The Oldest Profession Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Paula Vogel has turned her attention to prostitution and created a play about four women of a certain age who turn tricks in a Westside hotel in New York. The set is stark and grassless, with a park bench that's extra-long because it has to contain four full-bodied women sitting side-by-side. This arrangement might have worked on a proscenium stage but is a disaster here on a thrust stage. Playwright Vogel has imagined these women as sweet ladies, caregivers to lonely older men. Carolyn Montgomery plays the madam and creates an interesting, though unrealistic, portrait of a den mother. Cheryl Tanner plays Vera and makes us care for her. Lisa Schofield plays Edna, an underwritten part and a waste of her vast talents. Mary Lou Roschback plays Ursula, so angry and charmless one might well pay not to sleep with her. Sandi Morgan plays Lillian with an unnecessary intensity. There are jokes, and director David Holloway has the actors "sell" these. The going price for sex seems to be $10, a cheap joke. As the ladies die, they shed a raincoat to reveal hot pants with sparkles and do a sort of nightclub wriggle — the formulaic writing ensures that many such tortures lie in wait for us. Schofield has the most fun with this, and her exit lines draw the biggest laughs, but these jokes are borrowed from Mae West. Theatre Southwest is an important artistic landmark outside the Loop, and has had many brilliant productions — this is not one of them. If your taste is for weak, grim, sentimental comedy, give it a shot. But be warned that it's a four-minute Saturday Night Live skit stretched far beyond its breaking point. Through November 17. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Daniela Barcellona in The Italian Girl in Algiers.
Felix Sanchez
Daniela Barcellona in The Italian Girl in Algiers.

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? In Mark Medoff's award-winning play, a sleepy roadside diner in southern New Mexico awakens with a bang when invaded by a sadistic psychopath. The action begins with deceptive quiet as Angel (Lyndsay Sweeney) arrives late for her shift, replacing the night-shift operator, Red (Keenan Hurley). The manager, Clark (Alan Hall), stops in briefly, as does Lyle (Ted Doolittle), who runs the nearby gas station. The rhythm is natural, unhurried, aided strongly by a brilliant, fully detailed set by Trey Otis. A couple, Clarisse (Lendsey Kersey) and Richard (Tom Long), enter to eat as their Cadillac is gassed. The pace picks up with the entrance of Teddy (Travis Ammons) and Cheryl (Katrina Ellsworth), garbed as though fresh from the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Teddy is gregarious, talkative, an extrovert — he intrudes on Clarisse and Richard, challenges Red, playfully but with an increasingly sinister tone, and in a few moments links all together in distaste for him. He segues from charm to bullying, first by force of personality and then by other means of persuasion. The success of this suspense drama hinges on Teddy, and Ammons nails the part with an animated energy that is riveting. Director Steven Fenley has found an excellent cast and shaped it into a smoothly functioning ensemble. The evening may not be everyone's cup of tea, but cruelty can be engrossing. Playwright Medoff creates suspense and includes indications of how these events have altered lives. His depiction of Teddy is frighteningly plausible — he may be the next youth with a gun in the shopping mall. The thriller gains increasing speed and power as Ammons creates the psychopath, in a compelling performance, and brings this suspenseful drama to vibrant life. Through November 4. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

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