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Artifice Eight's vivid and very varied characters are invited to a private showing of art, but trapped into an overnight stay thanks to a blizzard. Hosting the gathering is Maggie LaRue (Lindsay Smith), whose estranged husband, a talented painter, has perished, and she and his art dealer, Richard (Christopher C. Conway) hope to sell his art — all of it — to a wealthy hotelier, Mick Fitzgerald (Jim Wyatt) to install in his chain of hotels. But Mick may have underworld connections, and upon this thin thread hangs the alleged plot. Drinks are graciously served by Graciela (Sabrina Rosales), garbed as though fresh from a Playboy Club audition — yes, this is a comedy. Trent Matlock (David James Barron) portrays a self-centered actor who has been dating the widow LaRue. Emma (Amesti Reioux) is an art critic with a sullen pout, but she has a surprise for us in Act Two. Judith Fontaine (Heather Gabriel) is an influential publisher whose article on the sale may put Richard's gallery on the map. Cory Grabenstein's late entrance puts the plot into motion. Barron brought a ready smile and an ingratiating, cheerful persona to his role, and hostess Smith held it all together with unfazed aplomb. Conway as the art dealer was nuanced and intense. All the actors had their moments, and performed well, and the set, by Elvin Moriarty and Judy Reeves, was detailed and interesting. Reeves directed the comedy and she has done much to deliver the humor, with the pace sparkling in Act One. The plot is hugely implausible, but comedy enlivens the stage as eight disparate characters meet, scheme, entertain, and pursue their conflicting goals. The work is intended to be merely fun, and succeeds at this. Through May 11 at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. — JJT

Ravenscroft In a British country manor, a police inspector interrogates five women — the solitary male employee has just perished, by accident or murder. The first act is a conventional mystery drama, and the second act close to a French sex farce. The acting is superb, and director Rob Kimbro has succeeded in creating an authentic ensemble. The bad news is that in Act I nothing much happens, except that the ladies tell lies. Sean Patrick Judge plays the inspector, and creates brilliantly a stuffy, straight-arrow officer in Act One, but in Act Two fails to find the truth in the character as playwright Don Nigro compel him to get drunk and become an homme fatal. At the top of the hierarchy is Mrs. Ravenscroft, and Michelle Edwards creates an interesting character with considerable range and authority in Act One, but must portray a simpering coquette in Act Two. Her 17-year-old daughter, Gillian (Zoquera Millburn), is excellent in both acts, since Gillian, though a compelling beauty, is a bit daft, like the play. Claire Anderson brings a wonderful stage presence to the role of the Austrian governess, Marcy, though she has little to do except deliver boring lines. The servants are delicious. Karen Schlag plays Mrs. French, the housekeeper, glum to a fault, and in Act One hovering like a condor at the edge of the stage. In Act Two, it's a relief to find she is silly and flawed. Last but by no means least is Dolly, the much-abused maid, and the wonderful Kara Ray captures her panic and hysteria with vivid certainty. The successive explanations for Patrick's death all seem much the same, and the final one is no more plausible than the others. Through May 18. From Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St., 832-463-0409. — JJT

Tribute Scotty Templeton, an over-the-hill actor and producer who has failed as a family man, is visited by his semi-estranged son, Jud, as they struggle to build a relationship. Scotty has just received some very bad news about his health. Scotty is glib, self-centered, lascivious and also warm-hearted, loyal, talented and always ready with a quip to avoid seriousness. Jim Salners, a gifted actor with great range and versatility, portrays Scotty, a demanding role that has him onstage almost the entire time. Salners finds his rhythm and his heart, but never locates the soul playwright Bernard Slade failed to provide — Slade has written a buffoon, a clown, not a man we could admire. The strong supporting cast includes Elizabeth Marshall Black as Hillary, hooker turned travel agent. Black is gorgeous, with acting chops as well. Nicky Mondellini plays the very attractive Maggie, Scotty's ex-wife and the mother of Jud, and she is excellent. Jami Hughes plays Dr. Gladys Petrelli, trim and sophisticated, who attempts to persuade Scotty to undergo treatment. Scotty's best friend Lou Daniels is played by Jeffrey S. Lane, who is persuasive in his scenes with Scotty and Jud but speaks too slowly. As Jud, Kyle Cameron finds the right balance between rebellion and concern, conveying the awkwardness of youth and its tyrannical judgments. Katrina Ellsworth plays Sally, a young girl Scotty tries to interest Jud in, and she sounds all the right notes, creating an attractive, shrewd, likable character. The final scene, as the son and father embrace at the tribute, is heartwarming and well worth waiting for in a play that badly needs trimming. An interesting and multitalented production comes within striking distance of solving the play's inherent problem of having a buffoon at its core. Through May 26. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

Wildest Dreams English playwright Alan Ayckbourn writes plays with a proficiency that is almost freakish. His latest, set for this August, is his 77th. Knighted in 1997, Sir Alan has had a distinguished career encompassing a double-wide bookcase filled with every prestigious theater award. Without question, he is a man of the theater, tossing off quirky, intriguing, utterly imaginative pieces with deftness and sublime technique. Wildest Dreams (1991), his 42nd play, in a thoroughly beguiling production from Company OnStage, is intimate in scale, but its themes run deep; it's a comedy on its face. At first glance you don't know quite how to take it, which is classic Ayckbourn. First, there's the set — three in one, actually. To our right is a nondescript living room, home to nondescript married Stanley and Hazel (Mark Jones and Elyse Rachal). To the left is an ill-painted, dingy room with fold-up cot, strewn with crumpled food containers and an assortment of garbage everywhere — this is the basement home of Rick (Stephanie Fisherman-Kelso), just as crumpled. Upstage on a platform perches a tiny, messy bedroom, dominated by the light from a computer screen and miles of electric cords — nerdy Warren's command center. Warren believes he's an alien. These four mismatched people come alive while role-playing a fantasy game that Warren's invented. We won't find out much about the game they're obsessed with, but we'll learn all about this quartet's fantasies here on Earth. Into their drab, fantasy-filled lives comes Marcie (Rebecca Johnson-Edgerly), who's run away from abusive husband Larry (Micah Taylor). Her appearance — she's clear-eyed and spouts whatever she thinks to whomever she's talking to, whatever the consequences — is the catalyst for momentous change. She brings renewed romantic vigor to Stanley, mind-cracking jealousy to Hazel, blossoming strength to Rick and a reason to live to Warren, who sees in her a free-spirited extraterrestrial. Wishful thinking, all well and good at the beginning, takes all of them to places they never sought to go. Reality is just as fragile as make-believe in Ayckbourn's skewed world, and some people aren't meant to go there either. Dealing honestly with life's unblinking facts is hard enough for anyone, but these forlorn game players have opened a Pandora's box. It's all quite funny in a sad sort of way, classic Ayckbourn. Under Stacy Bakri's spirited direction, Ayckbourn's surprises come at you with startling immediacy. The ensemble is mighty good, especially Fisherman-Kelso as butch Rick, who comes out of her shell only to fall into another one; Geoffrey Geiger as the nerdiest of nerds; and Johnson-Edgerly as the fresh breeze that blows the cobwebs away, spinning new ones as she goes. It's all wonderfully fresh. Through June 8. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. 713-726-1219. — DLG

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