Dangerous Liaisons Christopher Hampton's wicked dissection of upper-crust pre-Revolutionary France brings passion without heat, sincerity without heart and sex without love: artifice on a grand scale. Show your soft side and you might get your head bitten off. To take revenge on a former lover, the icy Marquise de Merteuil (calm and cool Demetria Thomas) enlists the underhanded services of another former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (Chris Egging), in a skillfully woven plot to discredit the virginal and mock the pure. In this callous world, sex is power. It's win or die, as Merteuil hisses, and partners are switched like last season's fashions. When love shows up uninvited and unannounced in the virtuous Madame Tourvel (Tracie Thomason steals the show with her heartfelt performance), Merteuil and Valmont's well-made plot unravels with vicious speed. Hampton's exceptionally entertaining adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's scandalous novel (1782) captures the scathing wit, the fawning and the comic irony implicit in the book, which would come to be seen as an indictment of the aristocracy and led directly to the guillotine. The University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance mounts this production with precision and loving care, as if it were constructing a Fabergé egg with a viper inside. Directed with spirited panache by Samuel Sparks, the play's Machiavellian maneuvers are devilishly fun to watch. Clair Hummel's creamy costumes and papier-mâché-like wigs and Stephen Jones's sparse yet graceful set design add lustrous atmosphere to the ripe and sexy story. We even forgive the two majordomos who ceremoniously change the set after each scene, daintily arranging a settee or a chair in utterly useless new positions. (If everyone has the same furniture in their homes, why not let it stay where it is — we'll figure out where we are.) Watching heartless people who use sex like a bludgeon and who are, instead, then bludgeoned by it, can be quite educational as well as entertaining. Just don't try it at home. Through April 25. Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, Entrance 16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-743-2929. — DLG
Queen of Spades The coup de théâtre in Houston Grand Opera's staging of Tchaikovsky's sublime opera grabs you by the throat with a bony hand. It happens during the first scene of Act III. Dissolute Herman (the wonderfully dramatic Vladimir Galouzine) tosses in bed, furious that he couldn't wrest the moneymaking secret of the cards from the wizened countess (Judith Forst), who died of fright when he accosted her. Without money, he can't marry Lisa (honey-voiced soprano Tatiana Monogarova), and he writhes around bemoaning his fate. We see this scene directly overhead, like one of those grand and screwy camera angles of Hitchcock's that mirror the character's psychological frailty. Then, the off-kilter picture gets even better. The bed sheets twitch. There's somebody else with him, and out crawls the dead countess — or what remains of her. A big skeleton joins poor Herman, wrapping its arm tenderly around the demented, obsessed man. In a ghostly whisper she reveals her secret, as if to a lover. It's the best scene in the opera, and one of Tchaikovsky's most gloriously felt — insightful, wise and very crazed. All at once, designer John MacFarlane's production takes flight. Yes, this is what Queen of Spades should look like, we think, grateful for the vision, however fleeting. The rest is undistinguished and leaden. Instead of 18th-century St. Petersburg opulence, we get WWII Siege of Leningrad: drab, moldy, gray, minimal. Characters rush about without motivation, or slink against walls, very doom and gloom. During the gambling scene, we get a pathetic, not very sexy drag dance that only muddies up an already muddy mise-en-scène: Does Count Tomsky (sung with a distinctive and powerful gravel by Tómas Tómasson) have a thing for rough trade? A weird little puppet show visually saves Act II, thanks to the imagination of visiting English theater group Green Ginger, the wizards also responsible for the rotting countess. Except for the puppets, only the singing (superlative all around) and Tchaikovsky's unfailingly grand musical passion (heatedly conducted by Carlo Rizzi and vividly played by HGO's orchestra) give life to this production of one of the great works of operatic art. Through May 1. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG
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Seascape "Sweet" and "cuddly" aren't words readily conjured by the work of Edward Albee, best known for his acid-laced portraits of human relationships (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but this subtle charmer from 1975 is all that and then some. Granted, "cuddly" might get some skin taken off, since two of the four characters happen to be giant lizards (Sam Martinez and Elizabeth Marshall) that have just crawled out of the ocean, encountering old married couple Charlie and Nancy (Steve Carpentier and Maria O. Sirgo). The reptiles are named Leslie and Sarah, and their sudden appearance brings life back into Charlie and Nancy's drab existence. Charlie's an old stick in the mud, content to while away his remaining days "doing nothing," while Nancy is full of life, eager to keep going and ready for the new. The meeting gives the couple's relationship a needed jolt, without doubt, as it does for lizards Leslie and Sarah, who seem ready and eager to change themselves — in a big way. Evolution might be writ large by Albee in this small play full of big ideas, but so, too, are other Albee-like themes of relationship, marriage and commitment. Albee will never be confused with Neil Simon, but in this play he shows off his softer side, letting the situation elicit genuine warmth and humor, as does director Bonnie Hewett, who glosses Albee with autumnal radiance. Carpentier is all rumpled curmudgeon, right down to his battered fishing hat and socks with sandals. Back against the wall — or dune, in this case — his first reaction to the alien presence is to fight, but these great green creatures slowly start to bring out his paternal instinct. Sirgo, perhaps two decades too young for Nancy, brings wide-eyed enthusiasm and that necessary life force to flesh out her curiosity. Naturally, the lizards are the perfect touch for this surreal show about reality. Regally costumed by Lisa Garza, the iridescent pair is an eyeful as they lurch and dart about, ever vigilant to this strange world above water. Both knowing and innocent, they're a throwback to all that's come before and a harbinger of what's to come. They're wondrous inventions, and only the master wizard Albee could have come up with them. Through April 24. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG