An Empty Plate in the Caf du Grand Boeuf Michael Hollinger's play, now running at Main Street Theater, is a most unusual comedy. Wildly ambitious, the play invokes some of American literature's most familiar images, including Ernest Hemingway, a Parisian cafe and existential angst. But revered as they may be, many of the motifs running through this script feel oddly out of place, and they come off as over-the-top melodrama, seeming almost quaint against the backdrop of our current consumer-driven world. On the other hand, there is so much wonderful clowning enacted by this story's collection of quirky characters -- who come to dazzlingly hysterical life with the help of director Rebecca Greene Udden's wonderfully capable cast -- that it's hard not to come away from this peculiar play feeling strangely satisfied. The premise spins around a man named Victor (Charles Tanner) who wants simply to tell his life story while he slowly starves himself to death. But the employees of the Grand Boeuf come up with a clever plan to save their patron. They tempt him with a make-believe dinner. They bring out empty plate after empty plate, describing the dishes they wish they were serving in so succulent a verbiage that it's impossible not to come out of this show hungry as a bear. As the head waiter, James Belcher enjoys every minute he spends curving his lips around each syllable as though it were a bite of manna. He leads the terrific cast of foppish staff members as each reveals that they are every bit as troubled as Victor. Frankly, Victor and his problems sound narcissistic when held up to those of his sadder and funnier staff. But happily, the workers get as much time on stage as Victor does, and they make for a sinfully tasty treat. Through October 16. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.
Honky Tonk Angels The three women who populate Ted Swindley's surprisingly mediocre Honky Tonk Angels have a dream. Angela, Darlene and Sue Ellen all want to be country singers. Stuck in individual ruts, they're desperate to "fly away" to Nashville, the Hollywood of country music. Watched over by their guardian angels, the three meet on the Greyhound bus trip and decide to form a trio. Without so much as breaking a sweat, they land a job on their first try. Angels is a "jukebox musical," a compilation of songs -- here, mostly country -- strung loosely together into a show. The skill lies in the weaving. Swindley, founding artistic director of Stages and creator of Angels, knows all about jukebox musicals, having created one of the most enduring, profitable ones, AlwaysPatsy Cline. Unfortunately, lightning hasn't stuck twice. Angels is strictly second-hand goods. There's no conflict, no roadblocks to the women's success, no compromises to force them down unfamiliar paths. What makes this low-rent show worth the trouble are the three performers, who use their entire arsenal of stage tricks to keep this jalopy of a show constantly moving. Susan Shofner (Angela) is the comedic Sophie Tucker of the group, the mama who's the glue that holds them all together. In Act II, the sleazy lounge act, Shofner stops the show with "Harper Valley PTA," jiggling across the stage in platform wedgies, animal print mini, padded bosom and stovepipe hairdo. The lovely-voiced Deanna Julian (Darlene), a pig-tailed, bib-overalled "sweet young thang" who could have sashayed straight out of the Dukes of Hazzard remake, gives "Ode to Billy Joe" a fragrant, romantic flavor. And Brooke Wilson (Sue Ellen) gives her material more oomph than it gives her. She manages to make "These Boots Are Made For Walking" (one example of the second-rate songs used for this revue) really sound good -- and hot. With Honky Tonk Angels, Swindley has taken the easy road, employing guardian angels in place of drama, taking the sex and heat out of the story, and making it palatable for children of all ages. It'll run for years. Through October 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
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The Ladies of the Camellias Some theater groupies are into backstage historical lore and gossip, and for them, Lillian Garrett-Groag's bouffant "divertissement" about the clash of theater's ultimate divas (France's Sarah Bernhardt and Italy's Eleonora Duse) will be as tasty as a shot of chilled Stoli accompanied by a heaping tablespoon of Beluga. For other theatergoers, The Ladies of the Camellias may call to mind rubbing alcohol and fish eggs. It's an acquired taste, if a classic one -- egomaniacal actors and the twin subtexts of art vs. entertainment and celebrity vs. talent have been debated since before Aristotle. They just don't make actors anymore like these two divas from a century ago: Bernhardt (Barbara Lasater in ultra-grande-dame mode) travels with a pet cheetah and an alligator and sleeps in a coffin; Duse (a sleek and stylish Melissa Winter) keeps a portrait of snake-headed Medusa above her bed. In the days before directors were the power behind the footlights, these ladies -- who were not only actors but also managers and producers -- replaced authors' lines, changed character motivation and wore costumes from the House of Worth even when playing a down-on-her-luck courtesan. Groag's comedy is based on the fact that in 1897, international stars Bernhardt and Duse actually acted in different versions of the same play -- Dumas's classic The Lady of the Camellias -- in the same Parisian theater during the same week. Their rivalry must have been heaven. This production would be heavenly too if the cheesy accents were dropped so the script's subtleties could shine more brightly, and if a trifle more oomph were inserted into the production's staging to keep this fine soufflé from nearly falling. The cast is game, however, and this once-in-a-lifetime interlude in theater history is lovingly, comically brought to life. Through October 1. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.