Capsule Stage Reviews: Arsenic and Old Lace, Assistance, Hamlet, The Middle Ages, The Real Thing, Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays

 Arsenic and Old Lace Arsenic and Old Lace was a huge Broadway hit, opening in 1941 for 1,444 performances, and is currently on three Houston stages — a tribute to the enduring appeal of farce. The members of the Brewster family are a few cards short of a full deck, as Teddy Brewster (Stephen Hurst) thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt, blowing a bugle as he charges up San Juan Hill. His aunts, Abby Brewster (Patty Tuel Bailey) and Martha Brewster (Stephanie Bradow), are sweet and adorable, and given to charitable deeds, such as poisoning elderly men with cyanide-laced elderberry wine to free them of loneliness. Also homicidal is Jonathan Brewster (Marty Blair), who returns to the large Brooklyn home after a decades-long absence, looking like Boris Karloff thanks to plastic surgery performed by his alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Marion Arthur Kirby), while he's under the influence. Theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Kevin Dean) proposes to Elaine Harper (Julie Fontenot) but has second thoughts about inherited madness after he realizes his aunts are murderesses. Dean provides a delightful characterization; his body language is superb and he has mastered the delayed double take. Fontenot has little to do except look slim and beautiful; she does that well. Bailey and Bradow as the aunts bubble with good will, and are endearing. Hurst brings unflagging energy to his role as "Teddy Roosevelt." Blair portrays Jonathan as a loudmouthed bully, a gruesome portrayal unsuited to the tone of the play, which is warm and sweet. Kirby as Dr. Einstein captures his villainy while also showing a crack in his criminal veneer. Playwright Joseph Kesselring's excellent plotting, deft characterizations and gift for inventive wit are outstanding, and director Joey Watkins most ably delivers the desired breakneck speed. Through October 6. A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

Assistance Playwright Leslye Headland's comedy introduces six assistants working for a tyrannical boss, Daniel Weisinger, who is a bully, a pedant, oblivious to the needs of others and cold and distant. He doesn't just chastise underlings, he humiliates them. Why do they stay? Ambition is the fuel and the goal is to make it big themselves. The comedy opens with Vince getting promoted, and we see his smug delight in his newly-minted authority. Black Lab Theatre's Artistic Director Jordan Jaffe, who directed the comedy, plays Vince, and his portrayal is hilarious. Vince's replacement is portrayed by Adam Gibbs, the central character. Gibbs is brilliant, with rich body language, and great comic timing. He nurtures newbie Nora (Rebekah Stevens Gibbs) and they generate chemistry onstage, no surprise as they are newlyweds in real life. Lindsay Ehrhardt plays Heather, another assistant, and in a beautifully written telephone conversation with her mother, whose brother has died, captures a poignant moment. Tim Ashby enters late as Justin, a flunky involved in an accident while on a business trip, convinced it was his own fault despite all evidence to the contrary. Emily Campion is a late-arrival assistant playing Jenny, and she brings with her humor, poise, sophistication and the glitter of success. She has an out-of-the-blue comic finale that is exuberant and wonderful. The acting is universally excellent and the pace suitably brisk. Playwright Headland is skilled at double-tasking and has created an authentic milieu to rich comic effect, but has also said something revealing about human nature. She is gifted, and Black Lab Theatre has given this comedy the production it deserves – well-cast, brilliantly directed, and with its humor delivered comically, yet realistically. A delightful romp. Through October 5, from Black Lab Theatre, at Wildfish Theatre, 1703-D-1 Post Oak Blvd., 713-515-4028. JJT

Hamlet The Classical Theatre Company tackles William Shakespeare's longest play in an adaptation by artistic director John Johnston, trimming it to manageable size. This revenge drama relies on the power of Hamlet's existential musings on life, and on melodramatic events, for its success. Matthew Keenan portrays Hamlet with understated authenticity, sparked by flashes of humor and charm. He looks princely, and moves eloquently, playing Hamlet as a man of action, though contemplative; it is an engaging, admirable portrayal. John Johnston directed and has set some scenes with brutality — Polonius manhandling his daughter Ophelia seemed novel. Ralph Ehntholt portrays Polonius as a bully, and Hamlet's brutal throttling of Guildenstern (here, a woman, played by Amy Buchanan) signaled that the director was going for the effects that a vivid vignette can generate. The mad scene of Ophelia (Joanna Hubbard), usually played for heart breaking poignancy, is here closer to a scene from Zombie Prom. As Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, Christianne Mays is beautiful and elegant and brings authenticity, power, and emotional depth to the role. As Claudius, who has poisoned his brother the king (Hamlet's father), Rutherford Cravens seems merely stolid. Jarred Tettey plays Horatio, Hamlet's friend, and is quite good, as is Kirk Ellis as Osric, delivering the inherent humor in his key scene. Rosencrantz (Jeff McMorrough) is phlegmatic and seems bewildered by events. Ted Doolittle is humorous as the gravedigger, and Laertes (Dain Geist), brother to Ophelia, is strong. There are highlights: the ghostly appearance of the slain king; the graveyard scene; and the lengthy dueling scene, done about as well as it could be. The narrative and power emerge intact, and strong performances, especially from Keenan as Hamlet, make for riveting theater. Through September 29, from The Classical Theatre Company, at The Barn (formerly Barnevelder). 2201 Preston, 713-963- 9665. — JJT

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