Capsule Stage Reviews: 4000 Miles, The Diary of Anne Frank, Fool, Peter Pan, Ruined

4000 Miles Amy Herzog's play 4000 Miles, which won the 2012 Obie Award for Best New American Play, chronicles a visit by a young man of 21, who has just biked across the country, with his grandmother of 91, living in Greenwich Village. Biker Leo is portrayed by Jordan Jaffe, who brings a tall ranginess to the role and captures the sense of a youth who has yet to find his moorings in life. Waltrudis Buck as the grandmother, Vera, creates an endearing portrait of an elderly survivor. Though Vera may have to search for a word, she is self-sufficient, doing the laundry and shopping, and caring for herself. Leo's stay extends into several weeks, and we meet Leo's former NYC girlfriend, Bec, played by Shannon Nicole Hill. Andrea Huang plays Amanda, a girl Leo has picked up. The play has no intermission and lasts 105 minutes, but these women are largely irrelevant to it. Vera has led an interesting life, with philandering husbands and a Marxist background, has earned the right to speak her mind and does. Leo is a bit of a boor — self-centered, won't take his pickup's phone number, borrows Vera's money, etc. The relationship with Vera never catches fire — a missed connection, which is the real theme of the play. Bec is also a drifter, needing some time alone, unconnected. Amanda is Chinese, hates communism and is promiscuous; Leo is just one more missed connection. It's clear that 4000 Miles, inspired by Herzog's grandmother, has a special resonance for the playwright, but the fascination hasn't been transferred to the stage. Even the talents of the gifted director, Justin Doran, can't paper over a sensitive but largely flavorless work. Through March 16. Black Lab Theatre at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation, 713-515-4028. — JJT

