Capsule Stage Reviews: April 17, 2014

Anna Christie Eugene O'Neill's drama about seafaring men, and their women on shore, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and a 2011 production in London won the Olivier Award as Best Revival. The play opens at a waterfront bar in New York City, with bartender Larry (Taylor Biltoft) serving drinks to Chris Christopherson (Carl Masterson) and his live-in girlfriend, Marthy Owen (Barbara Dell), as they discuss a planned visit from Christopherson's daughter, Anna (Kelly Walker), whom he has not seen for two decades. Later scenes take place on the barge on which Christopherson lives. The play's ongoing dynamic is confrontations, first between Chris and Marthy, then between Chris and Anna, then between Anna and Mat Burke (Brian Heaton), a shipwrecked sailor Chris rescues from sea, and finally between Chris and Mat. English is a second language for Chris, so his speech lacks eloquence, but this is made up for by Mat, who is Irish, since his flow of words has the lilt of Irish music. The growth of Mat's relationship with Anna is the heart and soul of the play, but Anna has some experiences in her past that may prove to be a deal-breaker. Walker as Anna is magnificent, giving us toughness and vulnerability, and providing the good looks the script demands. Heaton as Mat creates a human being pulsing with vibrant life, fighting for happiness with determination and courage. Masterson successfully captures the self-deception and timidity of Chris. Dell as Marthy appears only in the first scene, but generates excitement in a vivid role, and Biltoft is excellent as Larry, listening as skillfully as he speaks. Lisa Schofield directed with intelligence and pace, and found the rhythm of the sea and the throbbing insecurities and desperate human needs O'Neill's genius has given us. Don't miss this. Through May 3. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Communicating Doors On the modern British stage there are three old masters: Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn. Pinter spins pauses into taut existential thrillers; Stoppard spins words into new worlds; Ayckbourn literally spins doors into plays. His Communicating Doors (1994), a comedy thriller sandwiched somewhere between a good episode of Twilight Zone and a not-so-naughty sitcom like Three's Company, receives a refreshing spin in the Alley's current production. Sir Alan is England's master at tweaking the tweedy middle class and sending his hapless characters spinning out of control, usually not knowing how to stop the chaos they've created for themselves. Thoroughly ingenious in his plotting, he loves playing with time and multiple settings, or, as here, multiple time in a single setting. An Ayckbourn play is always clever and entertaining. For all its professional polish and sleight of hand, Doors is clever, if somewhat on the thin side. Dominatrix "Poopay" (Julie Sharbutt in a thoroughly delightful Alley debut), sweet and rather out of her element, arrives at the hotel suite of rich geezer Reece (Jeffrey Bean) toting a bag full of her toys of the trade. The jangling that emanates from the satchel is funny in itself. But old Reese doesn't want her companionship; he wants her to witness his dying confession. He wants to come clean after a lifetime of embezzlement, securities fraud and other assorted very bad deeds, which include the murders of his two former wives. His business partner, Julian (James Black in creepy mode that he does so well), who has mother issues, has committed the crimes at his behest, and when he discovers that Poopay now has the goods on him, plans to do her in also. (Only Black could carry a pillow to the sofa on which she sits with such chilling menace.) That's when Poopay bolts into the closet — that "communicating door" of the title — and, whoosh, magically goes back 20 years in time, finding herself in that same hotel suite. And who might be staying there but Reese's second wife, Ruella (Josie de Guzman in full daffy frontal assault). Ayckbourn's plot clicks wondrously into place like an intricate Swiss lock. Feisty and good, Ruella seizes the opportunity to save first wife Jessica (Melissa Pritchett), saving herself in the process and perhaps keeping Poopay out of harm's way, too. It's the women against the men in this gentle but serious race against time past. An added bonus in the controlled mayhem is Todd Waite as the prim and officious hotel security guard we meet through the decades. Linda Buchanan's swanky hotel set (the city background projections change according to the decade, while the paintings in the room transform) and Michael Lincoln's mood lighting add to the pleasure of Ayckbourn's sci-fi time-shifting. If there's a theme to be gleaned, it's that one good deed, no matter how impetuous or incidental, can possibly change the course of one's life. One just has to grab the chance. Ayckbourn keeps the surprises coming, using a pro's sense of how to delicately balance comedy and suspense. The whole thing sort of works, but it's a little like having high tea at a faded English seaside hotel. The staff works overtime to be solicitous, but the food's a bit ordinary. Except for one physical comedy sequence that absolutely falls flat — Ruella dangles from her balcony while Poopay and Jessica attempt to pull her in — director Boyd has fun with the revolving-door concept and quick entrances. While De Guzman plays the adventure a bit too daft and wide-eyed, the comedy belongs to Sharbutt, who is delightfully dotty and inept as a would-be seducer, and vulnerable and cuddly as the newest victim. Doors spins with a constant smile. The play doesn't really go anywhere, but the bright and shiny mechanics send off sparks of fun. And onstage, that's always worth seeing. Through April 27. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde's glittering comic bauble, his last play and masterpiece (1895), gleams brighter the older it gets. Classical Theatre Company's production sets off sparks of its own, but doesn't quite approach the Tiffany setting this unique jewel so richly deserves. Wilde subtitled his delightful comedy "a trivial play for serious people," and this eminent Victorian did not disappoint. Written as if with a needle, Earnest skewers the posh upper classes with a dismissive wave of the hand. Wilde beats his 19th-century audience about the head with the lightest — and funniest — velvet gloves. No comedy before and no comedy since has been so trivial yet so chock-full of meaning. Artifice, just as Wilde himself so desperately desired to live it to its fullest, is raised to high art. No one is what he seems in Earnest. Everyone has a secret life or is the ultimate hypocrite and might as well be leading a double life, just like the stereotypical characters in the Victorian drawing room "comedy of manners" Wilde cunningly mocked. Jack (John Johnston, artistic director of CTC), who lives in the country with his young and beautiful ward, Cecily (Emily Neves), and her tutor, Miss Prism (Julia Taber), pretends to be "Earnest" when he visits the city. His London best friend, Algernon (Matthew Keenan, wittily made up to resemble the playwright), has a passion for cucumber sandwiches and takes nothing serious except for trivial matters. Algy has invented a sick country friend, "Bunbury," so he can escape the city and not have to endure dinner parties where wives actually flirt across the table with their own husbands. Jack's in love with Gwendolyn (Lindsay Ehrhardt), the daughter of battleaxe Lady Bracknell (Pamela Vogel), and has come to London expressly to propose. Algernon, intrigued by news of his friend's comely country ward, sets off to win her hand. There's a supercilious butler (Bradley Winkler) and Miss Prism's reticent paramour, the Reverend Chasuble (Ted Doolittle), to cause further problems. Through April 27. The Barn, 2201 Preston. 713-963-9665. — DLG

