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. Now acquainted with one of his most performed plays, thanks to Company OnStage, I'm not rushing 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.
Needful Creatures Sex gets quite a drubbing in John Harvey's Needful Creatures, the two plays that comprise Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company's current production. Maybe not the act itself, which every character chases with unalloyed passion and single-mindedness, but the fact that nobody seems very happy chasing it, or satisfied when they catch it. Eros: A Circus is a No Exit-type surreal exercise that finds three characters stuck in a room forever rehearsing a play they never perform. This leads to serious inbreeding, a dead body in the trunk and much reiteration of "this is a play...no, this is real" dialogue. The most intriguing part is the beginning where the three characters slink onto the set and, in quick blackout scenes, wordlessly enact what we will later see enacted in overblown, stylized talk. Although the characters are named Ringmaster (Joshua Gray), Tumbler (Daniel Laden) and Acrobat (Jennifer Decker), the circus theme isn't followed through in the least. Gray is most affecting as the extremely troubled, psychotic leader whose unfulfilled homoerotic desires lead to murder and who chows down on a most fragrant broiled chicken dinner. Laden and Decker do the best with what they have to work with, which is high praise when who knows what exactly is going on. Kama Sutra works better because it's grounded by Hieronymous Bosch's painting Garden of Earthly Delights projected as a continuing slide show on the set's side wall, as well as selective readings from the mother of all sex manuals. We're in a bar whose patrons, though masked, cruise one another with abandon, hook up, disconnect, talk in David Mamet fragments, and end up unsatisfied. This, at least, illustrates Harvey's theme, taken from Sappho, of desire as a "sweet, then bitter needful creature." The masks ultimately come off, but nobody's the better for it. All this sexual angst is symbolic and meaningful, even without the pleasure. Patricia Duran, as an unhappily married woman carrying on an unsatisfying affair, pulls this off with appropriate ennui, as do Mike Switzer as a reptilian lothario and Candice Bruder as an enlightening art professor who gets her kicks by allowing students to stroke her thighs. My art history classes were never like this. Through May 28. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 La Branch, 832-418-0973.
Peter Pan In TUTS's production of Broadway perennial Peter Pan, it sounds like we're inside an oil drum. Even the orchestra is electrified. Pumped up, the sound is synthesized and artificial, as if piped in from some theater down the street, and the dialogue drowns under tinny violins and rock concert percussion. Regardless of the abysmal sound, the intrinsic quality of Pan holds up amazingly well. It's a big brassy musical with enough of James Barrie's original play to keep its title. As always, Peter leads Wendy and her brothers away from London into Neverland, where they join the lost boys, live without grown-ups and take on Captain Hook. As Peter, Cathy Rigby amazes. "The boy who wouldn't grow up" fits her like a pair of hand-sewn tights. Even without a wire, she soars, vaunting over beds, using the stair railing as parallel bars, scrambling into handstands and strutting like a tomboy. She's completely at home on stage, belting out "I Gotta Crow" or gyrating like a Broadway gypsy during the lively "Ugg-a-Wugg" number, where Peter attacks the tom-toms like a possessed Kodo drummer. Even Mary Martin, forever branded with Pan's mug, couldn't fly like Rigby. She's fearless as she zooms around the stage with breath-catching speed. When the bedroom windows fling open, the orchestra swells with the intoxicating "I'm Flying," the walls break apart and Rigby rockets into the stratosphere, spewing that patented pixie dust, it's an indelible, heart-pounding Broadway moment at its finest. And Rigby's curtain call is the best on record. Through May 22 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.
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