Capsule Stage Reviews: Don't Drink the Water, First Baptist of Ivy Gap, Mary Stuart, The Seafarer, The Unexpected Man

Don't Drink the Water Woody Allen, already famous for his stand-up routines and comedy writing for TV giant Sid Caesar, went solo with his first Broadway comedy, Don't Drink the Water (1966). The play had a successful run for a year and a half, but it wasn't very good then, and it's not any better in this mildly updated version at Country Playhouse. It's a sketch of a play whose structure is skewed and off, with characters coming and going, mostly going, leaving scenes flat and unfulfilled. The most inventive idea is Father Drobney (warmly played by Dave Howell), a priest living in sanctuary inside the U.S. embassy, who's a bad amateur magician. It's so bizarre, it's endearing. American tourists Marion and Walter (Sylvia Armendariz and Marq Del Monte) and daughter Susan (Kaitlyn Walker) take refuge inside the American embassy in Beijing, fleeing evil Commie Krojack (Steven Martinez), who thinks they are spies. The ambassador has left for two weeks, leaving his incompetent son Axel (Taylor Biltoft) and officious Kilroy (Louis A. Crespo) in charge. Axel is the Woody Allen personae not yet formed, and we miss him terribly, for there's nothing for him to do except be stupid, trip over his feet and get his hand stuck in Susan's hair. Biltoft does fairly well when he's not bellowing his inability to do anything right. He's not alone in not knowing what to do in this paper-thin comedy. There's no consistent style. It's every man for himself. Armendariz, as a prototypical, Woody Allen-whiny Jewish mother, gets it right, as do Martinez as the bullying Krojack (a character name left over from when the play was originally set in a nameless central European dictatorship) and Walker as the giddy daughter out for adventure. Crespo is crisply efficient as killjoy Killroy, while the rest manage as well as possible. Through May 5. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

First Baptist of Ivy Gap Six women of varying ages roll bandages in 1945 as part of the war effort, and exchange badinage as well as bandages. We also see them 25 years later, as secrets and life choices are revealed. Some vibrant performances and experienced acting help along this sweetly sentimental parable about reconciliation and forgiveness. The setting is a hall at the First Baptist Church of Ivy Gap, where Olene (Amesti Reioux) dreams of Hollywood and Mae Ellen (Renea Been) of Nashville. They provide youthful vitality, and a sense of rebellion against the small-mindedness of a small town. Edith (Nora Hahn) has organized the war effort — Hahn is highly effective in creating a fully developed and likable character. Luby (Kristi Nicholson) looks dour for most of the play and has plot reasons for this. Vera (Carol Davis) is a straight-backed Baptist, but her judgmental nature is softened by Act Two. Sammy (Keitha Mae Hanks) is the youngest. Act Two takes place 25 years later, and there is a lot more humor here, as the tender seeds of plot planted in Act One are resolved, though we are dealing with saplings, not mighty oaks. Playwright Ron Osborne has chosen to give us narrative, not insights, and has crafted a play with predictable elements. The work is directed by Doris Merten, and she has elected to stage the rolling of bandages at a leisurely pace. This is not a play for those who crave sophisticated theater or care to witness the dark grapplings of humanity, but it provides entertainment for those who prefer theater lite. The play may be sparse on plot, but it captures the mood of a small town, and some talented actors generate fun onstage. Through May 12. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT

Mary Stuart There's an old Italian operatic term, prima donna assoluta. It denotes the female singer without equal, the first among firsts, the absolute best that opera delivers. It's rarely used seriously anymore, but after Houston Grand Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Mary Stuart (1835), the moniker should be bestowed upon mezzo Joyce DiDonato. There is no one like her on the opera stage today. She is a star, a superstar, in fact. A prime example of bel canto opera ("beautiful singing"), Mary is not one of Donizetti's prime-time best, and shows its turbulent censored past with an out-of-balance structure which drops Elizabeth after the beginning of Act II, downplays the love interest and keeps Maria center stage in too many prayerful scenes until her demise. Once she's condemned, there's no drama left. There's plenty of opportunity for great singing, though, and when you have the caliber of DiDonato soaring through her prayers, augmented by a magnificent choral number to boot in Act II, it's all worth hearing. Like Mary Queen of Scots, DiDonato has her rival in soprano Katie Van Kooten as proud, jealous Elizabeth I, Queen of England. It's a match made in opera heaven. Van Kooten blows the roof off the Wortham as imperious Liz, with a sumptuous voice that eats up Donizetti's dramatic line with amazing agility and temperament. When the two queens finally meet in one of opera's great duets, it's a scene Verdi would have died to compose. Astute both psychologically and musically, it's the opera's zenith, and maestro Patrick Summers meets it with his usual orchestral ferocity and transparent playing of the finest order. The Kevin Newbury production is minimal, with no Euro-trash fuss and bother. Except for the lavish period costumes by Jessica Jahn, the stage is swept of extraneous chaff, just enough to tell us where we are and give a mood. The singing is why we're here, and Newbury keeps motivations clear and our eyes focused on who should be in the spotlight. When minor bel canto works are this beautifully realized, nothing else is needed. Hail to the queen. Hail, DiDonato! Long may you reign! Through May 4. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

