Capsule Stage Reviews: Chinglish, MBTV, Ravenscroft, Six Degrees of Separation, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Tribute

Chinglish A businessman from Cleveland travels to China seeking a contract to create signage, using as an interpreter an alleged consultant, an expatriate Caucasian fluent in Mandarin. The Chinese officials rely on incompetent interpreters, so misunderstandings abound. The gaps between what the American says and what the translator reports are richly comic in Chinglish, but it's like a SNL skit that goes on too long. The comedy also attempts to be a romantic drama and to critique contrasting cultures. The acting is excellent — John Dunn as the consultant creates a fascinating portrait of a linguist who loves his adopted China — but does he really? Vivian Chiu portrays Vice Minister Xi Yan, and is persuasive indeed in a multifaceted role, leaving us to wonder what she is really thinking. Xin Jian as Minister Cai Guoliang is superb at conveying his emotions and intelligence. The Ohio businessman, Victor Cavanaugh, is portrayed by Mike Yager, and he delivers an enthusiastic performance, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, conveying a vivid portrait of a minnow swimming with sharks. But as the plot becomes more complex, he does not. The play is presented in the stunning auditorium of the Asia Society, and designer Jodi Bobrovsky has provided sleek sets, but the production is awkward, requiring numerous scene changes, frittering away momentum, and a needless intermission. The play runs full tilt in three different directions: comedy, romance and cultural investigation, failing in all three. The director, Troy Scheid, has not provided the genius to solve perhaps intractable problems. This is an amusing curiosity, best viewed as a minor effort from playwright David Henry Hwang, but it is replete with humor and enhanced by some stunning performances. It's well worth seeing, but will be enjoyed most if expectations are lowered. Through May 26. Black Lab Theatre and Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Blvd., 713-496-9901. — JJT

MBTV Under full disclosure, I must declare that there is no more talented musical theater quintet than this collective (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel — veterans of the late, great Masquerade Theatre), and I would be happy as a clam just to sit and listen to them sing whatever they want to. Which is exactly what they do in this revue, without much thought to the theme, which is The Music Box Does Television. To be fair, they state this objective right at the beginning — that the songs are a bunch of their favorites and this seems the right time to perform them — but why do a show about television if the songs have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject? Exquisitely sung, as always, the show is rushed and slapdash, not up to MBT's usual standards. The skits, as they are, are fairly lame and flatline badly, but are saved in every way by the guest appearance of John Gremillion (another quality alumnus from Masquerade), who performs in knockout impersonations of Mr. Rogers, creepy and soft; Regis Philbin, peppy and overmedicated; and Johnny Carson, full of tics with perfect timing. Gremillion raises the level of the nonmusical segments with graceful ease. Of course, none of this truly matters when the five of them open their mouths and sing, instantly transporting us to a higher plane. Each gets to shine. Taylor, who does a brilliant but brief appearance as whiney Fran Drescher, turns on a dime and dazzles as a glamorous "Material Girl," squealing in little chirps as she paws the diamonds. Scarborough, with his trumpet-bright tenor, sails through "Hooked on Feelings," with the ensemble backing him up with those patented "ooh-ga-cha-kas." Dahl, pregnant and about to give birth if she wails another high C, channels her inner Grace Slick with a smoking "Somebody to Love." Wrobel, all honeyed baritone swirling like haze, mesmerizes with the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic "One for My Baby." Sullivan, all crystal-clear soprano, plunges deep into the Heart power ballad "Alone," and later gloriously traipses through Sting's elegiac "Fields of Gold," although she's overshadowed by a "best of" tribute to TV personalities playing behind her. The five join forces, unsuccessfully, I must confess, in an a cappella version of the rhapsodic Brian Wilson/Tony Asher "God Only Knows." But the best is saved for last, a rip-roaring Joe Cocker take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," fabulously rendered by Wrobel with all those neurotic Cocker mannerisms in place. No need to grab that remote when any of these five are singing center stage. Through July 3. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Ravenscroft In a British country manor, a police inspector interrogates five women — the solitary male employee has just perished, by accident or murder. The first act is a conventional mystery drama, and the second act close to a French sex farce. The acting is superb, and director Rob Kimbro has succeeded in creating an authentic ensemble. The bad news is that in Act I nothing much happens, except that the ladies tell lies. Sean Patrick Judge plays the inspector, and creates brilliantly a stuffy, straight-arrow officer in Act One, but in Act Two fails to find the truth in the character as playwright Don Nigro compels him to get drunk and become an homme fatal. At the top of the hierarchy is Mrs. Ravenscroft, and Michelle Edwards creates an interesting character with considerable range and authority in Act One, but must portray a simpering coquette in Act Two. Her 17-year-old daughter, Gillian (Zoquera Millburn), is excellent in both acts, since Gillian, though a compelling beauty, is a bit daft, like the play. Claire Anderson brings a wonderful stage presence to the role of the Austrian governess, Marcy, though she has little to do except deliver boring lines. The servants are delicious. Karen Schlag plays Mrs. French, the housekeeper, glum to a fault, and in Act One hovering like a condor at the edge of the stage. In Act Two, it's a relief to find she is silly and flawed. Last but by no means least is Dolly, the much-abused maid, and the wonderful Kara Ray captures her panic and hysteria with vivid certainty. The successive explanations for Patrick's death all seem much the same, and the final one is no more plausible than the others. Through May 18. From Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St., 832-463-0409. — JJT

