Done to Death Vermont playwright Fred Carmichael's 30-plus light romances and murder comedies have been a boon to regional theaters, and his works and patronage have been instrumental in the reputation and success of that state's Dorset Theatre Playhouse. If you're acquainted with one of his most performed plays, thanks to Company OnStage, there's no need to rush to see another. This empty exercise at murder mystery/comedy has no style, little imagination and clunky dramatics. The premise has promise: Five out-of-style mystery writers have been hired to collaborate on a TV series. Whisked off to a deserted island, they discover their TV producer dead in the closet and their own ranks dispatched one by one. They must use their distinctive styles of deduction to discover the killer before more mayhem ensues. This might work if any conviction or depth had been given to the characters other than the clichs they've been clothed in, as Carmichael forces his convoluted plot twists into superficial pretzels and needless, unfunny digressions. Only Dottie McQuarrie, as a gruff Agatha Christie look-alike, and John Patterson, as a martini-swilling, urbane Nick Charles clone, find the correct tone in this toneless play. It's awfully difficult to supply these types with personality, logic or believability when the playwright can't be bothered. That's the ultimate mystery. Through June 11. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.
Inherit the Wind Who would've thought that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictionalized play about the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial could be so pertinent today? As you watch Theatre Southwest's stirring production of this fascinating classic drama, the state of Kansas debates whether what is known as "creative design" should be taught in their public schools along with Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Some 17 other states have debated the issue in recent months. What was once thought a dead issue is most frighteningly alive; the current culture war is being waged as heatedly as it was during that oppressively hot July in Dayton, Tennessee, when the godly fundamentalist forces of lawyer William Jennings Bryan (called Matthew Brady in the play) battled the godless libertines arrayed behind defense attorney Clarence Darrow (called Henry Drummond). The trial was a media circus. While Wind smudges history, it stays remarkably true to overall tone. Adroitly directed by Mimi Holloway, the play is a mighty courtroom pageant without one dull moment. As Brady, Gene Griesbach needs only a touch more fire and brimstone to capture his character's oversize persona. David Holloway's Drummond is a wily, compassionate man who has a field day deflating the pompous while he fights for "a man's right to think." Bob Maddox relishes every misanthropic epigram he doles out as cynic-supreme E.K. Hornbeck, based on real-life journalist H.L. Mencken. Chelsea Aldrigh plays Rachel Brown, the repressed schoolteacher in love with Bertram Cates (played by a sympathetic, conflicted Trevor B. Cone), who's on trial for teaching evolution. She portrays her character stumbling into enlightenment with amazing truthfulness. As her father, the fundamentalist Reverend Brown, John Stevens raises the roof with thundering damnations of the world's wickedness. History is alive, relevant and kicking in Theatre Southwest's rousing rendition. Through June 18. 8944A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.
Shut Up and Drive No. 4 out of the 14 plays that make up Radio Music Theatre's enduring, hilarious saga of the Singing Fertle Family from Dumpster, Texas, this is the most physical of the comedies so far -- and every bit as wacky and laugh-out-loud funny as the preceding ones. In this installment, daughter Carol, who lives the high life in San Diego with husband George, feels guilty for not seeing her low-life family, and so invites Mom, Dad and brother Earl for a visit. This coincides with sister Justicena's visit to Dumpster, so in typical Fertle fashion, the entire clan ends up coming along, including Uncle Al (he of the eyebrow glasses and incessant stogie) and girlfriend Gwenda (she of the cat's-eye glasses and incessant stogie). Nine family members pretzel themselves into Lou's Buick Riviera and set off for sunny California. That the whole panoply of nutsy folk are played by the three multitalented members of RMT only makes this feat more impressive. The entire Fertle clan clambers over, under and around the front seat during their Act I adventure. Hands, legs and a foot-long sausage make appearances, as does a psychotic trucker with a purple Mohawk, along with Doc Moore (he of the gibberish speech). Somehow, the overloaded Buick limps into "San-di-damn-ego," as Lou calls it, and Act II is off and running amok as the family collides in utterly unpredictable, funny ways. Lou builds a boat in the garage and memorizes the Constitution (don't ask!); Earl wins a contest with his backward singing; Justicena finds her G-spot; Pete "bucks up"; and baby Angina learns to say, "My mommy is a slut." Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills are wondrous on stage, as are Mark Cain and Pat Southard backstage with their sound effects and music mixing. The evening flies by much too fast, and the show is brilliant and wild. Through August 27. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.
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