Capsule Stage Reviews: Anna in the Tropics, Ether Dome, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Republic Day, A Texas Romance, Woof

Anna in the Tropics While the cigar rollers toil in a small factory in '20s Tampa, Florida, a new "lector" reads to them to pass the time and alleviate boredom. He chooses Tolstoy's classic tale of adulterous passions Anna Karenina, and their lives change forever. Tradition, morality and dreams dash against modernity, passion and reality. You can almost smell the smoke inside the tobacco-stained factory at Country Playhouse in its colorful co-production with Talento Bilingüe. The mottled walls with transoms angle provocatively across the stage; the slatted doors, the linen pants and the sundresses scream tropics; and the workers' desks are appropriately battered and bruised. It's Nilo Cruz's claustrophobic play that doesn't fit. The foundation's sturdy, but it's the unending linguistic gingerbread he nails on everywhere that hobbles the play. In arch, overripe dialogue, the characters spout such hothouse poetry that the play fairly drips with humidity. They don't talk, their words "nest" in people's hair; a kiss isn't a kiss, but someone who "slips into your mouth like a pearl diver"; and cigar smoke isn't smoke but "the veil of a bride." Who speaks like this? There's so little heat between lector Juan (Jorge Diaz) and eager, unhappy wife Conchita (Cynthia Leal) that we must take their passion on faith. It's up to matriarch Ofelia (Lidia Porto) and husband Santiago (Luis Suarez), owner of the factory, to bring heart and sizzle into the play. Although Ofelia is prone to evocative language that doesn't suit her any more than it suits any of the other characters, Suarez plants her on earthy bedrock and anchors the drama with natural warmth. She's the most real of them all, and the drama brightens considerably whenever she's around. And Marela (Sayra Contreras), the young idealist who's always dreaming of a better life somewhere other than where she is, has a flapper's natural vivacity that neatly counterbalances the ache in her character. Once you get past the overly thick dialogue, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama catches you up in its melodrama as a window into an exotic world. However, the evening's most authentic touch was the professional cigar roller seated in the lobby demonstrating her art. That's what's missing from Cruz. Through October 1 at the Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. From October 7 through 16 at Talento Bilingüe, 333 S. Jensen Dr., 713-222-1213. — DLG

