Capsule Stage Reviews: Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace Arsenic and Old Lace was a huge Broadway hit, opening in 1941 for 1,444 performances, and is currently on three Houston stages — a tribute to the enduring appeal of farce. The members of the Brewster family are a few cards short of a full deck, as Teddy Brewster (Stephen Hurst) thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt, blowing a bugle as he charges up San Juan Hill. His aunts, Abby Brewster (Patty Tuel Bailey) and Martha Brewster (Stephanie Bradow), are sweet and adorable, and given to charitable deeds, such as poisoning elderly men with cyanide-laced elderberry wine to free them of loneliness. Also homicidal is Jonathan Brewster (Marty Blair), who returns to the large Brooklyn home after a decades-long absence, looking like Boris Karloff thanks to plastic surgery performed by his alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Marion Arthur Kirby), while he's under the influence. Theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Kevin Dean) proposes to Elaine Harper (Julie Fontenot) but has second thoughts about inherited madness after he realizes his aunts are murderesses. Dean provides a delightful characterization; his body language is superb and he has mastered the delayed double take. Fontenot has little to do except look slim and beautiful; she does that well. Bailey and Bradow as the aunts bubble with good will, and are endearing. Hurst brings unflagging energy to his role as "Teddy Roosevelt." Blair portrays Jonathan as a loudmouthed bully, a gruesome portrayal unsuited to the tone of the play, which is warm and sweet. Kirby as Dr. Einstein captures his villainy while also showing a crack in his criminal veneer. Playwright Joseph Kesselring's excellent plotting, deft characterizations and gift for inventive wit are outstanding, and director Joey Watkins most ably delivers the desired breakneck speed. Through October 6 from A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

Dangerous Liaisons This 1985 play by Christopher Hampton, which won the Laurence Olivier Award as Best New Play, chronicles the devious machinations of two scheming aristocrats, Viscount Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, who use seductions and intrigue to pay off slights, real or imaginary. Dangerous Liaisons looks behind a silken curtain at the evil of mankind, exposing self-aggrandizing behavior, cruel and careless of others. Unfortunately, the cast and direction fall seriously short of creating such a world, though there are some fine individual performances. Amy Warren portrays the evil Marquise, and she is excellent, and delivers the rhythmic speech pattern of witty repartee. Lisa Wartenberg plays Madame de Tourvel, who resists the advances of the viscount, and Wartenberg finds the complexity in her troubled defense of virtue. Erica Bundy portrays the courtesan Emilie, providing beauty and charm. Adrienne Shearer plays Cécile de Volanges, fresh from a convent, but seemed giddy rather than youthful. Her mother (Erin Kidwell) resorts to fluttering a fan to create a personality, and Julie Oliver as Madame de Rosemonde plays her with many of the gestures of age but little of the expected authority. Nick Reid plays Azalan, the viscount's valet, and creates an over-the-top, vivid persona, riveting in its daring. Dustin Salinas plays Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, and initially seemed skittish, but was better in later scenes. Portraying the viscount is Tom Stell, who's seriously miscast. His line readings are flat, and he projects sincerity, while the part calls for deliberate, but persuasive, insincerity. Since this is the leading role, the play never really comes to life. The work is directed by Ron Jones, who hasn't created the desired ensemble acting that can make the world of the play seem real. Through September 28. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-889-783 7. — JJT

Nijinsky's Last Dance Renowned as one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time, Vaslav Nijinsky was a complicated character. He changed the face of the art through his distinctively angular, sexually charged choreography. Edge Theatre is currently presenting the regional premiere of Nijinsky's Last Dance, penned by Normal Allen, winner of the Helen Hayes Award for New Play. Newcomer Darnea Steven Olson plays the role of Nijinsky as well as capturing eight other characters that are interwoven throughout. This is a difficult production in all respects. Aside from the subject, tackling a one-man, hour-and-a-half production is a monstrous exploit in itself. You have to give Olson a lot of credit for taking on this role. It is obviously physically exhausting and mentally draining as well. He did a commendable job and should be proud of his work. However, he wasn't quite there. That fierce, obsessive behavior that Nijinsky became known for, which would ultimately drive him mad, wasn't powerful enough to understand his painful mental downfall. Despite this, Olson has a great career as an actor ahead of him. He is captivating and unadulterated, a raw talent who will go far with some more coaching. For both those familiar and those not with the dancer's fascinating story, this play is worthy of watching. Through September 20. Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 832-894-1843 or — AK

