Capsule Stage Reviews: God of Carnage, Guilty Conscience, Sonia and Suzy, West Side Story

God of Carnage By the time chic and sleek Annette announces she feels sick, after eating Veronica's much-vaunted apple and pear clafouti, and then hurls all over Michael and Veronica's white-on-white home including Veronica's prized art books, the jokes have been adroitly set and the laughs occur nonstop. In Yasmina Reza's latest Tony winner for Best Play (artful Art was the last, also translated from the French by Christopher Hampton), she asks the question, how civilized are we? The answer we get is, not very. It doesn't take long at all — a brisk 90 minutes — for the best-laid plans to go astray in breathlessly fresh and hilarious ways. The two classy couples may think they have life under control, but just wait. Before they realize it, even as they try to stop it, the ancestral jungle impulses take over. Loyalties shift, words cut deep and the free flow of expensive rum lubricates the proceedings and brings them all down past primal level. And it's their children who have initiated the unintentional mayhem. Annette and Alan's son has knocked out two of the teeth of Veronica and Michael's son in a schoolyard brawl, so the four cool and sophisticated parents have arranged a meeting to calmly talk it out. In a deliciously out-of-control spiral, the four rapidly descend into the funniest heart of darkness as they proceed to knock the stuffing out of each other. Insecurity, prejudice, smugness, male pride, female intuition — all get bashed, and nothing will save them except, by the end, physical exhaustion. This co-production by the Alley and Seattle Repertory Theatre is the most fun to be had at the theater in a long time, with a sterling cast and whiplash direction by Wilson Milam. From the bright tulips and fish tank down to the animal-skin rugs and jungle-gym staircase, Eugene Lee's set design is the perfect look as these four misadventurers hack their way through each other. The intrepid quartet, all veterans from the Seattle company, could not be better: Hans Altwies, Amy Thone, Denis Arndt and Bhama Roget. They, along with Milam and Reza, are invited back anytime — once they catch their breath. Through January 30. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Guilty Conscience Longtime collaborators Richard Levinson and William Link created some marvelous television, including the excellent Murder, She Wrote, a delightful soufflé of plot and acting. Unfortunately, their stage creation Guilty Conscience falls flat as a pancake. Originally a successful television movie, that Guilty Conscience featured Anthony Hopkins, Blythe Danner and Swoosie Kurtz, and I doubt if even they could bring the stage version to life.  There is little suspense — we learn early that crooked attorney Arthur Jamison wishes to murder his wife Louise, and he is searching for a foolproof method.  But his strategies are boring and so implausible that a rookie on-the-beat would see through them. David Barron plays Arthur with lip-smacking relish, working hard to let us see what is going on as he smirks, frowns and buries his face in his hands. As Louise, Jennifer Wood is pretty enough to be a "trophy" wife, but she has a small voice that she fails to project, and she gives a monotonous performance. Anne Sanford as Jackie, Arthur's mistress, enters late in the first act, bringing with her some much-needed high-voltage energy, while Glenn Dodson gives a curiously subdued performance as the alter ego of Arthur, who fact-checks his murderous scenarios. Anita Samson, assisted by David Samson, directs the work, but fails to create an effective acting ensemble. The set by Tom Eschbacher is handsome, and a minor set change is handled with skill. The real mystery is what entertainment value was perceived in this poorly written drama, especially since the next production is the taut The Cocktail Hour by A.R. Gurney, confirming good judgment. I look forward to seeing it. Through February 19. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — JT

Sonia and Suzy A play with two actors challenges them to hold the audience's interest, without an eccentric uncle suddenly entering to spice things up. Sonia and Suzy, a new work by Nancy Geyer, takes on this challenge, as Suzy, an adopted daughter in her early twenties, meets her birth mother Sonia for the first time. Such a situation suggests awkwardness, misunderstandings, anger, recriminations and guilt, and these are played out in seven vignettes as the pair meets intermittently, months or years apart. This leads necessarily to exposition, and we are told about the changes in Suzy's young life (a lot happens) rather than experiencing them with her. We learn less about Sonia, a stage actress, except that she is wealthy and hasn't made it in Hollywood. The two never really get to know one another — in each meeting, they greet each other almost as strangers. The play thus has narrative, but no arc. While the situation is potentially interesting, there are subsidiary issues that are less so.  Medical issues arise as often as on a House TV marathon, and we learn more than we care to know about Suzy's adoptive parents. These medical events seem perilously close to "filler" material. Suzy is played by Jennifer Bassett Dean, who brings energy and skill to the part. In Act One, however, her hair styling covers most of her face — it's like watching her through Venetian blinds. Josephine John plays the birth mother, and she's attractive enough to make us believe she could be a leading lady. But she remains with no inner passion throughout the play; in fact, she's close to stilted, as though connecting to her lines rather than to her daughter. Director Claire Hart-Palumbo keeps events proceeding smoothly, and minor set changes are handled adroitly. The set, by John Stevens, works wonders to delineate separate playing areas, and the lighting, by Sallye Johnson, illuminates them beautifully. Through January 29. Country Playhouse Black Box, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.  — JT

West Side Story The stage of the Hobby Center doesn't seem big enough to contain all the life that this classic show (1957) so vibrantly possesses. The powerful gangs of Jets and Sharks tear across the stage in Jerome Robbins's priceless choreography, propelled by Leonard Bernstein's most melodious score, while singing Stephen Sondheim's peerless lyrics. The fusion of all this miraculous talent (as well as the ingenious book by Arthur Laurents) is a musical piece of theater history that doesn't age and improves with the passing decades. Are new musicals so bereft of ideas that this one keeps bowling us over with inventiveness and audacity, as if we've never seen such exceptional theatricality? The bones of the show are so good, you might wish Laurents — the director of this revival that opened on Broadway in 2009 and is now touring the U.S. — had left it alone. To give it relevance and a little nip and tuck, some of the Shark scenes and a few verses of "I Feel Pretty" are in Spanish. The gist of what they're saying comes across in any language, whether you know the score or the scene or not, so the translation idea seems rather pointless. Anyway, it'd be a whole lot better if the actors concentrated on their English diction, which, when filtered through the ubiquitous sound amplification that is the bane of every show nowadays, comes across as garbled and soft. But these are minor annoyances in a show that is otherwise so powerful. If you only know the musical from the movie, seeing it live is a special treat. The impressive cast knocks itself out with all the colorful, muscular dancing re-created from Robbins's masterpieces by Joey McKneely — the gang members look appropriately dangerous and edgy — and the leads (Kyle Harris as Tony, Ali Ewoldt as Maria, Michelle Aravena as Anita, German Santiago as Bernardo, Joseph Simeone as Riff) all find interesting angles to their characters to keep them fresh and intriguing. The whole show is evergreen, a true classic of the American stage. Through January 23. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525. — DLG

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