Capsule Stage Reviews: 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, Getting Sara Married, Life Could Be a Dream, Life Is a Dream, Superior Donuts, Women@Art

2 Pianos, 4 Hands Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, both talented Canadian pianists and actors trained for careers as classical musicians, have created a play with music that defies description. It uses humor, musical ability and insightful memories of childhood piano lessons to delineate a world of ambition, frustrations, hard work, and responsibilities shared or shirked, all recollected and described with unflagging energy. Tom Frey plays one of the creators, Ted, and Jeffrey Rockwell plays the other, Richard, and both actors are skilled pianists themselves. They alternate playing tutor, student and parents in a series of vignettes of piano lessons, painful at the time but amusing in recollection. My favorite teacher, played by Frey, is an elderly maestro who teaches while supine on the floor and advises the 17-year-old student that playing an arpeggio with one hand will get him chicks because they find it manly. Frey is not only an excellent actor, he is also a deft mime — his facial expressions and eloquent gestures enhance the humor enormously, and Rockwell matches Frey in musical ability and acting proficiency. This is a comedy, with some poignant moments: We meet a seriously unhip classical musician whose dream is to be a jazz pianist, a child of ten who doesn't want to practice and a musical nerd of 17 who doesn't want to stop. Even if you've personally never endured the rigors of piano lessons, you will still savor the earnest drive of youth, the stardust in the eyes of young performers and the agony of rejection. This musical pastiche, a huge success in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, is receiving its regional premiere here, and it's directed with pace and split-second timing by Frey. Adroit writing, skilled performers and an inventive recollection of childhood and adult musical travails merge into a fresh and invigorating comedy, laced with insights and delivering a rich comedic and emotional experience. Through October 28. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

Getting Sara Married It's no surprise Sara has TV written all over it — playwright Sam Bobrick is a former master craftsman of the family comedy. He's had his hand in The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among many other classic shows, so he knows all about the technique for writing comedy. The basic hook is whimsy itself. Workaholic Sara (Sarah Jean Bircher), a lawyer in Manhattan, insists she doesn't have time for romance, doesn't want romance, doesn't "need" romance. Her yenta Aunt Martha (Jan Searson McSwain) has other ideas, and, before you can say "old maid," has taken matters into her own hands and dropped off a potential suitor — literally. Knocked unconscious, Brandon (Ozzy Tirmizi) is wheeled in on a freight dolly by teamster Noogie (Ainsley Furgason) and dropped at Sara's feet. Emerging from his amnesiac haze, Brandon comically reveals he has a fiancée (Sabrina Rosales). Cut to his moony eyes and then Sara's surprised face. Go to commercial. We're in sitcom land with a vengeance, where this type of genre demands finesse and a deftness of playing that belies the gravity-less situations. Although she's an attractive performer, Bircher's tone is off. She gives Sara a lot more brittle edges than the character needs. If you let these paper-thin people start to think and have real feelings, you'll collapse their house of cards. Tirmizi fares better, with a sweet, lighthearted approach to Brandon, probably due to those multiple knocks on the head from Noogie. He's young and reedy, barely filling out the three-piece suit, but he's light without being lightweight. When he warms to Sara, there's that glint in his eye. Wacky sitcom sidekicks were invented to give comic relief, and Bobrick invents two good ones in Aunt Martha and Noogie. When McSwain and Furgason are onstage, the play feels right. Martha's an airhead with a heart of gold who kidnaps Brandon for the purest of reasons. McSwain lands her punch lines with a pro's swagger, delivering the gems by the bagful. Furgason barrels in like a Bronx Yosemite Sam, one of those countless delivery men or telephone repairmen made famous by Neil Simon. You know, the guys who have the timing down to the second and the quip even faster. After a while, you start thinking: What if Aunt Martha and Noogie got together? What a play that would be! Through October 13. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — DLG

Life Could Be a Dream Another jukebox musical — the time is the '60s and the music is doo-wop — delivers nostalgia, charm and warm good feelings, but this time with a plot as well. The setting is a basement rec room where the slacker kids hang out, and, yes, "Get a Job" is amusingly staged, with the unseen mother chiming in on an intercom system. Denny (Adam Gibbs) is leader of the singing group, and he's the one with some show-business polish. Eugene (Mark Ivy) is a stereotypical nerd, and friend Wally (Dylan Godwin) drops in and joins the Denny and the Dreamers group; his trademark signature is enthusiasm. The group expands to include Skip (Cameron Bautsch), a mechanic from the wrong part of town; his trademark is to look hunky, which doesn't go unnoticed by Lois (Rebekah Stevens), whose uptight dad is a snob. The suspense is whether the group can get its act together to win a local contest being held the coming Saturday. Director and choreographer Mitchell Greco keeps the pace clipping along, and the voices are pleasant enough to carry the 20-plus songs, such as "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Unchained Melody." Godwin has the greatest range, most intelligent rendition and impeccable phrasing. There are a lot of physical comedy and broad reactions, and these are appropriate and work well. The finale has a Chorus Line moment that lets us escape the basement and the irritating mother on the intercom. All this is created by Roger Bean, who wrote the long-running hit The Marvelous Wonderettes. This musical, intended for light summer fare, delivers on its promise, providing humor and nostalgia and letting us again relive the tuneful melodies of the '60s. Through October 14. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT


