Capsule Stage Reviews: Dinner with Friends, Proposals, Seussical the Musical, 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

Proposals Ex-wives, ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands — everyone, it seems, who knows the Hines family shows up at their vacation home in the Poconos one memorable weekend. Funnyman Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, The Sunshine Boys) has gone semi-serious. This play is gentle and warm, like a late August breeze ruffling the leaves in the foothills of Pennsylvania, and Simon channels the whimsy of Thornton Wilder as his story unfolds. He throws in fairy-tale, never-ending coincidences, paper-thin characters and an autumnal tone that grates against his wisecracker wit. The Hines family, dad Burt and daughter Josie (Marq Del Monte and Katie Basch), wrap up their annual vacation at their cabin in the woods, but not before Burt suffers another heart attack, Josie stops her engagement to snobby Ken (Brian Heaton) and then restarts with prior flame Ray (Sam Martinez), and Burt's ex Annie (Jan E. Potts) arrives with concern over Burt's health and to make amends with Josie, who has abandonment issues. Meanwhile, family caretaker Clemma (Alethea Bailey) expects her ex Lewis (Dave Osbie Shepard) to show up any minute after walking out on her seven years ago. Then Miami mafia honcho Vinnie (Mike McDermott), sputtering malapropisms, blows into town unannounced to see Josie; and there's Ray's dim tree-hugger girlfriend Samii (Amesti Reioux), who's there to help the playwright with broad comic relief. Clemma narrates the proceedings from the grave, seeing the play in her memory. The uneasy balance between Borscht Belt shtick and pseudo-pseudo-Chekhov teeters precariously. The biggest surprise was the last-minute replacement for actress B. Renda, as Clemma, by Bailey, who literally stepped in for ailing Renda hours before curtain. She read her part holding the script and supplied all the gentle heart and soul that Simon misplaced among all the jokes. You could hear the audience breathe easier each time she entered. It was a trooper's performance, and she brought up the level of everyone else. This fuzzy comedy isn't the best of Simon, but there's a pleasant "memory play" hidden inside. Bailey finds it. That's the magic of theater. Through March 10. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Seussical the Musical The well-loved characters from Dr. Seuss cavort and romp across the Berry Center's vast stage, populating it with animals, strange shapes, happy children and some talented performers. There are tender moments in this musical extravaganza, but the emphasis is on a circus-like atmosphere, with hordes of children hurtling on and off the stage. I especially liked the Wickersham Brothers, monkeys with energy to spare, and the bird girls, led by Janessa Zech as Mayzie La Bird, colorful and vain. Raegan Roberts stars as the Cat in the Hat, with graceful movements and charming, lighthearted style. Natalie Davidson plays JoJo, the young girl touring Dr. Seuss's menagerie, and she lets us share her awe at the wonders. The costumes are colorful, and the cheerful set of cartoon-like drawings is appropriate and fun. "Fun" is the operative word, for high drama and subtle nuance are left in the attic while the children take over the playroom in the basement. Songs are plentiful — I especially enjoyed "It's Possible" — and, yes, the themes of the songs are as upbeat and positive as any parent could hope for. With 58 performers onstage, all the talents can't be itemized, but I enjoyed Thing One (Morgan Montgomery) and Thing Two (Zoe Forde), able companions to the Cat. The music, lyrics and book are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and Eric Idle helped with the concept. The team behind the scenes consists of director Joshua Clark, music director Debbie Wylie, choreographer David Porras and costume designer Lindsay Burns. Fun indeed takes over as much-loved and admired characters leap from the page onto the stage, creating colorful entertainment certain to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Through March 11. HFAC, 8877 Barker Cypress, 281-685-6374. — JJT

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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