The Diary of Anne Frank For more than two years, eight Jews in Amsterdam hid from the Nazis in the upper back rooms of Otto Frank's spice and pectin factory/warehouse on the busiest canal in the city. Sensing disasters yet to come after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Frank had bundled up his family (wife Edith and teenage daughters Margot and Anne) and slipped into the "secret annex" wearing as many layers of clothes as they could manage. A week later, Mr. and Mrs. van Pels and son Peter joined them. Four months later, dentist Pfeffer, a friend of the van Pels, pleaded to be hidden with them. Although the eight were aided by four of Frank's most trusted co-workers, who brought them food, books, a forbidden radio and Anne's favorite movie magazines, the group was betrayed by an anonymous tip to the SS. They were arrested and later sent to hellish Auschwitz, with only Otto Frank returning alive. We wouldn't know anything at all about this if young daughter Anne's diaries and notebooks hadn't been salvaged from the annex. Yearning to be a writer, she never could have foreseen that her work would become a classic of the human spirit and the indomitable will to survive, nor that her face would become the everlasting image of the Holocaust. Miraculously, Anne's voice had survived the horrors. In tribute and remembrance, Mr. Frank edited the voluminous material and oversaw publication. The book came out in 1947 and swept the world. A Broadway dramatization by Hollywood husband-and-wife A-listers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (The Thin Man, Naughty Marietta, It's a Wonderful Life) followed in 1955 and earned the team a Pulitzer Prize. The play is a crafty distillation of young Anne's dramatic life in the annex as it plays up the humor of the irrepressible, youthful girl (Jennifer Gilbert in a marvelously radiant performance) paired against sour dentist Dussel, a.k.a. Pfeffer (Stephen Hurst), or as it ratchets up the romance with shy Peter (Braden Hunt), while she watches seagulls soar past the skylight in the blue sky and dreams of her first kiss. Family tensions are brightly delineated as Anne sets off sparks with her mother (Jennifer Dean); confronts the egotistical, conceited Mrs. Van Dann (Christy Watkins); spars with blustering, dishonest Mr. Van Dann (Craig Griffin); yet is always comforted by her rational, calm father (Ric Hodgin). The daily trials of living together in claustrophobic quarters, never at rest in finding a private moment, are beautifully rendered. Quotations from the diary bridge scene changes while they inform us of time passing. The constant bickering, the give-and-take of petty everyday life, is conveyed with modest strokes and then, wham, an outburst of uncontrolled anger and panic. The drama has real ebb and flow. The tension mounts inexorably as the eight tiptoe through the set, always on slow boil and never giving full vent to their feelings for fear of being overheard — although their clumping about and slamming of doors during the play's first moments are glaring errors from director Tawny Stephens. When a thief breaks into the downstairs factory, Peter accidentally falls off a chair and thuds to the floor as he tries to dim the lights. The audience collectively holds its breath in suspended animation. The entire play is suspended. We're caught up in their plight even though we know the ultimate outcome, but, like young Anne, we wish for some other, better end. The A.D. Players ensemble is first-rate, full of nuance and detail, as is the production design. Robin Gillock's multilevel set seems to get more confined as personal conflicts overpower the trapped occupants. Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are faithfully period and look lived-in; Mark A. Lewis's sound design is rich with external ambience; and Andrew Vance's lighting is appropriately moody. A.D. Players gives us one of their most satisfying productions — powerful, sad and wrenching. The human spirit soars. Through March 9. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Fool The Alley Theatre presents the world premiere of a new comedy by the prolific Theresa Rebeck, an acclaimed playwright and television writer. Court jester Stuart waits in a castle kitchen for his turn at entertaining offstage royalty, hearing and envying the laughs that another unseen jester, Joss, is getting. Then Joss enters, and it's Stuart's time to entertain offstage, while Joss mocks his efforts. The jesters are linked to each other as part of the underclass, joined by the cook, Lizabeth — all are pawns on a chessboard that may be deadly. These three carry the play triumphantly, helped by the deft direction of Gregory Boyd, the Alley's artistic director. Jeremy Webb plays Stuart with an engaging smile and unflagging energy, and his reactions and body language are rich. Elizabeth Bunch plays Joss — this jester is a woman disguised as a man — adding beauty to extraordinary comic vivacity; she and Webb create a strong relationship. Carine Montbertrand plays Lizabeth, becoming the third musketeer in scheming against the overlords. Montbertrand is energetic, quick, subtle and vastly amusing, a match for the comedic talents of Webb and Bunch. Sean Dugan as evil courtier Marvel and Joey Collins as evil courtier Elliott create vivid and intriguing portraits. The king is played by Jeffrey Bean, who brings an imposing presence to the role of an amorous ruler. The Queen, who enters late in Act Two, is played by the entertaining Alma Cuervo, chatty to the point of garrulousness. Rebeck draws characters with heart and soul, making us care, so we become deeply involved in their welfare — important when beheadings loom on the horizon. This new play breezes into hilarity, with brilliant performances riding a taut, inventive script, to create delightful comedy. Through March 16. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Peter Pan The magical story by James M. Barrie about Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and Wendy remains fresh at the Berry Center, courtesy of the Houston Family Arts Center. This is the Tony Award-winning musical version from 1954 that starred Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard and that has been aired on television a number of times. Wendy is played with open-faced, smiling charm by Rebekah Stanley, who first sees Tinker Bell as a twinkling green light, then in the "flesh," with wings, as portrayed with vivacity by Morgan Van Dyne. When Peter Pan flies into her life, literally, a great adventure begins. Morgan Montgomery plays Peter, providing a memorable portrait of energy, poise and heart. They proceed to "Neverland," where Peter is leader of the orphaned Lost Boys, and Wendy agrees to be their mother. There are wild Indians, and Peter is pursued by Captain Hook, played by Matt Elliott, who seems to have channeled Charlie Chaplin, to stunning effect. There are colorful costumes, interesting and witty set changes, a flamingo puppet and a monkey puppet, frenetic chase scenes, and characters hiding and reappearing. Peter Pan has a shadow, played skillfully by Emiley Smith. Sabine Langeland plays the maid in the Darling household, and has a dance sequence of grace and beauty. The songs are not show-stoppers, but I enjoyed "I Won't Grow Up" and the "I Gotta Crow" reprise. Director Josh Clark has succeeded brilliantly in keeping the action moving, the tone lighthearted and the charm intact. A children's classic is clearly for adults as well, as the fun weaves a tapestry of joy in a fascinating tale that speaks to the adventurous spirit in all of us. See it! Through March 16. Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress, 281-685-6374. — JJT

Ruined Lynn Nottage's play Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and its Texas premiere at Obsidian Art Space makes clear why — it is a powerful drama of human frailty, populated with strongly individual characters and filled with humor, set in a bar/brothel in the Congo in the middle of a long-running civil war. A few tables and chairs serve to define the establishment run by Mama Nadi, played by Qamara Black, who has created an oasis where guns are checked at the door and where a drink and a girl can let a soldier forget his cares. A frequent visitor is the civilian trader Christian, played by Atseko Factor, who has feelings for Mama. Both these actors provide nuanced performances of energy and charm, and Black finds the manipulative charisma of Mama, who keeps her raft of a business afloat in a pool of sharks. Christian persuades Mama to take in two girls who have been raped by soldiers or otherwise "ruined," so as to be unfit for marriage and rejected by their families and villages. Sophie (Miatta Lebile) becomes a bookkeeper and "cabaret" singer, and Salima (Ujo Edoziem) joins another girl, Josephine (Teri Mills), in providing pillow comfort to the troops. Each of the three creates a unique portrait. The intimidating commanders of opposing forces are played by Dave Shepard and Jerome Kisembe, who deliver the requisite menace and authority and yet reveal their human sides. The entire cast is excellent, creating an ensemble that is persuasively credible, thanks to director Tom Stell and assistant director Denise O'Neal. Playwright Nottage has penned a play for the ages, and has created characters who will linger long in your memory, perhaps forever. This may well be the theatrical event of the year. Through March 22. 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837. — JJT


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