Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Don't take my word for it, listen to the slick con men sing in Masquerade Theatre's slick production of the Tony Award-winning 2005 musical: "It was a blast, it was a ball. It was a gas, I loved it all." Go, and be thoroughly entertained. Written by the creative team of Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics), whose previous work includes the prize-winner The Full Monty, this fun-filled show has been adapted from the somewhat forgettable Steve Martin/Michael Caine buddy picture. The basic plot's intact. Lawrence (Luther Chakurian), suave and soigné, works the Riviera pretending to be a prince — or "prance" as those comic French pronounce it — while he fleeces rich, randy widows out of their jewels. In cahoots with the local police chief (Adam W. Delka), who gets a percentage of the swindle for looking the other way, Lawrence is sitting pretty, until he sits on a whoopee cushion by the name of Freddy (Michael J. Ross). Classless and crude, Freddy calmly blackmails Lawrence into teaching him the velvet ropes. They become unlikely partners, then adversaries. The vehicle has a pepped-up chassis, glitzy paint job, and reeks of smutty humor, but its tastelessness is harmless and put over by the masters at Masquerade with a finesse bordering on Astaire. Give Ross a great gimmick like chawin' down on leathery beef jerky, and his entire body goes into spasms as he tears into it. And the supporting roles keep this musical percolating: Delka as police chief, the never-fail Kristina Sullivan as obtuse yet eager-for-romance Muriel, and Lendsey Kersey as pint-size, super-heated Jolene from Oklahoma, add immense charm and good will to the proceedings. Of course, so do a dancing cow, an old gag about a dog in a suitcase, and a pop-up appearance in the orchestra. Laura Babbitt, as Christine Colgate, the wholesome, bubbly Soap Queen, is delectable as always and performs double duty here as winning choreographer, whose pacing of the many dance numbers keeps the show perpetually on the prowl. The "Magnificent 10" ensemble, whether doing the tango, moving the furniture or dutifully dusting the staircase, can do no wrong, nor can maestro Dominique Royem and her intrepid octet of an orchestra. Director Phillip Duggins, he of the sure eye, keeps the whole show within its tone of outrageousness, managing to rein in the crass and turn it into class. Through February 26. Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-868-9696. — DLG
Endgame Who else in Houston are you going to trust to do justice to the creepy dysfunction and blasted-earth absurdity of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett, than that theater company of raging imagination and utter theatricality, Catastrophic? If Waiting for Godot (1952) is his masterpiece, then Endgame (1957) is his cry from the heart, and with this production Catastrophic cements its position as Houston's leading advocate of the experimental. Endgame is Beckett's Lear. Mimicking nature that has turned gray and leaden, life, never happy to begin with, gets worse, then repeats. Blind and unable to walk, Hamm (the phenomenal Greg Dean) rules his cinder-block bunker of a kingdom from a ratty chair anchored to a platform on casters. Everything in this claustrophobic room is dusty, corroded, covered in rust and decay. Something terrible has happened outside. Life is gone. "Zero, zero, zero," we're told. He is served by toady Clov (an equally amazing Troy Schulze), a schlump who cannot sit down, and who must zig-zag his feet to get into a wide stance to pick up anything. He shuffles about to do Hamm's bidding, and you can almost see a cloud of unhappiness cling to him. Everything is a chore, yet he can't leave Hamm. Like the best of Beckett, nobody can leave. Schulze has dead-pan down to an art. At the side of the stage stand two trash cans with lids, inside of which are Hamm's parents, Nagg (Joel Orr) and Nell (Mikelle Johnson), who slowly push open the tops when they're called forth by Hamm. They're like Alice's Dormouse peeping out of the teapot. They're covered in a ghostly pallor and live in past memories. Although awakened to a happily remembered "yesterday" and dreams of bicycles, Beckett gives Nell the play's most potent line, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." And Endgame is funny, although the existential comedy gets more serious as it progresses, and nobody is laughing by the end. The magnificent work gets a magnificent treatment from Catastrophic. If man's wretched existence ever needed a finer hand to paint comic despair, look no farther than director Jason Nodler with his quartet of superlative interpreters all in the service of Beckett's apocalyptic vision. Invigorating, superb theater. Through March 3. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy. 713-522-2723. — DLG
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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