Come Back, Little Sheba Never has a bottle of whiskey perked up a play so much. Until Doc (Mack Hays) careens into the kitchen, screaming, taunting and threatening his wife Lola (Tess Wells) with an axe, the everyday sadness of life -- which playwright William Inge was a master at delineating -- has been uncommonly slow-paced under director Jack Dunlop. It's like we've been watching the play under water. Then Doc goes on a classic bender, and the play lives. The leisurely attitude shows itself right at the beginning as Doc prepares breakfast before slovenly Lola wakes up. He puts on an apron (a powerful Inge touch), gets the pans, pours the orange juice, and goes about his business with deliberate slowness, as if the world hinges upon his making breakfast. It seems a waste of precious stage time: all preparation and no pay-off. Doc and Lola are haunted by the unforgiving past. Their marriage is a sham, a shotgun affair from high school coupled with a botched abortion that left Lola forever childless and Doc resentful. Love is for others. Their free-spirited college boarder Marie (Emily Cunningham) and her sexy ways with athlete boyfriend Turk (Adan Inteuz) rekindle some of Lola's lost warmth, but curdle memories for Doc. He dives back into the bottle. Throughout, Lola has pined for her beloved dog, Sheba, who ran away. In the end, she gives up all hope of a return, and she and Doc settle back into their dull routine of a marriage. Quotidian touches like the arrival of the mailman (John Mitsakis) and milkman (Scott McWhirter), the next door neighbor's nosiness (Janina Gebel), and other bits of business fill out the play and Lola's meager existence. But this version from Country Playhouse is mostly sketch. Wells doesn't make Lola ache for her past; she just seems befuddled. And the house that's supposed to be such a mess only reads as untidy. Except for Hays's mighty fine drunk scene, there's no pace to this production. Everything gets the same emphasis -- those eggs in the skillet, the telephone call from Western Union, the searching for little Sheba. With its theme of sexual repression squarely in your face, Sheba is more upfront and daring than ever. This production just doesn't know how to deal with it. Through May 7. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG
Four Places Ethical questions abound in the drama Four Places. An adult brother and sister cope with two aging parents, though the father is never seen on stage, and the problems their decline presents are compounded by reliance on alcohol. The play takes place with the siblings driving to and from a luncheon with their mother, Peggy, who is portrayed with such grace, beauty, elegance and charm by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis that my sympathies were with her. She may lie a little, but drinkers do that, and she can hold it like a trooper, as even the adult kids admit. Peggy adds to what the caregiver has related, corroborating some highly unseemly behavior, but explaining her own motivations. Or course, Peggy is hardly a reliable witness. The daughter, Ellen, is played by Luisa Amaral-Smith, and she embodies the pain of a daughter forced to choose sides in the midst of a crisis. The son, Warren, portrayed by Jack Young, has anger-management problems demonstrated far too clearly in this 90-minute session, as the adult children, with ostensibly good intentions, connive against their mother. As written by playwright Joel Drake Johnson, and as directed by Kenn McLaughlin, Young has no choice but to be distinctly unpleasant, and he does this admirably. The waitress at lunch, well played by Lisa Thomas-Morrison, has a tangential connection to this dysfunctional family, but that is simply to add much-needed flavor. The plot is so minuscule that I won't divulge what little there is. The play is awkwardness itself — it begins with deliberate awkwardness as it's clear on the ride to lunch that there is no real warmth or communication between mother and children, just competitive hostility and familial duty. It's awkward because we lack adequate information to make a considered moral choice. It's awkward because the tactics adopted by the children seem clumsy and unrealistic, including leaving the mother alone after a day of grueling intensity. But the lighting by Christina R. Giannelli works wonders to delineate areas as needed, and the minimalist set by Liz Freeze is highly effective and enhanced by a simple but imaginative backdrop. Four Places is worth seeing for the extraordinary, sensitive and enchanting performance of McMurdo-Wallis as the mother, but she and the waitress are rays of light in a cavern of darkness. Through May 22. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JT