Ether Dome The 19th-century "invention" of surgical anesthesia, demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 by dentist W.T.G. Morton, is the centerpiece of Elizabeth Egloff's extremely earnest biographical drama, an Alley Theatre world premiere. Unlike the similar biopics of golden-age Hollywood (The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, Madame Curie), of which this could have been a worthy descendent, this play veers disastrously from a solid central narrative and divides Egloff's lengthy story into three main characters, all involved in the discovery of ether as an inhaled anesthetic. But they're so sketchily drawn, they waft away like the fine mist that permeates the Neuhaus stage. We, and the play, drift away with them. Dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen, in a finely modeled performance) wants respect; his young, eager partner William Morton, a wily opportunist (Sean Lyons), wants fortune; and master geologist/chemist Dr. Charles Jackson (Jeffrey Bean), who colludes with Morton in his dubious patent for ether, wants fame. All three are terribly flawed, as the historical facts bear out, but each could be his own play, they have so many facets. Egloff sets them spinning in cinematic short scenes that skim the surface, cut off abruptly just when things get interesting, or are tangential to the great themes at hand. Although sequences are staged with a movie's fluidity by acclaimed director Michael Wilson, the play arrives in fits and pieces, like its own anatomy lesson. The scenes in the operating theater are appropriately grisly and medieval, but the others pass by without effect. We never feel we're a part of this play, just spectators watching it unfold. As if to compensate for the lack of sustainable drama, the production is luscious: period costumes, lively sound and light design, bizarre yet accurate medical props, and a cabinet-of-wonders for a set. All the space needs is a play with characters we care about to fill it. Morton's use of ether during surgery was the great moment medicine so desperately needed to move forward. Sterilization of instruments and hands would come later, but unendurable pain was, at last, conquered. Egloff's drama needs a lighter touch. A sniff of Morton's own ether wouldn't hurt. Through October 9. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change A series of musical vignettes about relationships springs into comic life as polished material is mined for laughs by talented actors, who find the laughs and deliver them — in spades. There's little mystery to the success and broad appeal of this long-running, widely produced musical. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of dating — the angst of waiting by the phone, the concern about performance, the marriage jitters, the impact of children and all the far-too-familiar pitfalls and joys that go with the battle of the sexes. But it does so with such good humor and grace that we see ourselves up there onstage, as memories of just such experiences come flooding back. Originally done with four actors playing the myriad characters in its long off-B'way run, here we have three men and four women winning our hearts and our laughter. Gregory Magyar plays Dad when called for, and his dynamic energy, expressive face and body language enhance his lines and performance. Lisa Connolly plays the occasional Mother with relish and deft comic timing. Both are great in "Single Guy," one of my many favorites. Cory Kelley plays everything from a bridegroom to a widower cruising funerals for pick-ups, and does so with panache, even keeping the charm alive as a fumbling tennis player. Chris Mason plays the younger yearners, and has great reactions and smooth deadpan glances. Brittney Thorne is a lovely bride, and she's superb in nailing the role of a divorcee recording her first dating video, a piece of brilliant writing. Bethany Smith won my heart with a stunning performance as woman waiting by the phone whose phone actually rings — and she can sell a song. Lauren Bowler plays a bridesmaid (never a bride) and captured the complexity of the character — and she turns a walk-on as a video operator into a scene-stealer. India Aquino provides the compelling music on a keyboard, and does it justice. Neophyte director Erin Eder marshals her troops with astonishingly professional flair, and the many scene changes are done adroitly with the help of rotating flats and, yes, a turntable! I felt a few of the props might be upgraded, and the theater itself has earmarks of a work in progress. Sharing the credit for the evening's success of course are writer Joe DiPietro for book and lyrics, and composer Jimmy Roberts, the duo whose seamless synergy created this comic masterpiece. Through Oct. 2, Encore Players at Katy Visual and Performing Arts Center, 2501 S. Mason Rd, Katy, 281-829-2787. — JJT

Republic Day Playwright Tom Stell directs the world premiere of his own play about just how savage class warfare can really be, using cinematic techniques and a largely talented young cast to create vivid snapshots of unrestrained brutality. A bare stage is populated with simple props as needed, which disappear as quickly as they arrive, while projected images suggest a location or a violent action. The starkness suits well the theme of man's inhumanity to man — especially in times of violent revolution. Here the aristocratic "Browns" control the wealth while the plebian "Grays" struggle for survival. Playwright and director Tom Stell plays the patriarch of the Rivers Family, an imprisoned revolutionary leader. He enters late in the drama but is convincing as a conflicted leader with few illusions. Leighza Walker plays the wife he abandoned for the cause, and she is warm and wise as intended. The lead role is that of son John Rivers (Kurtis von Krueger), who aspires to escape poverty and does so by hook or by crook, mostly the latter. Von Krueger captures moments of drama, and some humor, but John's moral compass is so changeable that a convincing characterization may not be possible. The opposite is true of his brother Simon, a hot-headed, single-minded revolutionary acted with fire and enthusiasm by James Monaghan, who puts his brand on the role. Lindsy Greig is tall, blond, beautiful and in admirable physical shape — she is interestingly persuasive as a "Brown" slumming with John Rivers. The Rivers family is rounded out by daughter Beth (Liz King), who is quietly effective in the first act and noisily so in the second. I liked less well her paramour and father of the child she is carrying, Trevor Winchester. Tucker Rhodes plays him and looks like a very young Beatle, but speaks rapidly with little variation and even less diction. Rod Todd and Sandi Morgan play the parents of Trevor and other roles and are quite good in them all. Shawn Everiss and Norm Dillon play brutal soldiers — Everiss etches a vivid portrait. Playwright Stell leaves some of the brutality offstage with sound effects only, but there is enough onstage, effectively presented, to service several plays. This is Stell's first full-length work and shows talent worth cultivating, but some of the many scenes go on too long, and their points might be telegraphed instead of spelled out — irony needs to be brief. And the pantomime ending is much too subtle for a play with such bravura power. Judicious trimming would heighten impact, but playwright Stell has fashioned an ambitiously epic drama and found a young and capable cast to flesh out his parable. Through October 1. Big Head Productions at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837. — JJT

