.E. Taylor) to get fame, fortune and the girl of his dreams (Julia Becker), is just the right material to showcase the particular talents of Dionysus. With his Steve Urkel-esque pants pulled up almost to his neck and sporting thick, black-rimmed glasses, Escamilla makes nerdy Seymour goofy and lovable, heartfelt and funny. As Seymour's pined-for inamorata Audrey, Becker radiates sweet sexiness with her kewpie-doll blond curls and breathy delivery. She's your innocent masochist next door, yearning for plastic-covered furniture and Pine-Sol scent. Ted Doolittle brings a Borscht Belt belt and vaudeville delivery to harried florist Mr. Mushnik; Andrew Barrett is comically menacing as sadist dentist Orin, Audrey's bad boy main squeeze; and Theodore Taylor (heard but not seen as blood-loving Audrey II) gives this vampire plant from outer space a real downtown pizzazz. The Doo-Wop girl group (Lori Evans, Teresa Gallagher, Noriann Doguim, Mariann Cano and Monica Gaseor) catches the show's funky spirit with poodle skirts and ponytails, while the rest of the cast (Shaun Linsey, Jayson White, Joshua Sims and Jayson Looney) embodies the musical's quirky charm and wit. The cast's high-flying spirits buoy us with unstoppable enthusiasm. Through June 30. Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, 5601 South Braeswood, 713-728-0041. — DLG

The Psychic The ever-popular genre of humorous murder mysteries takes some strange twists and turns in The Psychic, from prolific playwright Sam Bobrick, as an impoverished writer seeks to finish a novel. The main characters are the writer, portrayed by Ryan Rasmussen, and the wealthy Laura Benson, played by Vicky McCormick, and both say their lines flatly, so that the narrative is conveyed but not the flavor. Rasmussen was excellent in the recent Play On at this same theater, so director Lee Raymond must share some of the responsibility, as the too-rapid speech of Rasmussen must have caught her attention, as well as the largely emotionless line readings of McCormick. Bob Galley plays Laura's husband, Roy Benson, and he mugs and widens his eyes to ensure we see that chicanery is afoot — this might be over-acting in a different production; here it is a breath of fresh air. Natasha Sebeyran plays Rita Malone, mistress of Roy; she is intended to be a bit of a strumpet and is dressed accordingly. Dean R. Dicks plays another lover of Rita, a gangster, and he is excellent, both credible and interesting. Gene Griesbach plays detective Norris Coslow, and brings an urbane charm and quiet confidence that is disarming, and unusual. The Psychic won the Edgar Award as the Best Mystery Play of 2010, a mystery in itself. In the beginning, writer Adam was seized unwittingly by outbursts of truth, in which he foresaw events like a psychic, but playwright Bobrick soon dropped this promising theme. Some strong acting by secondary characters helps overcome weak leads, and some occasional humor and an inventive finale end the performance on a strong note. This one is best enjoyed by lovers of the mystery genre. Through June 30. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. — JJT

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