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Life Is a Dream Pedro Calderón's 1635 classic Life Is a Dream is the ultimate nature vs. nurture play. With a fresh translation from playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and a sprightly production, there's plenty of life in this antique chestnut from Spain's Golden Age. The multiple plots are bold and vivid, but it's Calderón's solidly visual language that sets him next to Shakespeare for sheer poetry in motion. Cruz keeps him down to earth somewhat, modernizing a lot of the high-soaring passages and condensing some of its heavy weight, but he always allows those crystalline Calderón images to float front and center. Imprisoned since birth to forestall the dire prophecy his horoscope predicted, Prince Segismundo (David Wald) is brought back to the palace by his guilt-ridden father (Steve Garfinkel). If he proves wise and good, the prince will reign; if he behaves like the monster his father believes him to be, he will return to his nightmarish prison. In crisp, short scenes, Calderón laces this psychologically cogent thriller with the bracing idea of free will. Can man overcome his fate? Must the beast inside always win against our better angels? Then he ladles on the intriguing notion that if life is but a dream, what is real? And how can one tell the difference? Into the heady mix, Calderón throws in a vengeance subplot and a Borscht Belt comic in wise-ass servant Clarin (Philip Hays). Wald makes a terrifically sympathetic prince, whether howling at his fate or opening up to the beauties of Estrella (Crystal O'Brien). "What must the sun do after you rise from your bed," he raves Romeo-like upon seeing her. Beth Lazarou, usually seen singing dramatically on other stages around town, creates a fierce, proud princess in Rosaura — she looks at ease carrying her sword as would Joan of Arc. Garkinkel shows the paternal warmth beneath the king's Lear exterior, and Justin O'Brien gives imperious Astolfo a sharp edge of ego. There are a few moments when rage and braying get the upper hand and threaten to swamp the good ship Calderón, but director Pablo Bracho steadies the boat immediately. If life is a dream, as Calderón so ably implies, then Main Street Theater's exceedingly minimal production — sweatshirts and everyday wear overlaid with period trappings — has a dream logic all its own. It's impossible to make Calderón up-to-date; his ornate language won't allow it. But his particular message to live life fully and do your best in the living of it is a fit lesson for any age. Through October 21. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

Superior Donuts In this play, the taciturn owner of a donut shop in Chicago with few customers hires an African-American male to assist him, and they develop a prickly relationship. Playwright Tracy Letts tackles a multiplicity of themes: racism, the gangster underworld, addiction, the rise of Starbucks and Vietnam-era draft evasion. We meet first the owner of an adjacent shop (Scott Holmes) and two police officers, investigating vandalism. Holmes delivers an interesting and credible characterization, and Osbie Shephard as the male officer is commanding and authentic. The female officer, played by Vicky McCormick, is courting Arthur, the donut shop's owner (John William Stevens), but McCormick seems to be still searching for her character, so the play includes an unconvincing romance. Stevens is a powerful actor, but the script unfortunately calls for him to change his mood and motivation almost capriciously. Sam Flash plays Franco, the young African-American, and is brash as required, but the chemistry between him and Arthur never quite materializes. Flash and Stevens anchor the play and nail some eloquent moments. There is considerable humor in the form of one-liners. A lot happens in Act Two, most of it implausible, and the comedy turns ugly toward the end, but playwright Letts tugs at our heartstrings, so there are rays of light in the midst of cowardice, brutality and penury. The play reeks of nostalgia for a bygone Chicago — that may have been the appeal in writing it. Directed by Trevor B. Cone, the work has a slow pace that creates a sense of naturalism. Through September 29. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT


Women@Art As far as choreographers are concerned, the world of ballet is a male one. But Houston Ballet continues its tradition of celebrating female dance-makers with Women@Art, a mixed-rep program featuring work by Julia Adam, Aszure Barton and the incomparable Twyla Tharp. Ketubah, Adam's Jewish wedding portrait, is a delight. Much of the choreography draws from Eastern European social dance, and what really brings these piquant scenes to life is the klezmer music performed by The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas. Enough cannot be said of the world premiere of Barton's Angular Momentum. It's a fascinating piece, and one that takes some time to digest. Even then, it's a bit difficult to fully grasp its intentions. Contemporary sci-fi ballet may sound a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it might be just as good a description as any. The dance is characterized by its sharp, birdlike movements and common gestures that one would not expect to see on a world-renowned stage. Hands wave, shoulders shrug and torsos shimmy for choreography that is as bizarre as it is stimulating. There are throbbing, palpitating sequences where the dancers take striking Eastern poses and move in hypnotic undulations of the space. All this while they're in spacesuits. It may be redundant to fawn over Tharp's The Brahms-Haydn Variations, but there's a reason Tharp is a seminal figure in contemporary dance. Tharp matches Brahms's music with choreography that complements the central melody. Dancers in creams and soft copper enter and exit the stage in waves of lifts and extensions; men leap and women promenade, at moments in pairs and at others in groups. The most gorgeous moments are when the full cast is onstage, the fractured movement becoming a single unit that swells and falls in warm energy. This is ballet for sure, but it's dance that feels of this moment, fresh, relevant and vital. Through September 30. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — AC

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