Little Shop of Horrors This comedic spoof, by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, is a rock musical about a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on humans. It was a huge hit and ran for five years off-Broadway. The setting is a downscale florist shop on skid row, and the brilliant set designers, Mark Krouskop and Jake LaViola, have created not only the shop, but the neighborhood. Our hero is Seymour (Bryce Willey), shy and easily intimidated, in love with co-worker Audrey (Ariana Morgan), and working for the shop's owner, Mr. Mushnik (Curtis Barber). Seymour is a demanding role, and the youthful Willey handles it with the polished ease of a pro and delivers the psychological narrative of Seymour's growth into self-confidence, and romance, in a wonderful performance. Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist who abuses her, Orin (Roby Johnson), and Morgan delivers vulnerability and charm, singing with clarity and warmth. Mushnik is a bullying boss, but Curtis Barber lets us savor his excesses. Barber's line delivery is spot-on, and he makes deception and skulking entertaining. His tango with Seymour, "Mushnik and Son," is superb. As the dentist, Johnson makes us hate and despise Orin, as required. The song "Suddenly, Seymour" has poignance, credibility and sweet nuance, as Seymour and Audrey find their love. There is a doo-wop trio (Tristina Bryant, Rachel Buissereth and Tasneem Islam), and they sing beautifully and look stunning. The entire production team is to be commended, especially the director, George Brock, who has carved this winning jewel of a production. Even if you've seen it before, a return visit is warranted. If you haven't seen it, hasten to an exciting and moving theatrical experience. Through April 19. Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main/Rice Boulevard, Entrance 20 and 21, 713-348-4005. — JJT

Olive and the Bitter Herbs Playwright Charles Busch's fame rests chiefly on his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a five-year off-Broadway hit, and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, on Broadway in 2000 with critical acclaim and commercial success. This portrayed a midlife marital crisis, and Busch returned to this theme in 2011 with Olive and the Bitter Herbs, though Olive Fisher is long past middle age. Olive is a curmudgeon, a kvetcher at war with her neighbors in a Kips Bay co-op, but Lee Raymond brings a sense of humor to the role, as well as considerable warmth and charm, and makes Olive likable. The plot hinges on a ghost seen in a mirror in Olive's apartment. Olive's friend, Wendy, tries to nurture her, and Nora Hahn captures this friendship in a low-key but endearing portrait. Sylvan (Robert Lowe) is a contemporary of Olive in age, and Lowe brings quiet, upbeat charm to the role, and his sweetness at least temporarily thaws Olive's feisty spirit. The remaining two characters are a gay couple living in the co-op, Robert (Terry Jones) and Trey (Jay Menchaca), self-described as a "nasty, alcoholic queen." While Menchaca gives an over-the-top rendition of bitchiness. Jones is excellent as the more responsible of the duo, though his character becomes unappetizing with later revelations. Olive is an actor whose fame is based on a long-gone sausage commercial, and a gig in a television episode permits a tedious TV-watching scene. Olive hosts a Passover Seder, which seems suspiciously like "padding." There are some laughs, and director Suzanne King has gone a long way toward making the scripting semi-plausible. Gifted playwright Busch has come a cropper here, but good acting and direction keep the raft afloat, aided strongly by a totally engaging performance by Lee Raymond. Through May 10. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 281-253-3488. — JJT


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