Capsule Stage Reviews: Chess, Driving Miss Daisy, Sleuth, The Waiting Room

Chess ABBA fans might be happy to know that an evening of tunes by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus is happening at the Hobby Center, thanks to Masquerade Theatre's remounting of the musical Chess. Set during the cold war, the story holding together the '80s pop music imagines a globe-trotting chess match that happens over the course of several months between a Russian player named Anatoly (Luther Chakurian) and an American named Freddie (Brad Scarborough). During the scenes that take place in Bangkok ("One Night in Bangkok") and Budapest, we grow to hate the bratty American and love the soulful Russian as the two men vie for the chess-champion title and for the love of a woman named Florence (Rebekah Dahl). Mixed into the love/chess tale is a story about the Cold War, and how evil political machinations keep the Russian and his lover Florence, who lives in the West, apart. It's been almost 20 years since the USSR split apart in 1991. An entire generation of Facebookers, texters and tweeters has grown up since then, and the world seems much smaller now. Thus the drama of a Russian who wants to defect to the West for love feels a bit anachronistic. And the production feels scrubbed clean of the sexual chemistry that binds Anatoly and Florence together. Sparks don't exactly fly across the stage when Chakurian and Dahl kiss and declare their love. But as always with a Masquerade show, the singers fill up the theater with their huge and often lovely voices.  This is a long production — more than three hours with the intermission. As directed by Phillip K. Duggins, these performers move slowly through some transitions. And there is some odd lighting, especially that green spot that shines on Chakurian when he sings his solos. But ABBA is still ABBA, and who doesn't love hearing "One Night in Bangkok" one more time? Through October 9. 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. — LW

Driving Miss Daisy There are only three characters in Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1988: Southern Jewish widow Miss Daisy, her businessman son Boolie, and her black chauffeur Hoke, but they encompass the world. Miss Daisy, who keeps saying she isn't prejudiced in the least, doesn't want to hire a driver, especially a black man, even though she can no longer manage her car, having plowed into the garage during the prologue. Boolie forces her into hiring Hoke, and this odd couple start off frosty, to say the least. But throughout the next 25 years, their relationship blossoms. Without intermission, the play, beginning in 1948 and set in Atlanta, is mostly seen from the perspective of front and rear seats as Miss Daisy and Hoke forge their unbreakable bond. Uhry's style is simple and direct; the episodic scenes are impressionistic, but the force of their impact is mighty powerful. Years pass between scenes, but Uhry's approach to character is so alive and honest that what's left unsaid between the gaps is just as important as what we're watching. Each scene has a kicker to it — maybe pig wrestling, a missing can of salmon, the spelling of a name on a gravestone, the firebombing of a synagogue, Hoke's boyhood memory of a lynching — but each pays off in ways that will leave you wrung out by play's end, in a good way. With plenty of comedy, this finely etched character study needs finely etched actors to do it justice, and A.D. Players has a dream team in Jeannette Clift George, Lee Walker and Wayne DeHart, whose regular home is The Ensemble Theatre. All three are wily veterans of the stage, and we know right away we're in the presence of pros. Aided by the direction of Sissy Pulley, they are an utter joy to watch. These are three of the best actors in Houston, and it would be a shame if you miss their revelatory work. And as for Uhry, his play is burnished, subtly wrought and immensely powerful. Don't miss this. Through October 17.  2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Sleuth Anthony Shaffer's Tony-winning mystery/thriller is the perfect work for a pre-Halloween chill. Nothing is what it seems here, and you laugh along with the inventiveness even when you're goose-pimply. Arrogant English mystery writer Andrew Wyke (a perfect Steve Fenley) is cuckolded by his wife and her lover Milo (an equally perfect Tom Long). Andrew, who says he doesn't love his wife anymore, convinces Milo to break into the house, steal some jewelry and pawn the loot. Andrew will collect the considerable insurance, while Milo makes off to France with a tidy sum — and a new wife. A perfect crime. Of course, we know there's no such thing, thanks to Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Alfred Hitchcock. Shaffer's witty plot zips along, always keeping at least a few nimble feet ahead of us, and it's fun to be frightened — and even more fun to be fooled. Pompous and smug, Andrew is so sure of himself, we know something will go wrong, and Fenley eats him up like caviar with champagne. He salivates with such words as "mullions" and "unguents," turning Andrew's arch phrases into gothic flying buttresses. He's like a despicable, dangerous Sheridan Whiteside. Fenley's worthy opponent in these deadly games is Long, who, by his own magical acting powers, turns the character of milquetoast Milo into a real person. We know how amazing Fenley is as an actor, so it's a pleasure to see Long equal him. They play back and forth with the finely honed finesse of tennis pros. (Long was a definitive "Tom" in Texas Rep's Glass Menagerie a few seasons back, but he dropped off the Houston radar. It's awfully good to have him back.) The Texas Rep production is ultra-stylish, with an adroit set design — all black-and-white chessboard — by Jesse Dreikosen, and director Craig Miller keeps the action nice and taut. The cast is fleshed out by Jamie Geiger (Inspector Doppler), Glenn Spencer (Detective Tarrant) and Joshua Estrada (Constable Higgins). It won't spoil anyone's fun to say that these three are so good and so thoroughly enmeshed in the story that you hardly notice them. Jolly good job, and jolly good show. Through October 17. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

The Waiting Room A superb ensemble cast stars in Samm-Art Williams's warm, funny work set in a hospital waiting room. The Innis family patriarch (unseen throughout the play) is recovering upstairs from a heart attack. His son Riley (Broderick Jones), loquacious brother Patrick (Byron Jacquet), stern sister Jessie (Bebe Wilson) and family friends Gordon (John Stevens) and his son Casey (Jamie Geiger) wait to hear news about his condition from Hannah, the efficient nurse on duty (Rachel Hemphill Dickson). The family is joined in the waiting room by townie Rachel (Tisha Dorn), who's brought in her baby with a bad cold, and sassy Cookie (Detria Ward), looking after her ailing sister. In this small town in North Carolina, everyone knows everybody else, and everybody has a secret. Sure enough, tales are spilled and long-buried skeletons unearthed. Adding to the fun, Patrick can't keep his mouth shut, Gordon is an unconverted Confederate sympathizer who wears the Stars and Bars just to annoy his black friends, and Hannah puts the make on Riley, who's married with children. As a co-producer, Williams has a string of hit TV shows (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, Good News) and a Tony award nomination for his drama Home, and he knows how to construct a feel-good comedy with just enough surprise touches. The Ensemble Theatre overlays the comedy with its usual pro polish in costuming (Shirley Whitmore), setting (James Thomas) and direction (Eileen Morris). At the end, everything falls neatly into place. Even if it's a bit too pat, there's nothing wrong with a gentle smile and two hours of family-friendly entertainment. You'll wish you were an Innis, too. What's one more secret among family? Through October 17. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG




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