Capsule Stage Reviews: Almost, Maine, American Menu, I Hate Hamlet, True Love Lies

Almost, Maine Watching this whimsical play about love gained and lost by people in an almost town (hence the title) in the far north of the United States, Houston audiences have to be struck by the sheer perseverance of a people who meet and fall in love (and occasionally out of love) while layer upon layer of puffy clothing separates them from each other for most months of the year. The new theater company in town, the Brave Dog Players, has brought John Cariani's off-Broadway play to Stages Repertory Theatre, and the four-member cast and director Philip Lehl are bringing audiences an enjoyable night of theater. The actors — Kim Tobin, Georgi Silverman, Rick Silverman (all from New York City, relocated to Houston) and Chris Hutchison (on loan from the Alley) enthusiastically play a total of 19 different locals in an assortment of vignettes, bookended by a man who thinks a couple gets closer the farther away they are from each other. Besides the humor, there is sadness as well — hard lessons to be learned about how sometimes there are no second chances, and how sometimes thinking you can put someone on hold for years may not work out for you. One piece occasionally steps into the land of the too heavy-handed: The old boyfriend was named West, and the potential new one is named East. But other wordplays on names are cleverer, and there's a genuine surprise at the end of one bar scene involving a tattoo. Probably the best segment occurs toward the end in a vignette about a female snowmobiler and her best pal. He wants to move to the next step, and that begins with her letting him into her house after years of him sitting outside in the yard. No spoiler alert here; you have to see it to appreciate it. This isn't a play for sensible folk, but for those who enjoy the odd and sometimes determined-beyond-all-reason things people do in making connections with each other. Through February 21. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — MD

American Menu Black sisterhood is on proud, ferocious and most entertaining display in Don Wilson Glenn's play set in an all-white diner somewhere outside Houston in 1968. You know this is a real kitchen-sink drama because there's a real kitchen sink — we're in the diner's hothouse kitchen, where five women toil, bitch, survive, love, cook and serve countless meals. You can smell the cornbread. It's a "one day in the life" portrait of those who suffered and lived through the daily hell of segregation and the immense courage, conviction and hopefulness their sacrifices entailed. The five women have different needs and wants, different ways of dealing with heartaches and joys, and different views of the American Dream. But whatever flare-ups occur, the women are always there for each other, even if they don't always recognize the bond. Na (Shirley Whitmore) is the matriarch, but even she doesn't have the easy answers. She's as rudderless as young Martha (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), who is pregnant again and all out of love with her husband in jail. Mary (Tisha Dorn) dreams of escaping to California. Johnnie May (Detria Ward) is the no-nonsense one, eager for society's inevitable change, which she can taste in the air. Buella (Lee Waddell) ingratiates herself with the white supervisor in the dining room, desperate to get out of a lifetime of kitchen drudgery before it's too late. Hopes are dashed, reborn and resurrected during a grueling shift where the orders are indecipherable, customers keep asking for fried chicken when it's off the menu today and a thunderstorm threatens the bagged lunches of the sawmill workers who clamor by at the diner's backdoor. The ensemble cast, under Eileen Morris's spirited direction, is well-nigh flawless, each character getting the spotlight when needed, yet all working together with cohesion and well-oiled precision. No matter what problems crop up — and the gals have plenty to gripe about — this diner's in great hands. Through February 28. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

I Hate Hamlet When was the last time you saw a play and eagerly awaited each character's entrance, knowing that whoever came on next would be funnier than the last? Each character in I Hate Hamlet ratchets up the comedy by being outrageous, bizarre, utterly delightful — and, at times, full of life and truth. This rarely happens, trust me. But in Paul Rudnick's uproarious comedy, playing in a definitive production at Texas Repertory Theatre, it's the case from beginning to end. First is successful TV star Andrew (Rob de los Reyes), who's about to play Hamlet and scared witless at the daunting task. Next up is real estate agent Felicia (Marcy Kearns), who's dripping bangles, a Brooklyn accent and an amateur link to the spirit world. Then Andrew's dotty girlfriend Deirdre (Jen Lucy) lights up the room; she's made a career out of virginity, which drives him buggy. Andrew's agent Lillian (Barbara Lasater) reminds him that, like it or not, the contract's signed and he must appear. Scheming small-time Hollywood producer Gary (Rick Olvera) makes an appearance; he would be vacuous, but he doesn't know what that means. Then there's the one and only John Barrymore (Steven Fenley), accidentally conjured, who guides Andrew through the shoals of Shakespeare and helps buoy his miserable love life. This is Rudnick at his funniest, which is saying something since he's responsible for Addams Family Values, In & Out and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. Here, the one-liners come as wicked and thick as anything Neil Simon ever penned. It's his hymn to the theater, to acting, to overacting, to being a legend. While the play wallows in the hammy fakeness of great and not-so-great theater, it exudes warmth and compassion and is extremely lovable, as is TRT's loving and detailed, beautifully acted treatment. Through February 21. 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — DLG

True Love Lies The nuclear family in Canadian playwright Brad Fraser's comedy/drama is so progressive and liberal, it comes as quite a shock when everyone plunges into a tailspin after Dad (Steve Bullitt) reveals a former gay love affair. The news unhinges this postmodern Donna Reed family. Mom Caroline (Mary Hooper) knew all about David (Jonathan McVay) before they married, so why's she so bent out of shape now? To be charitable, daughter Madison (Chelsea McCurdy) is a slut, and her mantra is "gay is so over." So why does she react like a Puritan in a leather bar? And geeky son Royce (Mark Ivy) has seen a whole lot worse on the Internet. They're all shocked, shocked, that Dad and David were once an item. Maybe if this tale were set in the '50s, their swooning at Dad being bi would be more acceptable. Things get so out of control and over the top that Madison, who's working in David's restaurant, throws herself at him and succeeds. David is a 10 on the 1-to-10 gay scale, and no one that exclusively gay is ever going to sleep with the daughter of a former boyfriend. Despite beautifully drawn characters, believability is a problem. It's hard to know what Fraser is trying to say. But that hasn't stopped critics from loving the play since its recent debut. And it becomes a whole lot more believable when troubled Royce throws himself at David and is gently, solicitously rebuffed by the older man. Everything comes right at the end, and all pieces fit neatly into their allotted places — a happy, ironic Love, American Style ending for all. Fraser's known for his frank, lusty talk, and the all-pro cast gives him a four-star rendition. The youngsters are particularly good. McCurdy gives an excellent performance as amoral Madison, and Ivy's even better, with his shy, dangerous and explosive psychoses bubbling just below the surface. Director Jimmy Phillips moves the play briskly like a well-edited movie, with one table doubling as both House and Restaurant. If you need a theater sex fix, this one's for you. Through March 13. TheaterLaB, 1706 Alamo. 713-868-7516. — DLG

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