Six Degrees of Separation Everybody's either a con man in John Guare's acidic comedy of manners or about to get scammed. Nobody's pure at heart, not in this Manhattan nest of privileged vipers, where everyone seems to reinvent himself or to be in desperate need of wanting to, or is oblivious to the need for change. In an utterly delightful and satisfying production, Country Playhouse draws back the veil on the phoniness of these shallow people and reveals the price to be paid for self-examination. Flanders and Ouisa (Brian Heaton and Renata Smith, both arrogantly urban) live a charmed life high above Central Park in an aerie filled with pricey works of art (a Kandinsky that figures prominently in their lives hangs aglow on the wall). At first glance, the couple is to be envied, since they seem to have everything: They eat at the best restaurants; they go to A-list parties; their kids attend Harvard and Groton; they can drop the most impressive names when it's necessary to drop them. In their constant pursuit of profit and status, the couple hardly realizes that they've been blindsided big time when a young black man, Paul (Christopher St. Mary, in a thoroughly captivating performance), literally barges into their living room, bleeding from a mugging and seeking their help. Their kids are his friends at Harvard, he claims; he knows all the right things to say. Charming and glib, he's got perfect manners. He cooks them dinner, then cleans up afterward. To top it off, he's the son of Sidney Poitier. Who can doubt such a story when told with such silky aplomb by such a perceptive young man? The couple is smitten. Things go awry quickly under Guare's suave, sure theatrical hand. A hustler bursts out of the guest room, followed by a contrite Paul. Soon, another high-end couple, Kitty and Larkin (Yvonne Nelson and Sam Stengler), relate their tale. They, too, have been taken in by this young man through the same modus operandi; so has Dr. Fine (Lee Honeycutt) from Park Avenue; so has a naive couple from Utah, Elizabeth and Rick (Kaylin Zeren and Jose Luiz Rivera), who've just arrived in Manhattan with dreams of their own to remake their lives. But Paul has hit a nerve with Ouisa. In the play's most famous speech, she relates how everyone in the world is connected by knowing only six people. The trick is finding the right six. Knowing Paul has stripped away her veneer, or at least the first layer or so. She's the only one who begins to see her life with any clarity. Leaving options open, Guare ends the play on this note of discovery. Director Jim Tommany overlays the work with breezy assurance, letting Guare's dramatic touches occur naturally within the artifice. At 90 minutes, this intriguing, darkly inky play zooms along, always fresh and surprising as it prods and provokes. Through May 25. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

There Is a Happiness That Morning Is In 2011, Catastrophic Theatre mounted There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Mickle Maher's boldly original dedication to "love, sex and the poetry of William Blake," and due to popular demand they have brought the production back for another limited run. Directed by Catastrophic's Artistic Director, Jason Nodler, the play takes place at a financially failing liberal arts college where Bernard (Troy Schulze) and his lover Ellen (Amy Bruce) are two professors who both happen to teach the poetry of William Blake. The play opens with Bernard's acknowledgment to his Blake class that he and Ellen got somewhat swept away during the previous evening when the two, in the midst of a Blake oratory, went at it on the campus lawn for all to see. The entire play is written in rhymed verse, and the first half consists of monologues by the two actors of the event and how it is related to Blake's writing. For Bernard the act of passion was a thing of beauty, two bodies coming together out of pure love and exultation. Bernard's recounting of the evening is childlike and dreamy and Schulze makes his innocence, and perhaps naiveté, absolutely convincible and lovable. Ellen, on the other hand, does not see eye to eye with him. Bruce plays her as a tightly wound up ball of nerves. She refuses to apologize to the school or to the Dean (Kyle Sturdivant) because she doesn't think he deserves an apology. Ellen is painfully angry and Bruce gives her the perfect amount of emotion and depth. While some of the reasons behind Ellen's anger toward Bernard and their fleeting love seemed out of character, the duality between Bernard and Ellen's perceptions and the influence their night of love has had on them is a wonder to watch, especially as it is woven into both the poetry of Blake and Maher's own mastery over the English language. This is not a simple play, which is what is so wonderful about it. It makes you think, and you have to pay attention. Maher's verse and plot are so intricately married to the two Blake poems that you'll feel proud of yourself for keeping up with it all. Go with your thinking cap on tight, but go, seriously. This is what theater is supposed to be. Through May 25. 119 East Fwy., — AK

Tribute Scotty Templeton, an over-the-hill actor and producer who has failed as a family man, is visited by his semi-estranged son, Jud, as they struggle to build a relationship. Scotty has just received some very bad news about his health. Scotty is glib, self-centered, lascivious and also warm-hearted, loyal, talented and always ready with a quip to avoid seriousness. Jim Salners, a gifted actor with great range and versatility, portrays Scotty, a demanding role that has him onstage almost the entire time. Salners finds his rhythm and his heart, but never locates the soul playwright Bernard Slade failed to provide — Slade has written a buffoon, a clown, not a man we could admire. The strong supporting cast includes Elizabeth Marshall Black as Hillary, hooker turned travel agent. Black is gorgeous, with acting chops as well. Nicky Mondellini plays the very attractive Maggie, Scotty's ex-wife and the mother of Jud, and she is excellent. Jami Hughes plays Dr. Gladys Petrelli, trim and sophisticated, who attempts to persuade Scotty to undergo treatment. Scotty's best friend Lou Daniels is played by Jeffrey S. Lane, who is persuasive in his scenes with Scotty and Jud but speaks too slowly. As Jud, Kyle Cameron finds the right balance between rebellion and concern, conveying the awkwardness of youth and its tyrannical judgments. Katrina Ellsworth plays Sally, a young girl Scotty tries to interest Jud in, and she sounds all the right notes, creating an attractive, shrewd, likable character. The final scene, as the son and father embrace at the tribute, is heartwarming and well worth waiting for in a play that badly needs trimming. An interesting and multitalented production comes within striking distance of solving the play's inherent problem of having a buffoon at its core. Through May 26. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT


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