Capsule Stage Reviews: Arsenic and Old Lace, Assistance, Hamlet, The Middle Ages, The Real Thing, Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays

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. A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

Assistance Playwright Leslye Headland's comedy introduces six assistants working for a tyrannical boss, Daniel Weisinger, who is a bully, a pedant, oblivious to the needs of others and cold and distant. He doesn't just chastise underlings, he humiliates them. Why do they stay? Ambition is the fuel and the goal is to make it big themselves. The comedy opens with Vince getting promoted, and we see his smug delight in his newly-minted authority. Black Lab Theatre's Artistic Director Jordan Jaffe, who directed the comedy, plays Vince, and his portrayal is hilarious. Vince's replacement is portrayed by Adam Gibbs, the central character. Gibbs is brilliant, with rich body language, and great comic timing. He nurtures newbie Nora (Rebekah Stevens Gibbs) and they generate chemistry onstage, no surprise as they are newlyweds in real life. Lindsay Ehrhardt plays Heather, another assistant, and in a beautifully written telephone conversation with her mother, whose brother has died, captures a poignant moment. Tim Ashby enters late as Justin, a flunky involved in an accident while on a business trip, convinced it was his own fault despite all evidence to the contrary. Emily Campion is a late-arrival assistant playing Jenny, and she brings with her humor, poise, sophistication and the glitter of success. She has an out-of-the-blue comic finale that is exuberant and wonderful. The acting is universally excellent and the pace suitably brisk. Playwright Headland is skilled at double-tasking and has created an authentic milieu to rich comic effect, but has also said something revealing about human nature. She is gifted, and Black Lab Theatre has given this comedy the production it deserves – well-cast, brilliantly directed, and with its humor delivered comically, yet realistically. A delightful romp. Through October 5, from Black Lab Theatre, at Wildfish Theatre, 1703-D-1 Post Oak Blvd., 713-515-4028. JJT

Hamlet The Classical Theatre Company tackles William Shakespeare's longest play in an adaptation by artistic director John Johnston, trimming it to manageable size. This revenge drama relies on the power of Hamlet's existential musings on life, and on melodramatic events, for its success. Matthew Keenan portrays Hamlet with understated authenticity, sparked by flashes of humor and charm. He looks princely, and moves eloquently, playing Hamlet as a man of action, though contemplative; it is an engaging, admirable portrayal. John Johnston directed and has set some scenes with brutality — Polonius manhandling his daughter Ophelia seemed novel. Ralph Ehntholt portrays Polonius as a bully, and Hamlet's brutal throttling of Guildenstern (here, a woman, played by Amy Buchanan) signaled that the director was going for the effects that a vivid vignette can generate. The mad scene of Ophelia (Joanna Hubbard), usually played for heart breaking poignancy, is here closer to a scene from Zombie Prom. As Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, Christianne Mays is beautiful and elegant and brings authenticity, power, and emotional depth to the role. As Claudius, who has poisoned his brother the king (Hamlet's father), Rutherford Cravens seems merely stolid. Jarred Tettey plays Horatio, Hamlet's friend, and is quite good, as is Kirk Ellis as Osric, delivering the inherent humor in his key scene. Rosencrantz (Jeff McMorrough) is phlegmatic and seems bewildered by events. Ted Doolittle is humorous as the gravedigger, and Laertes (Dain Geist), brother to Ophelia, is strong. There are highlights: the ghostly appearance of the slain king; the graveyard scene; and the lengthy dueling scene, done about as well as it could be. The narrative and power emerge intact, and strong performances, especially from Keenan as Hamlet, make for riveting theater. Through September 29, from The Classical Theatre Company, at The Barn (formerly Barnevelder). 2201 Preston, 713-963- 9665. — JJT

The Middle Ages In A.R. Gurney's poignant comedy The Middle Ages (1978) at Theatre Southwest, black sheep of the family Barney Rusher (Scott McWhirter) tries his best to win Eleanor (Samantha Walker), the girl of his dreams, against impossible odds – the country club set. With wry insight and maybe not exactly laugh-out-loud comedy, Gurney dissects the middle class with an anatomist's insight. He lives to skewer. Gurney takes the somewhat-upper crust, or those who think they should be, and flips them on their well-cushioned posteriors. He doesn't flip them high, but his dexterity in flipping them at all draws gentle comedy and sharp social perception. Yes, Barney wants his father's approval, but what he really craves is sweet Eleanor, whom he meets as horny teen in the Trophy Room of his father's very exclusive country club. The entire play takes place in this cherished and dreaded room, as we careen from present day (the '70s), where the memorial ceremony is held for Barney's father (Bob Maddox), back through the decades when Barney first meets Eleanor and her social climbing mother (Melissa J. Mayo). There are only these four characters, but they're more than enough to satisfy. Barney's ready to jump Eleanor's bones as soon as he meets her, but she's tentative and not ready for this wild child, who doesn't want to end up "out there," indicating the people in the club. Barney does everything he can not to be like them, setting his father against him from the beginning. He wants to be Robin Hood, fighting the good fight, rebelling against the noblesse oblige. If that means disrupting his brother Billy's piano playing at the Christmas party, so be it. If that means, trying to seduce an older Eleanor during her wedding day to same brother Billy, so be it, too. In this prickly observed comedy, we hope for the best for Barney even when Eleanor gets married, has children and renounces his attentions. We know they'll end up together somehow. We hope for it. And this bad boy getting his dream girl is wrought by Gurney with nuance and finely-etched portraits of a dying class. McWhirter has us on his side from the beginning. Barney's eyes sparkle in the chase with charm and that hint of crazy danger that's so attractively roguish. Walker gets fresher in every subsequent scene, going from inquisitive teen to sad mom with breathtaking assurance. She possesses natural stage presence that's unforced and utterly believable. When she says, "You're bad for me, Barney," we think the worst for them. But in her black dress, pearls, and white gloves, she might be bad for him. A new face to us, Walker is one to watch, and we hope to see her in many subsequent productions. Maddox, one of Houston's finest, captures the white-bread essence of Charlie with just the right bombast and sarcastic tone of voice. In a defining moment, he goes from starchy dad to mummified old man while he walks across the stage into another scene. It happens so smoothly, we're not sure it really happens at all, but there he is, old and brittle and out of time. Mayo comes into her own as the play proceeds, growing into the twice-divorced Gilbert, thinking her time has run out, then setting her claws for Charlie. When he asks her to marry, the mists lift from her character and Mayo finds her center. The Middle Ages might be young Gurney, but it's good Gurney. Provocative and full of calm surprises – no need to get too riled, what would the club members think? – the play wins us over with its steady tread through the years. Directors John Mitsakis and Kelly Walker, along with the very adept cast, keep the unrequited love stories (Barney and Eleanor; Barney and dad) on a heading straight to the heart. Through September 28. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. – DLG

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

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. Celebration Theatre at the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, 2025 E. 11th, 832-330-5478. — JJT


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