The Real Thing Tom Stoppard's 1982 play The Real Thing has won two Tony Awards (1984 Best Play, 2000 Best Revival). The central question posed by the playwright is the relevance of monogamy — is the demand for exclusivity of love a tenable position in the contemporary world? Stoppard is noted for his wit and wordplay — the script sparkles with examples — but this is about a warrior playwright, Henry (Joe Kirkendall), who battles for literacy in theater. Henry must choose between pragmatic compromise in a relationship or emotional loss. Kirkendall gives a remarkable, nuanced performance, captivating in its authenticity and refreshing in its vigor. Henry is married to Charlotte (Sara Gaston), as strong-willed as he, beautiful and an actress starring in one of Henry's plays. They are friends with Max (Justin Doran), an actor also in the play, and his wife, Annie (Shannon Emerick). We see the extraordinary acting range of Doran as he performs a scene from Max's play. Gaston as Charlotte has a rapier way with deadpan wit. Emerick as Annie sails through a complex role with brisk aplomb. The play is directed by Main Street Theater's artistic director, Rebecca Greene Udden, and she has forged a winning ensemble. There are three other characters: Debbie (Shannon Nicole Hill), the late-teens daughter of Max and Charlotte; Brodie (David Clayborn), a jailed activist; and Billy (Scott Gibbs), an actor, and all are good. The Real Thing is about infidelity, not physical passion or even love, but about relationships, how much to give in exchange for companionship and a bedmate. Humor is abundant as a brilliant cast adds polish and exuberant, exciting life to a battle of wits and of conflicting beliefs. Through October 6. Main Street Theater — Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JJT

Saloon Songs Those wonderful entertainers at Music Box Theater get their twang on for Saloon Songs, their spirited foray into country music. The show, an absolute crowd-pleaser. is as comfy as a well-worn pair of jeans and as refreshing as a long neck, or two. They turn the intimate venue on Colquitt into the best little honky-tonk on the bayou. Although irreplaceable, co-founder Rebekah Dahl is taking time off after the birth of her little baby cowboy, so proud father Brad Scarborough and the other three intrepid troupers (Cay Taylor, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel) carry on with the boot-scootin.' As in all their revues, the four mix and match their prodigious musical talents in a rodeo of solos, duets, trios or a cappella numbers, each member getting to shine on his or her own in a number especially designed for that performer's particular vocal personality. The plot is a wisp of a thing: Four people who all intend to be somewhere else stumble into a bar during a dust storm. Since there's already a band in place, why not sing their troubles and dreams? A little goofy comedy and bad puns keep the wagon wheels rolling, but it's the incredible singing that lifts MBT into blue heaven. If you're familiar with these theater pros, you already know what miracles they perform when they get their hands on the American Songbook, so it's no surprise at all to hear their supple way around country and bluegrass. These guys and sexy little ladies know how to put across a song. Most often, under their loving treatment, the way they sing a song turns it into the definitive version. This is something to behold, and Music Box Theater's ace in the hole. Take, for example, Wrobel's rendition of Lionel Ritchie's ballad "Stuck on You." Okay, not every song in the revue is pure country, but where it falls in the show, this easy-listening tune makes perfect sense. Wrobel's honeyed baritone wraps around such pop sentiment as "I'll be with you till the end; guess I'm on my way; mighty glad you stayed," and breaks your heart with understated intensity. Or wallow in Scarborough's sincere sweetness for the Eagles' plaintive "Desperado," or his rockin' Elvis on "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog." Taylor, who plays a comically psychotic serial murderer, goes all scary for Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" (with Wrobel and Scarborough hullabalooing wildly in the background), and then magnificently reverses direction and softly charms during Alison Krauss's "When You Say Nothing At All." Sullivan ups the wattage in Reba McEntire's low-down "Fancy," and then mesmerizes with Joni Mitchell's haunting "All I Want," her crystalline soprano in sync with the plaintive fiddle of Alisa Pederson. Throughout the night, Pederson's exquisite music-making adds a fifth person to the onstage quartet. Her playing wails, weeps and laughs. Under Glenn Sharp (keyboard), Mark McCain (steel guitar), Long Le (bass) and Donald Payne (percussion), the band has never sounded better. Boot-scoot over to Colquitt for this country-fried revue. These urban cowboys will take you for a melodic hayride into the warmest, loveliest sunset. Weekends through October 26. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays Nine short plays with a common theme — gay marriage — have been gathered into an evening of entertainment. They avoid polemics, proselytizing and anger, and instead center on loving, long-term relationships, newly-mets, and articulate, voluble mothers. The plays lend themselves to being read with scripts on music stands, as is done here. The writing is superb, and watching master playwrights at work is one of the many pleasures of the evening. Two of the plays are by Paul Rudnick, and they are brilliant and hilarious. In The Gay Agenda, a distraught mother insists that she has no prejudice but fears gays, and her paranoia deepens as she hears imaginary gay voices telling her she needs to lose weight and that her home is poorly decorated. In My Husband, a mother is proud of her gay son but deeply disappointed that he is not yet married; she sets out to remedy this, and just as you think it can't get any funnier, it does, as Rudnick piles on new and inventive riffs. Marcy Bannor plays both mothers, and is a paragon of energy and comic timing. Neil LaBute surprises with a tender love story, beautifully crafted, and sensitively performed by Randall Jobe and Lynn Miller. Equally moving is London Mosquitos by Moises Kaufman, as a surviving partner gives the eulogy for his lover. On Facebook, by Craig Wright, satirizes a running thread of debate between a homophobic divorcee and more liberal view-holders, and is original and witty. The evening is co-directed by Jimmy Phillips and Ron Jones, and its entertainment value is primarily mainstream and can be enjoyed by anyone who is a mensch, though grinches need not apply. Through September 29. From Celebration Theatre at the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, 2025 E. 11th, 832-330-5478. — JJT


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