Four Places Ethical questions abound in the drama Four Places. An adult brother and sister cope with two aging parents, though the father is never seen on stage, and the problems their decline presents are compounded by reliance on alcohol. The play takes place with the siblings driving to and from a luncheon with their mother, Peggy, who is portrayed with such grace, beauty, elegance and charm by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis that my sympathies were with her. She may lie a little, but drinkers do that, and she can hold it like a trooper, as even the adult kids admit. Peggy adds to what the caregiver has related, corroborating some highly unseemly behavior, but explaining her own motivations. Or course, Peggy is hardly a reliable witness. The daughter, Ellen, is played by Luisa Amaral-Smith, and she embodies the pain of a daughter forced to choose sides in the midst of a crisis. The son, Warren, portrayed by Jack Young, has anger-management problems demonstrated far too clearly in this 90-minute session, as the adult children, with ostensibly good intentions, connive against their mother. As written by playwright Joel Drake Johnson, and as directed by Kenn McLaughlin, Young has no choice but to be distinctly unpleasant, and he does this admirably. The waitress at lunch, well played by Lisa Thomas-Morrison, has a tangential connection to this dysfunctional family, but that is simply to add much-needed flavor. The plot is so minuscule that I won't divulge what little there is. The play is awkwardness itself — it begins with deliberate awkwardness as it's clear on the ride to lunch that there is no real warmth or communication between mother and children, just competitive hostility and familial duty. It's awkward because we lack adequate information to make a considered moral choice. It's awkward because the tactics adopted by the children seem clumsy and unrealistic, including leaving the mother alone after a day of grueling intensity. But the lighting by Christina R. Giannelli works wonders to delineate areas as needed, and the minimalist set by Liz Freeze is highly effective and enhanced by a simple but imaginative backdrop. Four Places is worth seeing for the extraordinary, sensitive and enchanting performance of McMurdo-Wallis as the mother, but she and the waitress are rays of light in a cavern of darkness. Through May 22. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JT
A Murder Is Announced An engaging cast, substantial suspense and a series of surprises combine to produce an excellent evening of entertainment in the Agatha Christie mystery A Murder Is Announced at Theatre Suburbia. Set in an English country house with disparate guests (no surprise here), the plot revolves around a very convoluted will in which who dies first matters enormously. You may want to reach for aspirin in trying to follow the intricacies of the denouement, but better think twice as nothing is quite as it seems in this thriller. The play begins deceptively simply with a dispute as to who borrowed the morning paper, a domestic crisis soon made irrelevant as the bodies start dropping. Presiding over house and guests is the benevolent owner Letitia Blacklock, played with great skill by Kathy Davis, whose talent and poise hold together the household — and the play. Without her the play might have foundered, as the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese and more twists than a corkscrew, but in her capable hands we settle down into an evening of delight and wait for the sherry to be passed. Surprisingly, the maid, played by Courtney Furgason with a strong presence and superb comic timing, is here not just for exposition and to carry in the tea. She is a fully fleshed out character with an important part to play — and play it well she does. The cast of 12 (two parts are quite brief) is ably directed by Barbara Hartman, and deftly shepherded into varying tableaux on the attractive, well-appointed set, though I'm puzzled why characters turn their backs on partners to march downstage and look into the distance. Some of the gentle humor of the play goes unrealized in the drive toward intensity, but Hartman has succeeded in establishing ensemble acting that adds genuine appeal. An exception is Miss Marple, played by Melrose Fougere in such a diffident, understated way that it appears she wandered in from another play. And I was surprised that Inspector Craddock (David James Barron) was not more authoritative, though I found the character likable — perhaps this was a directorial choice. The pace is admirable, the lighting effective and surprises occur with a frequency that keeps us alert and tuned in, wondering what on earth is coming next in this pleasant divertissement, intended to entertain rather than instruct and succeeding with style and a flourish. Through May 14. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Rd., 713-682-3525. — JT
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[title of show] The strangely named [title of show] is simply wonderful. It's a fountain of energy and talent, dancing its way into our hearts as four young performers cavort on a nearly bare stage and, in an intermission-less 110 minutes, reach deeply within to make us share their dreams and aspirations. I use the word "dancing" because they seem never to be still; their motto is, apparently, "Why walk across the stage when you can dance across it?" Superbly directed and choreographed by Jimmy Phillips, the movements enhance the action while adding humor and authenticity. I totally believed what was happening onstage — this is rare for a musical comedy, and its triumphant success may be that it was written by two guys huddled together in a room instead of cobbled together by a committee. The plot is simplicity itself, how two artists sat down to create in three weeks a musical that made it in several stages to B'way, bringing the audience with it to cheer it on. Jeff Bowen wrote the music and lyrics, and he is portrayed by the ebullient and charming Mitchell Greco, looking like a teenager with a mop of hair to be reckoned with. The book was written by Hunter Bell, portrayed with variety, style and unflagging energy by Corey Hartzog. They rope in two female friends to make a showbiz quartet: Susan, portrayed by Danica Johnston, a tall blond beauty with a jawline most women would gladly kill for, and Heidi, portrayed by Beth Lazarou, who brings the same sincerity and warm appeal she showed in the recent Gone Missing at Theatre LaB. The musical direction and the music are provided — and very well indeed — by Adam Stout on the keyboard. The pace is unflagging, the relationships interesting, the characters wildly different yet blending into a smooth ensemble in both acting and singing. Many of the obscure showbiz names that are dropped will pass unrecognized, but it hardly matters. The play is fun throughout, but I especially liked the staging of "Awkward Photo Shoot," in which artistic disagreements shift effortlessly into flawless smiles whenever a photographer's flashbulb goes off, and "Monkeys and Playbills," in which theater archives are searched for inspiration. The songs are not destined to be classics, but the memory of a light-hearted, warm parable much like The Little Engine that Could will linger on. [title of show] is one of the most enjoyable productions of the season — it is definitely not to be missed. Through June 12. Theatre LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — JT