A Texas Romance A youngish widow is courted by a shy younger man, to her older sister's disapproval, in this sweet romance set in a small Texas town. The world of rural Texas is created onstage in a simple but compelling set designed by Judy Reeves, who also directed the play, and an adroit painting of the floor to resemble a sandy yard brings cheerful life to the play. Donna Dixon plays Daisy Wilson, abruptly widowed after 12 years of a less-than-ideal marriage. A year of widowhood has left her with a longing in her loins. Enter Garland Steinholden, portrayed by Jeffrey Dorman, shy but with his own brand of determination — dedication to the church, to the sanctity of marriage and to Daisy, whom he's admired from afar. His inexperience with women is monumental and not about to change soon, since he doesn't believe in premarital relations. Lee Raymond rounds out the cast as the older sister of Daisy, Doris Perdue, whose husband is away being treated for an illness. Daisy is a strong-minded woman intent on having her own way in no uncertain terms – her grilling of Garland on their first meeting is rigorous and unrelenting and actually very funny. The action here is largely verbal and the pace leisurely, but what the play lacks in drama and ambition is made up for by its sweetness and its charming portrayal of naivete. The work reaches for drama in a metaphorical scene in Act Two involving rocks and a table, a moment that is difficult to imagine working, so its near-miss here may be as good as it gets. Dorman creates an authentic, credible individual, his connection with the other characters is vivid, and even some of his pantomimed hesitation has elements of interest and rich humor. Dixon finds the strength in Daisy, but much of her delivery strikes the same note, regardless of content; still, her portrayal of a forthright woman captures a novel individual. The part of Doris is underwritten, so she has little to do except chide her sister. Except for Dorman, the actors lack spontaneity, and this fault falls in the director's bailiwick, as I've seen Dixon provide it in spades in another production. Yet the director has successfully shaped an unusual love story, and she and playwright Ellsworth Schave permit us to visit a world where character survives in the midst of doubt and cynicism, and for that we are grateful. This rare low-key romance allows time for sweetness and character to emerge, and nuggets of its rich humor enliven life in a rural setting in Texas. Through October 15. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT

Woof Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Superstar NFL quarterback kills dog! Award-winning playwright Y York (who also wrote ...and L.A. Is Burning, another Main Street Theater world premiere) adapts the story of former Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick and transforms his criminal act into an ultimately sympathetic tale. Unlike Vick, who had been dog baiting for years, York's fictional LJ Freeman (the charismatic Timothy Eric) goes gaga just once, but the fatal canine choking is filmed by a security camera and goes viral over YouTube. LJ's stellar career collapses; his marriage to Karen (Eva Laporte), a former Miss Alabama, teeters precariously; his hotshot lawyer (Brian H. Thornton) wiggles back into Karen's life wanting to revive their affair; his mom Ruby (Alice M. Gatling) refuses to hear anything negative, having pulled out all the TV cables and buried the phone in a drawer; his former elementary school science teacher, Mrs. Jones (Joyce Anastasia Murray), continues to inspire; and LJ's preteen, adoring daughter Jackie (Maya M. Wilson) eyes her newborn brother, who's suspiciously, awfully, white, as threat and competition. Complications pile up, but nobody deals directly with LJ's heinous act, content instead to dance around it, along with every conflict York ignites: combustibles like interracial marriage and infidelity. Daughter Jackie wants everybody to look at the condemning video, but the adults have their heads planted firmly in the ground. Still, the play's a treasure chest for the deft Main Street ensemble, who, under skillful director Troy Scheid, find real heart and soul among the soap opera suds that York whips up. Eric, brimming with machismo, leads the way magnificently. Gatling, as LJ's mom Ruby, makes the most sense of anybody in the play and imbues this no-nonsense woman with deep intelligence and snappy wit, even though her character is constantly referred to by others as daft and loopy. She's the beating heart of York's drama, and Gatling savors every moment of her multilayered performance, as do we. Torn from the headlines, York's drama verges on movie-of-the-week, but the precise production and whiplash acting keep the play from going soft. "Love conquers all" is her message; let no dead dog put it asunder. Through October 9. 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. — DLG


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