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
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Cock This comedic drama won an Olivier Award in London in 2010 and ran off-Broadway in 2012 for five months, winning critical acclaim. John (Bobby Haworth) has been ensconced in a homosexual relationship with "M" (Dain Geist), but John meets "W" (Haley Hussey), who persuades him to have sex with her, beginning an affair. The performances are poised, astute, dead-pan hilarious and so true to human nature that they rise to the level of brilliance. The 90-minute play is one long melodic riff, as M and W insist that John choose and tell them who he is, while John says that he's trying to find out. M and W are attracted to John because he is drawn in pencil — each hopes to ink him in. A mantra of Manhattan's East Village for decades has been that love is about the person, not the gender, and John is living this insight, while his pursuers are defying it. The result is extended bear-baiting, with John the bear. Haworth creates a memorable portrait of a naïf, a man not clever but honest, part "noble savage," part torn adolescent. Haworth's capacity to communicate bewilderment, sensitivity and vulnerability and yet to be a powerful magnet requires acting of a high order, and Haworth delivers. M's need for John is genuine but selfish. Geist provides high energy and a spirited, powerful, convincing interpretation. Hussey is very attractive, and she adds a straightforward manner and an articulate poise that is highly appealing. M's father, "F" (Steve Bullitt), comes to dinner and a "confrontation"; Bullitt is excellent. The skilled direction is by Mark Adams, who has found the rhythm of comedy. The play is the funniest I've seen this year — don't miss it. Through May 11. From Theater LaB and Obsidian Art Space at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 713-868-7516. — JJT
The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde's glittering comic bauble, his last play and masterpiece (1895), gleams brighter the older it gets. I challenge anyone to name a funnier play. 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. Complications ensue with impeccable timing and nonstop dialogue so witty it's been quoted in drama anthologies ever since its London premiere on St. Valentine's Day. CTC's Earnest is well oiled and lovely to look at, thanks to Ryan McGettigan's witty cut-out backgrounds and Claremarie Verheyen's sumptuous costumes. Johnston and Keenan admirably convey Jack and Algy's sparring admiration for each other; Ehrhardt is the very picture of smart, cosmopolitan girl; and Neves turns country mouse Cecily into a clever foil for the spoiled city folk. But it's Lady Bracknell we await anxiously — one of the most indelible characters ever put onstage. Like some royal barge, she bursts into Wilde's play with sails unfurled, going full speed, and everybody had better get out of her way. She drips hauteur and takes no prisoners, pontificating on any subject broached. The ultimate grande dame, she rules in a man's world. She has an answer for anyone, right or wrong. She is arrogant and abysmally opinionated, but her thinking is so riotous — and her righteousness so funny — that she becomes endearing in her obtuseness. Without her, the play would be unthinkable. With her, the play soars. But one quality she does not possess is meanness. Vogel, one of Houston's most accomplished and intelligent actors, arrives with edges so sharp she almost shreds the page. Unrelenting, she barks her commands and pronouncements, and we half expect her to self-combust, she's so inwardly seething and hostile. There's tremendous humor to be mined in one so self-important, but Vogel — perhaps swayed under Thomas Pryor's direction, I can't be sure — plays her very hard, way too hard. All the play's airiness goes right out of that Mayfair townhouse. And it never quite comes back, even when the subsequent "garden scene" is so exquisitely textured, as Gwendolyn and Cecily square off for their men during their "civil" tea party. When Lady Bracknell leaves the room, Jack describes her as a "gorgon," but Lady Bracknell comes from the Thames embankment, not the River Styx. She's no Fury, but should prompt a comic one from the audience. That Vogel does not — we cringe, don't draw closer — keeps this Earnest on the far side of the empyrean. Through April 27. The Barn, 2201 Preston. 713-963-9665. — DLG
Murder Ballad Murder Ballad is a sung-through rock musical fueled by Mediterranean passions and the desire of one woman, Sara, to have it all, both uptown and downtown, both husband/family and hot lover. She is played by Lauren Molina, who delivers a knockout performance. Sara is blond, fit and beautiful, a confident, self-assertive woman who knows what she wants and usually gets it. She's passionately in love with bartender Tom (Steel Burkhardt) — dark hair, handsome, fit — and their simulated lovemaking heats up the stage, but Tom is loath to commit. Frustrated, Sara meets Michael (Pat McRoberts), attractive, respectable, gray hair, glasses. He provides the safe harbor Sara thinks she needs, and she moves in. Uptown wins. Or does it? Hot sex, once experienced, etches itself into the psyche, and though Sara now has a daughter and a life of comfort, she returns to the bar to take on Tom as her lover, and the barstools again fear for their lives. The fourth character is The Narrator (Kristin Warren), another dude magnet who lights up the stage with electricity. The music, provided by the excellent five-piece band onstage, is a driving force, sometimes drowning out the spoken lyrics. The operatic momentum builds to the point that any one of the three is capable of killing either of the other two. The three meet in the bar, and in a blackout, a shot rings out. The work was conceived by Julia Jordan, who provided the book and lyrics; the music and lyrics are by Juliana Nash. Murder Ballad is directed by TUTS Underground's Bruce Lumpkin, and choreographed by Michelle Gaudette, in both cases brilliantly. The stunningly handsome multilevel set is by Laura Fine Hawkes, and the musical director is the talented Jack Beetle. Treat yourself and see it. Through April 27. TUTS Underground, Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — JJT
Really Really This is a college-age drama about the ambitious young, written when playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo was himself in college. The play's intent is to illustrate what self-serving, untrustworthy, deceptive, lying sneaks this generation is. The split set is excellent, showing on one side the small house that Grace (Rachel Rubin) shares with Leigh (Teresa Zimmermann), and on the other the apartment that Cooper (Blake Weir) shares with Davis (Scott Gibbs). The other characters are Johnson (Dominique Champion), an African American classmate and friend of Davis; Jimmy (James Monaghan), the boyfriend of Leigh; and Leigh's sister, Haley (Chelsea Sarratt), who comes to visit Leigh. Davis is admired by his friends for being a nice guy, but a vicious, out-of-control side is revealed in an event late in the play. He slept with Leigh, Jimmy's girlfriend, at a drunken party, but has had a blackout, and doesn't recall what happened. Leigh remembers, but is her version the truth? Cooper has a deal in which he can live on campus without going to any classes, but must "choose sides" to keep this deal. Johnson likes video games, but is just there as an example of self-serving ambition. Jimmy has a manipulative side, and seems too easily manipulated by Leigh for someone who seemingly has it all together. Chelsea Sarratt as Haley provides a high-energy, boisterous personality, the life of the party. Rachel Rubin as Grace has the hapless task of delivering lecture-monologues in seminars about "getting ahead." Leigh is the enigma, but we never really see her Machiavellian mind at work. Colaizzo has Noel Coward's talent to amuse, but hasn't added tight plotting or plausible motivations. But his writing has inspired the gifted Black Lab Theatre to give him a superior production, well-cast, with a brilliant set. Through May 3. Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation, 713-515-4028. — JJT