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Capsule Stage Reviews: Dinner with Friends, Late Nite Catechism, Oscar in the Box, Whatever Happened to the Villa Real?

Dinner with Friends Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, seen here in Stark Naked Theatre's finely tuned hands, begins as the dissolution of a ten-year marriage between Beth and Tom (Kim Tobin and Drake Simpson) and then turns into an affecting, abiding portrait of another ten-year marriage between their best friends Gabe and Karen (Philip Lehl and Shelley Calene-Black). The shift in focus from drama couple to undercover-drama couple is subtle and masterful. You don't see it coming, although you think you do. Yuppie foodies Gabe and Karen have their world rocked to its core when their best friends' marriage dissolves. If what they thought impregnable could be so easily knocked down, just how strong is their own relationship? Margulies spins a taut little web between the four characters, drawing them in tighter as the play proceeds. If you've ever been in a relationship, fleeting or protracted, some part of this will hit home. Stark Naked plays this to perfection. What a magnificent foursome to highlight the company's inaugural season in their new space: Lehl as distant, emotionless Gabe, sputtering his disapproval over Tom yet unable to quiet his own fears; Calene-Black as control-freak Karen, whose rock-ribbed judgments turn into saving grace; Tobin as loose-cannon Beth, whose "I've always been alone" confession hides at least a third life; and Simpson as hot-to-trot Tom, the good-old-boy gone to seed. Under Kevin Holden's direction, these consummate pros discover all sorts of burrowed meaning inside the scenes. Holden also designed the slick wood set that serves as beach house, home and bar — there's a deliciously homey scent that wafts through the space at Studio 101, adding another layer to this play about family and its inevitable evolution. Through March 11. Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. 832-866-6514. — DLG

Late Nite Catechism Denise Fennell, as the teaching nun "Sister," starred in Easter Catechism last year in an extended run, and she returns in a one-person show with fresh material, to chide us for our sins, offering the joy of laughter and the forgiveness of humor. The set by Marc Silvia is well-done, a classroom with blackboard, some religious pictures and the inevitable photo of Jack Kennedy. Farrell, clad in a nun's habit with clumpy black shoes, creates a winning persona and holds the audience in the palm of her hand. There is a thread of sorts, a discussion of the lives of some saints, the meaning of various Vatican pronouncements, and the question of whom Cain and Abel married. Fennell is adroit at using the audience itself to create humor, in establishing themes and converting them into running gags. She has a quick wit, and the recalcitrant are compelled to respond, the tardy are admonished and those who exit to use facilities are reminded to wash their hands. Much of the audience was older, and nostalgia for simpler times may have added to the pleasure, but there was a sizable segment of the young in attendance, and, judging by reactions, this is the perfect "date" event. You don't have to be Catholic or religious to savor the humor, and an avowed atheist seemed captivated by the experience. The audience gave Fennell a standing ovation. The writing is by Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade, who have mined their experiences to create a joyful and moving evening. Fennell's command of humor and amusing irreverence create a light-hearted, fun-filled event, certain to melt the iciest heart and bring warmth and laughter to the sternest. Through March 4. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Oscar in the Box If you want to go to the movies with five friends, who better to accompany you than the talented quintet at Music Box Theatre? This musical send-up of movie genres is a lively romp, filled with silly parodies yet heart-felt renditions of complementary songs that, while not always Oscar winners, are awarded with all the professional polish that this group so effortlessly possesses. Brad Scarborough, one of the talented five, gets accidentally whacked on the head by real-life wife Rebekah Dahl, and he spends the evening trapped in movie mayhem trying to get back home. There's a James Bond goof, radiantly offset by Colton Berry's rendition of Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager's ballad from The Spy Who Loved Me, "Nobody Does It Better." Cay Taylor, all innocent but knowing, plaintively hugs Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home," while Luke Wrobel, playing godfather Don Cortisone (it's funnier in person, trust me), spins the classic Herman Hupfeld song from Casablanca, "As Time Goes By," and turns it into pure vocal butter. Dahl gets her golden chance with a muscular rock rendition of Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford's "Holding Out for a Hero," appropriated from Footloose, and then positively shines during the second act in Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away" from A Star is Born. Scarborough shows off his impeccable showmanship and silvery voice with his interpretation of Roy Orbison and Bill Dees's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and Alex North and Hy Zaret's poignant and haunting "Unchained Melody." Perfectly accompanied by the jazz quartet of Glenn Sharp, Mark McCain, Long Le and Donald Payne, all five talents comprise cabaret at its best. Oscars for everybody. Through April 28. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Whatever Happened to the Villa Real? Residents of the country inn Villa Real meet and meddle, and learn a bit about human nature, while rocking on the raised wide porch. Playwright Jeannette Clift George is not only playwright, starring actor and the play's director, but also the play's producer as artistic director of A.D. Players. The good news is that George is a highly skilled, deft actor with huge charm, and she etches an indelible portrait of a woman at the age when a walker is found useful. She endows "Clarice Moffatt" with vivacity, wit and a wicked sense of humor — no wonder that a younger man is intrigued by her. The younger man, played by Andrew George Barrett, is "Perry Rockdale," who has graduated from Dartmouth with honors, but has a physical handicap resulting in a limp; Barrett finds his enthusiasm and naiveté and makes him likable, and their rhythm together is admirable. Ric Hodgin is a doctor with a working moral compass, Christy Watkins and Patty Tuel Bailey are nosy parkers of the first order, and a trio serves as the focal point of their inquiries: Craig Griffin, Sarah Cooksey and Katharine Hatcher. Marijane Vandivier as the inn manager completes the cast, which never quite achieves ensemble acting. The play could use some strengthening — the sisters are sketched with a heavy hand, and the Dartmouth grad needs elaboration. The rocking chairs may be too seductive — a few firecrackers under that veranda might speed things up. The work will be savored most by those of "a certain age," but its humor and charm will ensure that these patrons truly enjoy it. Though the drama is far from explosive, the comedy is rich and the wit often brilliant, enhanced further by a stunning performance by Jeannette Clift George. Through March 25. Grace Theatre, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT


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