A Murder Is Announced An engaging cast, substantial suspense and a series of surprises combine to produce an excellent evening of entertainment in the Agatha Christie mystery A Murder Is Announced at Theatre Suburbia. Set in an English country house with disparate guests (no surprise here), the plot revolves around a very convoluted will in which who dies first matters enormously. You may want to reach for aspirin in trying to follow the intricacies of the denouement, but better think twice as nothing is quite as it seems in this thriller. The play begins deceptively simply with a dispute as to who borrowed the morning paper, a domestic crisis soon made irrelevant as the bodies start dropping. Presiding over house and guests is the benevolent owner Letitia Blacklock, played with great skill by Kathy Davis, whose talent and poise hold together the household — and the play. Without her the play might have foundered, as the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese and more twists than a corkscrew, but in her capable hands we settle down into an evening of delight and wait for the sherry to be passed. Surprisingly, the maid, played by Courtney Furgason with a strong presence and superb comic timing, is here not just for exposition and to carry in the tea. She is a fully fleshed out character with an important part to play — and play it well she does. The cast of 12 (two parts are quite brief) is ably directed by Barbara Hartman, and deftly shepherded into varying tableaux on the attractive, well-appointed set, though I'm puzzled why characters turn their backs on partners to march downstage and look into the distance. Some of the gentle humor of the play goes unrealized in the drive toward intensity, but Hartman has succeeded in establishing ensemble acting that adds genuine appeal. An exception is Miss Marple, played by Melrose Fougere in such a diffident, understated way that it appears she wandered in from another play. And I was surprised that Inspector Craddock (David James Barron) was not more authoritative, though I found the character likable — perhaps this was a directorial choice. The pace is admirable, the lighting effective and surprises occur with a frequency that keeps us alert and tuned in, wondering what on earth is coming next in this pleasant divertissement, intended to entertain rather than instruct and succeeding with style and a flourish. Through May 14. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Rd., 713-682-3525. — JT
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Our New Age of Information Satiric comedy abounds in seven plays about Our New Age of Information, for which seven Houston playwrights created short works to this pre-selected theme. (The fourth annual competition is inspired and presented by Scriptwriters/Houston.) Besides the expected humor, there is heart and a keen sense of shared humanity as well. The level of writing is high, the acting good if occasionally uneven, and the staging simple but effective. I especially liked Wisdom by Fernando Dovalina, as a teenage boy (Xavier Lehew) confides a secret to his grandfather (Walter Boyd), who responds with one of his own. What emerges is a bonding in unpredictable ways. The writing is fresh, honest and moving without being sentimental, and 14-year-old Lehew more than holds his own with the older actor. Youwitness News by Stephen Stewart hits paydirt with the concept that a TV station economizes by having all news consist solely of items videotaped and submitted by viewers — this might well be extended into a full-length play. Jules Loth here nails the role of a loudmouthed sports announcer who savors locker-room interviews, and David Parker brings dignity and credibility to the role of an old-time anchor with a tendency to ad lib. In A Conversation by Anna Louise Bruner, Renata Smith and Brian Heaton portray with style and deft comic timing a married couple on a date, as communication devices interrupt. Love Bug by Lauren Tunnell is amusing, as an office staff deals with a potential computer virus; Sherod Choyce has wonderfully enthusiastic moments as the lovesick office boy. He also plays the patient to Marissa Viso's psychiatrist in Twisted by Marilyn Lewis, though the situation tested my credulity. Walter Boyd, the actor cited above, wrote An Extraordinary Exorcism, and I felt the potential power of the writing, witty and with some serious implications, but the execution was handicapped by the priest not having his lines down. Dolly Fischer was effective here as a mother with a taste for the sauce, and young Lehew again excellent in a role that was primarily pantomime. The evening closes with Smart Phone App by Dennis Porsnuk, as a father becomes engrossed beyond all reason in phone apps. The situation is amusing, and James Barron as the dad bubbles with enthusiasm, but I never quite believed in the compulsion. All seven directors coped well with a small stage and showed flashes of inspiration. Since an evening this entertaining arrives so seldom from this source, don't miss it. Through May 7. Museum of Printing History, 1324 Clay, 713-876-9549. — JT