Capsule Stage Reviews: 2nd Annual Festival of Comedy, American Buffalo, Three Murders and It's Only Monday, Who Was That Masked Man?

2nd Annual Festival of Comedy UpStage Theatre's 2nd Annual Festival of Comedy allows local playwrights to strut their stuff in one-act plays that are comic yet stay safely within the boundaries of "family-oriented" appeal. The writing shows imagination and comedic verve, suggesting good things to come from these four talented playwrights. The acting that brings these plays to life ranges from sophisticated, nuanced and thoroughly professional, to amateurish and embarrassingly inept. The good news is that much of the writing is so very good that it survives even this handicap. The Parking Lot by Alan Johnson is well-directed by Ann Richie, and it wittily and subtly reimagines some fairy tales, one in particular, in a good cop/bad cop vernacular. An excellent cast does it justice. The Bright Side of Being Blue by Carl Williams poses the dilemma a manager faces when his once-hot country-and-western singer is too happy to sing the blues — the concept is amusing enough for Williams to develop this into a full-length play. Sean K. Thompson both directed and played the manager — his acting is inventive and skilled, but as a director he failed to solve a casting problem; he should have gotten better performances out of some of the cast. The Idiot's Guide to Dummies by George Rapier presents a daughter and her date coping with her amusingly offbeat and highly dysfunctional parents. The writing is fresh and comically insightful, and it is well-directed by Jennifer Wood. Family Matters by Jeffrey Strausser is a bit of a muddle, as four adult daughters arrive to take their parents out to dinner. They are a bit apprehensive, as Mother is determined to start traveling the world and Father is determined to reinvent Jackie Gleason and become a stand-up comic. His jokes are as corny as a corn-dog, and I loved all of them. The parents are wonderful characters, and I want to meet them again, but the play might do with fewer daughters, and its "message" might be delivered with subtlety instead of a sledgehammer. It's well-directed by Arnold Richie, artistic director of UpStage Theatre. Chief among the more inspired and highly talented actors were Norris Thompson, Joseph Moore, 14-year-old Xavier Lehew, Sonia Kronberg, Cristina Gibson, Arnold Richie and Anne Richie, who is artistic director of UpStage's Children's Theatre. Despite some flawed performances, the four plays provide an evening of irreverent humor, inventive ideas, psychological insights and generational conflicts. They are a most welcome escape from the summer heat – and the air-conditioning works beautifully. Through August 27. UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

American Buffalo American Buffalo is an early David Mamet play, so you know that it's going to feature tough talk from unsavory, pathetic people. Men, to be precise. This 1976 play is set in a basement junk shop in an unspecified city. Don (Steve Irish), the proprietor, is a low-key, shadowy hustler with an outsized sense of dignity. After a wealthy customer buys a rare, American Buffalo nickel from him, Don doesn't celebrate the nice markup he got on the coin. Instead, he's offended by the customer's lordliness, and intends to break into said customer's house to burgle what Don assumes is a pricey rare-coin collection. He seems to think he has as much right to the coins as the unnamed customer does. From his basement shop, Don puts together a small team for the heist. Young Bobby (Matt Hune) is supposed to be casing the customer's house and helping with the break-in. Teach (Drake Simpson) is a more experienced criminal who thinks he should replace the green, and — as he sees it — unreliable Bobby on the job. Much of the first-act talk revolves around Teach trying to persuade the fatherly but slightly slow Don to let him, Teach, do the job. The talk in the second half revolves around an unseen member of the team, Fletcher, who keeps Don and Teach waiting long after the job is supposed to have begun. Where is Fletcher? Has he betrayed them? Has baby-faced Bobby betrayed them, for that matter, out of revenge because they cut him out of the action? Mamet shows his chops here; tension mounts as nothing happens. And he's got a very strong cast here to make that tension mount. Irish doesn't make a strong impression at first, but that's because his Don is something of a slowly awakening bear. As Teach, Simpson enters with a burst of energy and believability. And you just know that Hune, as sweet young Bobby, is simply going to break your heart. The frustrations hard-wired into these small-time losers' lives mount until they explode. And the explosion, with Don and Teach going at each other, is convincing and scary. That goes for this entire production by the Landing Theater Company, subtly but powerfully staged by director Kevin Holden, and convincingly designed by Frank Vela. Through August 28. O'Kane Theater, University of Houston-Downtown, 1 Main, 713-487-5634. — DT

