Capsule Stage Reviews: Memory House, The Mountaintop, Private Lives, Ubu Roi (King Ubu), The Young Man from Atlanta

 Memory House A mother attempts to connect with her adopted daughter, while the daughter works on finishing an essay required for a college application. The daughter, Katia, was adopted from Russia at the age of six, and is resentful because she has no memory of her early life. Katia is played by Joanna Hubbard as though she were 13 or 14 instead of pre-college — but, oddly, this is how the part is written. Hubbard never manages to make Katia interesting or make us care about her petulance. Rebecca Greene Udden as the adoptive mother, Maggie, creates a portrait of a sincere and dedicated woman, long-suffering and patient, as she bakes a pie from scratch. The playwright, Kathleen Tolan, has actually given Maggie a keen sense of humor and a dry wit, but Udden and the play's director, Claire Hart-Palumbo, seem unaware of this. The real action is bickering, back and forth, insult and retort, reconciliation and sulking — and no intermission. The director and the actors haven't forged a connection between these two women — I never believed they shared the same household and knew each other intimately. Katia is anti-American because of U.S. military intervention abroad, and drops the F-bomb often enough to serve an entire theater festival, but despite these shock devices, the pace is like watching a glacier melt. There is the predictable reconciliation at the end, but it's not enough to atone for the long, dreary beginning, when Maggie made her pie crust and Katia did nothing much, enlivened by long moments of silence. Good intentions and some homilies are not enough to bring to life a play that meanders aimlessly, and pedestrian direction and acting do little to solve the problem. Through February 10. Main Street Theater, Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JJT

The Mountaintop It is April 3, 1968, the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, and Dr. King is staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An attractive black maid, Camae, enters — she is feisty, quick-witted, attractive and "built," so the situation is suggestive and the body language of the characters becomes a pas de deux. Cigarettes are smoked, and shared; drinks are consumed, and shared; and a connection develops. This long beginning is very funny indeed. Dr. King is portrayed as more of an everyman than a heroic, epic figure, and Camae has all the best lines. The play suddenly shifts gears and moves us into magic realism. The segue is handled smoothly, aided by sound effects and some striking lighting — what happens is best not revealed, but the play becomes a drama of desperation. There is an epilogue involving video montages, skirting the shoals of moralizing, and the play might be stronger without it. Camae is played by Joaquina Kalukango and she is brilliant, with a commanding stage presence, an easy poise and great timing in delivering lines, and she even makes slouching in a chair mesmerizing. Bowman Wright portrays Dr. King and is excellent. The play is directed by Robert O'Hara, and he is skillful in generating action within the confines of a motel room and just two characters. Playwright Katori Hall here reveals a rare comic gift for dialogue and shows the courage of a lioness in breaking theatrical traditions, and succeeding. Two skilled actors keep interest alive and treat the audience first to humorous banter and then to highly charged drama as the situation turns serious, resulting in a strange hybrid of a play, but one which succeeds in both of its endeavors. Through February 3.Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Private Lives This classic comedy by Noël Coward is a much-revived vehicle because of its wit, rich humor and vibrant characterizations. The plot is simple — a couple divorced five years ago meet by chance in the south of France on their respective honeymoons, discover that the passion of their mutual attraction has just been smoldering and abscond to Paris. In Act Two, they engage in repartee and fond — and some not so fond — memories, as the strong personalities of Amanda and Elyot emerge, clash and repeat the chaos that had been their marriage. In Act Three, the abandoned spouses confront Amanda and Elyot. The good news is that Autumn Woods plays Amanda and brings to the role an exciting personality, striking looks and a talent to amuse, all the elements making for a star. Brian Heaton plays Elyot and captures his verve, charm and the self-centeredness the role calls for. Heaton and Woods have the onstage chemistry essential to make the play work, and the ensuing wild turbulence is delightful. Roy Hamlin plays Victor, Amanda's abandoned new husband, and is excellent. Whitney Zangarine plays Sybil, the abandoned new wife of Elyot, and is less successful. The director, Gregory Magyar, has Zangarine play Sybil as such a twit that Elyot becomes defined as an idiot for having married her. The play is a gentle satire on the self-importance of the British upper class, a comedy of manners and sophistication, and loses some of its charm when played for farce. But Magyar shows his skill in the interactions of Heaton and Woods — this dynamic duo is the heart and soul of the production, and make this a triumphant revival. Through January 27. From Encore Players at KVPAC, 2501 S. Mason Rd, #290, Great Southwest Equestrian Center, 281-829-2787. — JJT

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