Capsule Stage Reviews: Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck, The Coitus Plays, The Seagull, Shadowlands

Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck Let's see, where were we? The last time we met Tom Stoppard's displaced 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, they were scattered across Europe looking for life's meaning in political upheavals soon to be. Here, in the second part of his epic trilogy, Shipwreck, they appear right in the midst of turmoil, debating, critiquing literature, forging new friendships and, most importantly, falling in and out of love, which is the most revolutionary act of all. Politics is no match for the human heart. This private life brings Stoppard's finely etched characters into the present with overwhelming force and spirit. For all the disquisitions on serfdom, universal brotherhood, the waywardness of kings and the implacable censoriousness of Mother Russia, it's their personal stories that move us so. Like the most skilled weaver, Stoppard interlaces his stories with clever time shifts and bends. People come and go quickly, some die offstage between scenes, some come back to life in memories fraught with emotion. Never again can anyone accuse Stoppard of being a cold fish. The intellectualism that is his natural force — no playwright can set complicated philosophical arguments with such abundant wit and clarity — is amply supplanted by his domestic scenes of simple love, anger, jealousy, betrayal and friendship. Autumnal Chekhov gives way to a more contemporary style. His characters are growing up. Director Rebecca Udden keeps Stoppard's full plate in gentle motion, like a breeze, or, better yet, ocean waves. The rhythm tightens as the play proceeds. While we miss the breathing room that the larger stage expanse at Chelsea Market gave to Voyage, we're never more than arm's length away at Times Boulevard, and this intimacy is its own reward. The cast is huge and impeccably smart from top to bottom. Standouts include: Joe Kirkendall (Alexander Herzen), Shannon Emerick (Natalie Herzen), Seán Patrick Judge (Turgenev), Guy Roberts (Bakunin), Joel Sandel (Belinsky), Ivy Castle (Emma Herwegh), Elissa Levitt (Maria Ogarev) and Sammy Rachleff (little Kolya). It's a rich, vibrant, historical panorama Stoppard presents, and he keeps us constantly alert with shifting themes and subtle theatrical effects that build to a quiet, smashing climax. This is contemporary drama without parallel. Through March 11. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

The Coitus Plays NightCap Theatre launches its premiere season with two comedies that employ humor to dig deeply into personal relationships. There are two one-act plays, and the one titled PRE centers on what happens before coitus, as chick magnet Dennis has inexplicably "lost interest" in the sex act. Rick Evans as Douglas has charm, a ready smile and an interesting persona, and creates a vivid character. As his sidekick Marcus, Mark Stanley makes the most of his moments, and Michael P. Shukiz nails several character roles. Three beauties succumb to the appeal of Douglas: Lulu Mire as waitress Tanya, Erin Elizabeth Reed as exotic Lorena and Claire Anderson as blond Sara — all are excellent. The writing by playwright (and co-founder of NightCap Theatre) Peter Wittenberg Jr. is refreshingly original. Deft direction by Christine Weems keeps the pace going and the humor flowing. The entire package verges on brilliance, and the second play, POST, showcases equal talent. It opens with two men recovering from the explosion of sex. Playwright Eric James (the other co-founder of NightCap Theatre) is too savvy to pigeonhole his characters, and what ensues is enigmatic and interesting. The conflict is between Dennis (Brad Goertz), in his thirties, experienced and seeking no relationship, and a younger man of 25, Chris (Zach Lewis), who craves one, and the struggle is played out with a series of surprises. Goertz gives an intense, riveting performance and has great comic timing with a one-liner. Lewis captures the subtleties of a complex role, making the younger man likable, endearing and credible. Director Eva Laporte allows us to see these individuals wrestle with the turmoil in their souls. The playwrights are friends who formed NightCap Theatre to produce local playwrights, and this is clearly a troupe to watch. Skilled acting, comic timing, deft direction and original writing provide a fresh look at the age-old battle of the sexes, leading to a delightful and laugh-filled event. Through February 25. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 281-788-2319. — JJT

The Seagull The iconic Russian setting by master scenic designer Kevin Rigdon is all in place on the Alley Theatre's intimate Neuhaus Stage: birch trees, samovar, divan, ceramic stove, wide, wood-planked floor. The physical properties bespeak the last days of the czars, languid afternoons along the Volga; soft summer evenings by a dacha's lake house. All that's missing is playwright Anton Chekhov. Directed by Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd, this production leaves us as cold as the requisite stuffed seagull that makes its appearance in Act IV. Chekhov's "between the lines" 1896 play, so seminal in the history of theater, goes all hazy and indistinct. Judging by the people around me yawning or asleep, the great play made no impression. Chekhov's first major theatrical success, Seagull is wondrously transitory and ephemeral. Nobody is truly satisfied where they are. They all want something else. Actress Arkadina (Josie de Guzman), though successful in her career, now appears mostly in the provinces or acts for students, but she's never more alive than when onstage. Her lover Trigorin (James Black), a famous writer, is racked by inadequacy at not being Tolstoy or Turgenev. Arkadina's brother Sorin, who is failing in health and owns the estate on which the play unfolds, desperately wants to get away to the city where he can "live." Arkadina's son Konstantin (Karl Glusman) desires to write the great modern play but is hopelessly entangled with aspiring actress Nina (Erica Lutz), who in turn is smitten with older Trigorin. In a reflecting subplot, timid schoolteacher Medvedenko (Chris Hutchison) pines for vibrant Masha (Rachel Tice), who longs for Konstantin. The play's a delicate round robin of failed romance and dashed dreams. More than one character exclaims that he or she is mighty unhappy. Seagull may be the world's first contemporary play. Yet there's no consistency to this production, which veers wildly from comedy to unintentional comedy to strangely unaffecting. The grand, tragic parts come off forced and melodramatic, which is clearly not what Chekhov intended. Of all his plays Seagull is the most difficult to pull off, since it teeters between comic and heart-wrenching. Chekhov's drama occurs offstage, between scenes, in the characters' silences. The tone's off at the Alley, with too many characters running breathlessly through the set as if looking to find (or lose) themselves. We get it twice the first time. Through March 4. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Shadowlands British writer and intellectual C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, finds that love can come late in life, as he befriends, falls in love with and marries the American poet Joy Gresham. Male-centric Oxford in 1956 is dominated by Lewis with the strength of his personality, his intellectual vigor and his charm, captured by Steven Fenley in a commanding portrayal that grabs us by the throat and never lets go. Beth Lazarou portrays Gresham, with whom Lewis has corresponded but not met, and her intrusion in person into Lewis's life challenges the smug camaraderie of the group. Playwright William Nicholson is less skilled in drawing her — two separate confrontations, intended to show her intellectual gifts, come across instead as rude and argumentative. While we are convinced of Lewis's love for her, we don't see her love for Lewis — if, indeed, that exists, for it's possible to view this as one-sided, with Joy an opportunist gulling an emotionally starved academic. Lazarou, though polished and attractive, doesn't provide the warmth and charisma to bring Joy to life. Lewis's struggle to reconcile God with the evils of the world is here merely theology-lite, but neither of these flaws interferes with the rich, engaging satisfaction of this production. The handsome set by Trey Otis permits smooth transitions, the costumes by Macy Perrone are authentically shabby, the lighting design by Daniel Polk is subtle and appealing, and Rachel Mattox directs with the eye of a professional. A compelling, nuanced performance by Fenley, a gifted cast and an impressive production overcome minor script flaws to create enthralling theater with emotional power, making this pleasurable and important — a must-see event. Through February 19. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT


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