The Seafarer Guess who's coming to play cards? If you're hell-bent on seeing Conor McPherson's brogue-laced Christian tall tale The Seafarer, read no further, because here comes a spoiler. It's Christmas Eve, and blind Richard (John Tyson), now in the care of brother Sharky (James Black), has asked buddies Ivan (Declan Mooney) and Nicky (Chris Hutchison) over to play cards. But Nicky brings an unexpected guest, someone he met at the pub who's looking for Sharky, a Mr. Lockhart (Todd Waite), mysterious but willing to join in the alcohol-fueled game. Here's the spoiler: Lockhart is the Devil. Yes, the actual ruler of Hell has come to claim Sharky's soul, which Sharky gave him 25 years ago when he beat a murder rap. Lockhart will play poker with the boys. Unbeknownst to the rest of them, if Sharky loses, it's eternal bye-bye. (Why Mr. Satan is required to play games at all for the souls he collects is never explained. Maybe the Big Guy Upstairs sets the rules.) While filled with clipped and jagged dialogue that has the air of verisimilitude, McPherson's play doesn't really surprise. The guys are lovable losers even when sloshed and acting stupid, but the story is right out of Twilight Zone, albeit punctured with nonstop profanity and regional color. The ensemble is above reproach, layering their woebegone losers with a fine Irish whiskey fog and impeccable technique, but the real surprise is newcomer Mooney, an understudy when the play opened on Broadway in 2007. His style is refreshing and unaffected. He's continuously tipsy throughout and blighted by farsightedness, and even his smallest gestures carry immense comic weight. He's just another average bloke blindly stumbling through life. The production is ravishing, with Hugh Landwehr's dank, decayed setting a major character. Director Gregory Boyd keeps the action taut, even when it flags under McPherson, and there's a lively rhythm between the guys that keeps us involved and amused. McPherson's comic little ghost story resolves into a nifty morality tale, and it's sort of shocking to see such naked faith given such a positive nod. We should be thankful for the life affirmation, if we all don't go to hell first. Through May 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

The Unexpected Man Acclaimed playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage) explores the inner life of a successful male novelist and a female admirer of his work, as they sit facing each other in a railroad carriage. Like the wildly successful Art, this is an actor's vehicle, designed to showcase talent. James Belcher plays the writer, and he creates a vivid portrait of a literary lion discovering that age does not soften vanity and pettiness, but increases the importance of regularity in bodily functions. He barely moves, but his powerful voice cascades with nuance and subtlety, and we see why playwright Reza saw fit to create this challenge for actors. The performance of Sally Edmundson, who has an interesting voice and an expressive face, is more problematic. Interior thoughts place her in the twilight of her life, but Edmundson has middle-aged robustness and the attractive legs to prove it. The play's director, Seth Gordon, interprets her as vivacious, with broad gestures as she ruminates. This destroys the illusion of the railroad carriage, as the writer would have noticed these gyrations. One passage is brilliant — the writer imagines the woman and a lover in Frankfurt, and the detail and wit of the description let us see his power. At the denouement, an affirmation by the woman becomes significant. Or does it? The ensuing conversation would have been revelatory, but the play ends. We should be grateful to Stages Repertory Theatre for presenting this work, and it may become a perennial as deft actors clamor to attempt it and directors to put their stamp on it. In this case, skilled acting meets and surpasses the challenge of a static play, allowing an acclaimed playwright to successfully pull off a high-wire act. Through May 13. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT


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