Capsule Stage Reviews: God of Carnage, Sonia and Suzy, Triple Focus

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

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

Triple Focus The Jewish Community Center of Houston kicked off the first of three dance concerts for Dance Month at the Kaplan Theater last Saturday with a showcase of contemporary dance companies Hope Stone Dance Company, HIStory and NobleMotion Dance. NobleMotion Dance's a small place, choreographed by Andy Noble, delivered both the most delicate and the fiercest performance of the night. Erin Reck's incredible solo performance portrayed a woman on the edge of breakdown, while Noble's choreography masterfully teetered between fervent, wild gestures and quiet questioning. HIStory, a hip-hop dance company, rocked the show with the stand-out crowd favorite Check It Out, choreographed by Joel Rivera, Mark Chaves, Bryan Paule, Jesse Garcia and Sharon Roberts. Featuring guest performers from Inertia, the Westside High School student dance company, Check It Out was a virtuosic slideshow of b-girls vs. b-boys, break dance circles and one-upmanship. These dancers wowed with rhythmic unity and anything but out-of-the-can acrobatic feats. But even more noteworthy was the generous and sunny performance HIStory and Inertia offered up. Donning shiny black rain boots and military-gray wool dresses, Hope Stone Dance Company premiered In Situ, laced with political undertones. Artistic Director and choreographer Jane Weiner crafted a captivating dance that undulated between patriotic play and martial servitude. JCC's Dance Month continues with performances by the Koresh Dance Company February 5 and Houston Ballet II February 12.  Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-551-7255. — RT


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