Three Murders and It's Only Monday Prolific playwright Pat Cook, a resident of Houston, knows the mystery genre to a fare-thee-well and spoofs it entertainingly in Three Murders and It's Only Monday. Revered conventions are shattered to smithereens as the fourth wall is not only breached but assaulted with devastating comic force. Detective Harry Monday, well played by Christopher Roney, dominates the proceedings. Roney creates the desired film noir ambience, wearing a worn fedora with a snap brim as though born with it on. The down-on-his-luck detective's pants aren't even close to matching his jacket, perfectly capturing his financial straits. But he is as adept at ferreting out killers as he is at marching downstage to brief the entranced audience on developments. The audience is not only loyal, it verges on devout — a recurring plot event is a generator failure that darkens the stage, and when this occurs the audience bursts into applause as though an especially well played scene has just ended. This is not always the case, as some of the performers are better than the others, and a tone of woodenness occasionally mars the goings-on. The acting, rather than being ensemble, has the tone of "every man for himself"; since this is a satire, it works better than one might expect. The plot, of course, involves a will and beneficiaries being killed. The dialogue is deliberately obtuse — one example will suffice: A scream is heard. "What was that?!" "A scream." Joey Hancock displays admirable enthusiasm as an American Indian, and Glenn Ropiequet has a powerful stage presence as Dr. Morrissey. Crystal Stampes finds her evil twin in a bravura ending involving a knife pointed directly at an audience member. Cheryl Mills wears long white gloves with aplomb but is given little to do. One actor has movie-star looks but not a glimmering of how to project her voice for the stage. The entire cast is adept at ducking for cover or hitting the floor whenever a gun is brandished, which is often. And the yearning to break the fourth wall themselves is realized in a hilarious passage. The proceedings are directed by Larry Ransberger, who finds the humor. It is very entertaining. Sit back and savor — this is a spoof, not Agatha Christie — and even the awkward moments will surprise and possibly delight. Through August 20. Playhouse 1960, 6814 Gant Rd., 281-587-8243. — JJT

Who Was That Masked Man? The term "meller-drammer" says it all — outlandish acting, deliberately exaggerated actions, simple plots, a mustachioed villain and a damsel in distress. Hisses at the villain were encouraged, as were cheers for the hero, and Theatre Suburbia capped it all by providing popcorn to throw at the cast, who sometimes threw it back. An uncomplicated set permitted something like a theater-in-the-round arrangement, and a bar in Slick Willy's Saloon doubled as a teller's cage for the local bank. The widow (tearfully well-played in the expected histrionic mode by Susan O'Connor) was slated to lose her home to the evil bank president whose mustache and black cape are certain emblems of villainy. Glenn Dodson played the morally challenged villain with confidence, but I did miss some of the lip-smacking relish and the savoring of pure evil that's the traditional hallmark of roles such as these. I especially liked Donna Dixon, who played the barmaid in an attractive red gown with eye shadow to match, and who dominated the stage with her powerful self-assurance. Daniel Corrigan was great as the dim-witted, bungling sheriff, and he managed to add nuance — believe it or not — to his role. Amesti Reioux played the widow's daughter — she can flutter a mean eyelid, nailed the ingenue smile and made us want to protect her virtue from the inevitable assault. The young Andrew Miles was effective as the Magnolia Kid, a gunslinger dressed in black but with so much cherry-red jacket fringe that I feared it might slow down his quick draw. The hero was the Masked Man, played by James Plake, and, while I found him unconvincing as the hero, he came to life in a dance routine in a dress — no, not cross-dressing, just a disguise. There was more dancing in the play, including an energetic, engaging can-can by a woman well past the first blush of youth. And there was singing as well, by the cast and the audience — a song-sheet was provided with the program, though the songs are familiar classics. The entire cast worked well together under the able direction of Doris Merten, creating a world of high jinks and low humor that, much to my surprise, I came to believe in. The events were enhanced by Alice Smith's appropriate piano accompaniment. Nineteenth-century histrionics were displayed shamelessly onstage in a fun-filled performance, and unless you're a curmudgeon by nature, you'll enjoy it. See it — you may exit with popcorn in your hair, but there will be a smile on your lips. Through August 27. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT


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