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The Middle Ages In A.R. Gurney's poignant comedy The Middle Ages (1978) at Theatre Southwest, black sheep of the family Barney Rusher (Scott McWhirter) tries his best to win Eleanor (Samantha Walker), the girl of his dreams, against impossible odds – the country club set. With wry insight and maybe not exactly laugh-out-loud comedy, Gurney dissects the middle class with an anatomist's insight. He lives to skewer. Gurney takes the somewhat-upper crust, or those who think they should be, and flips them on their well-cushioned posteriors. He doesn't flip them high, but his dexterity in flipping them at all draws gentle comedy and sharp social perception. Yes, Barney wants his father's approval, but what he really craves is sweet Eleanor, whom he meets as horny teen in the Trophy Room of his father's very exclusive country club. The entire play takes place in this cherished and dreaded room, as we careen from present day (the '70s), where the memorial ceremony is held for Barney's father (Bob Maddox), back through the decades when Barney first meets Eleanor and her social climbing mother (Melissa J. Mayo). There are only these four characters, but they're more than enough to satisfy. Barney's ready to jump Eleanor's bones as soon as he meets her, but she's tentative and not ready for this wild child, who doesn't want to end up "out there," indicating the people in the club. Barney does everything he can not to be like them, setting his father against him from the beginning. He wants to be Robin Hood, fighting the good fight, rebelling against the noblesse oblige. If that means disrupting his brother Billy's piano playing at the Christmas party, so be it. If that means, trying to seduce an older Eleanor during her wedding day to same brother Billy, so be it, too. In this prickly observed comedy, we hope for the best for Barney even when Eleanor gets married, has children and renounces his attentions. We know they'll end up together somehow. We hope for it. And this bad boy getting his dream girl is wrought by Gurney with nuance and finely-etched portraits of a dying class. McWhirter has us on his side from the beginning. Barney's eyes sparkle in the chase with charm and that hint of crazy danger that's so attractively roguish. Walker gets fresher in every subsequent scene, going from inquisitive teen to sad mom with breathtaking assurance. She possesses natural stage presence that's unforced and utterly believable. When she says, "You're bad for me, Barney," we think the worst for them. But in her black dress, pearls, and white gloves, she might be bad for him. A new face to us, Walker is one to watch, and we hope to see her in many subsequent productions. Maddox, one of Houston's finest, captures the white-bread essence of Charlie with just the right bombast and sarcastic tone of voice. In a defining moment, he goes from starchy dad to mummified old man while he walks across the stage into another scene. It happens so smoothly, we're not sure it really happens at all, but there he is, old and brittle and out of time. Mayo comes into her own as the play proceeds, growing into the twice-divorced Gilbert, thinking her time has run out, then setting her claws for Charlie. When he asks her to marry, the mists lift from her character and Mayo finds her center. The Middle Ages might be young Gurney, but it's good Gurney. Provocative and full of calm surprises – no need to get too riled, what would the club members think? – the play wins us over with its steady tread through the years. Directors John Mitsakis and Kelly Walker, along with the very adept cast, keep the unrequited love stories (Barney and Eleanor; Barney and dad) on a heading straight to the heart. Through September 28. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. – DLG

The Real Thing Tom Stoppard's 1982 play The Real Thing has won two Tony Awards (1984 Best Play, 2000 Best Revival). The central question posed by the playwright is the relevance of monogamy — is the demand for exclusivity of love a tenable position in the contemporary world? Stoppard is noted for his wit and wordplay — the script sparkles with examples — but this is about a warrior playwright, Henry (Joe Kirkendall), who battles for literacy in theater. Henry must choose between pragmatic compromise in a relationship or emotional loss. Kirkendall gives a remarkable, nuanced performance, captivating in its authenticity and refreshing in its vigor. Henry is married to Charlotte (Sara Gaston), as strong-willed as he, beautiful and an actress starring in one of Henry's plays. They are friends with Max (Justin Doran), an actor also in the play, and his wife, Annie (Shannon Emerick). We see the extraordinary acting range of Doran as he performs a scene from Max's play. Gaston as Charlotte has a rapier way with deadpan wit. Emerick as Annie sails through a complex role with brisk aplomb. The play is directed by Main Street Theater's artistic director, Rebecca Greene Udden, and she has forged a winning ensemble. There are three other characters: Debbie (Shannon Nicole Hill), the late-teens daughter of Max and Charlotte; Brodie (David Clayborn), a jailed activist; and Billy (Scott Gibbs), an actor, and all are good. The Real Thing is about infidelity, not physical passion or even love, but about relationships, how much to give in exchange for companionship and a bedmate. Humor is abundant as a brilliant cast adds polish and exuberant, exciting life to a battle of wits and of conflicting beliefs. Through October 6. Main Street Theater — Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JJT

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