But Not Goodbye Main Street Theater's But Not Goodbye has nothing to do with Christmas except its family spirit and joy of giving, but George Seaton's fantasy comedy is exceptionally well wrapped. Sam dies before he can rectify the muddle he has made of family finances, but when his father comes to escort him to heaven, Sam stays to make things right. Wistful and gentle, the comedy unfolds as if we're watching it from a comfy recliner. The twists are smooth, the complications not too difficult to knit back together, and the ensemble cast, under Steve Garfinkel's smooth direction, is exemplary, especially David Wald as cantankerous Benjamin, as feisty a dead leprechaun as ever was. Through December 28. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG
A Fertle Holiday It just wouldn't be Christmas in Houston if the loony singing Fertle family and their equally crazy neighbors didn't sit down for their Christmas eve dinner of chicken in a bucket, heaping helpings of daughter-in-law Bridgette's creamed corn — slightly green around the edges — lime Jell-O squares and a big ol' slab of mom Mildred's butter pie, slathered with gobs of nondairy whipped topping. Hungry? You bet! You'll ache from laughing out loud at this most dysfunctional family, which strangely resembles almost any family you know, including your own. Daughter Justicena completes her holiday shopping when she and whipped hubby Pete and spawn-from-hell son Damien stop overnight at Motel 6, where she purloins the towels, hand soap, postcards and Gideon Bible to wrap up as gifts. Mildred and Ned's other daughter, Carol, accompanied by rich husband Roger and nelly son Curtis, flies in from San Diego on a private plane, causing no end of jealousy on the part of her loser brother Lou, who manages to get his big foot stuck in his mouth constantly. Balancing on one foot with his arms extended just so, slow brother Earl, who's recently hit his head again, makes the perfect TV rabbit ears, and nobody's in the mood to decorate Ned's scrawny, pathetic twig of a tree — "All the sequoias were gone," he whines in defense. Then there's Uncle Al, whose wife Orabella has suddenly died, attempting to play Santa for the kids. He just doesn't have it in him to be merry, getting out one lone "ho" before bursting into sobs. The inspired clowns responsible for the merriment, and who play every character, are Steve Farrell (who writes the satiric material), Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills. No matter what mood you're in, you'll be in a better one after seeing this one-and-only comedy troupe. Merry Christmas, indeed. Through January 10. Radio Music Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG
The Nutcracker It ain't Christmas till the Sugar Plum dances, and dance she does in Houston Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker. Her grand pas de deux is one of the choreographic delights of this century-old ballet. Houstonians have been ogling this piece of holiday eye candy for 21 years now, yet the magic never seems to die. The production, with sets and costumes designed by Desmond Heeley, has gotten a little sprucing up this year, as many of the costumes were re-created or refreshed — with all the extra bling on the snowflake tutus, the "Snow" scene should be renamed "Diamonds in the Snow." Besides the new costumes, the ballet always offers the chance to spot up-and-coming talent, from corps kids getting solo roles to tykes from the Chance to Dance program getting their first taste of dancing onstage. The lovely, long-legged Mireille Hassenboehler was celestial as the Sugar Plum Fairy opening night, but Houston Ballet fans will want to catch 17-year-veteran Tyann Clement in the role as her finale performance before she retires. (Casting in the 32-performance run rotates; visit www.houstonballet.org for the cast list.) There's plenty for non-dance fans to ooh and aah over, too, like the stage tricks from the growing Christmas tree, the 200 pounds of falling "snow" and the flying cooks. And music lovers will delight in the Houston Ballet Orchestra's splendid rendition of Tchaikovsky's famous score. Through December 28. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG
But Not Goodbye
The Receptionist Something quite ominous is happening at the Central Office — the mysterious workplace floating somewhere outside the walls of Theater LaB Houston, where Adam Bock's The Receptionist is getting its regional premiere. The play opens with a startlingly moving segment full of smart, ironic foreshadowing. An unidentified man (Bob Boudreaux) stands with his back to the wall, a spotlight blazing in his eyes, recounting his memories — first of hunting, then of fly-fishing. We won't know who he is, or why this moment is so significant, until much later. After a fast blackout, we arrive in an office, a space remarkable only for its absolute corporate ordinariness. The banality of the set lies at the soul of Bock's story — it's the ordinariness that makes what happens later so terrifying. At the center of this story is the tidy and matronly Beverly Wilkins (Terri Branda Carter), the receptionist of the title, who watches over her desk with mother-hen vigilance and gossips with the scatterbrained Lorraine Taylor (Krysti Wilson). Bock crafts the poetry of this play from this language of the dull and boring. The cast, under Carolyn Houston Boone's rapid-fire direction, finds both the provocative and the bizarre in this funny world full of dark shadows. When Martin Dart (Alan Heckner) from the Central Office arrives asking for a Mr. Raymond, who is very late for work, we know some sort of crack has just occurred along the surface. It's not until Mr. Raymond finally arrives and lets us know what he's been up to that we get an idea of what this business does and why Dart's name is important. But that would be getting to the end, which we can't do here. We'll just say that it's worth it to wait with this receptionist and see what happens once we get past her desk. Through December 13. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — LW
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Sunshine Boys Neil Simon's tribute to bygone vaudeville and the troupers who gave it life is heartfelt and hilarious — one of his best. The laughs ring true and arise from genuine affection; the jokes aren't appliquéd but woven into the fabric. Lewis and Clark (James Huggins and Carl Masterson), formerly a comedy duo, haven't spoken in years — as a matter of fact, they hate each other — but are thrown together for a TV reunion special worked out by Clark's exasperated agent, who just happens to be his nephew (L. Robert Westeen). Unlike Simon's later work, which can be downright brittle and nasty, this lovely valentine from 1972 exudes warmth. Masterson and Huggins, fabulous pros, revel in the funny stuff as if basking in the sun, while Westeen plays the rumpled, annoyed nephew like a sheepdog left out in the rain. Marlo Blue, as Willie's registered nurse, is straight from Broadway central casting and about as perfect as can be. All in all, this comedy of grouchy manners is one of the most pleasant evenings in Houston theater this fall. Simon says, Go. Through December 13. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG