Gutenberg! The Musical! Pirate Queen, Dance of the Vampires and Kelly – these were rank bombs all, made legendary by their horridness. Billed as serious Broadway contenders, they should have been spoofs. Gutenberg! The Musical!, on the other hand, wants to be bad – and succeeds wildly. The little comic gem written by Anthony Brown and Scott King starts off at a backers' audition put on by the two incompetents, Doug and Bud, who have written the gaseous show. Lovable boobs with stars in their eyes, their idea of how to reach Broadway is a musical about "just the most important person in history," Johannes Gutenberg, 15th-century inventor of the printing press. Doug and Bud play all the parts — love interest Helvetica, anti-Semite flower girl, beef fat cutter and evil monk, as well as most of the scenery. "If you don't know the person next to you, he's probably a producer," they gush hopefully, proceeding to put on the lamest show you've ever seen. Brilliantly rendered by Josh Wright and Dylan Godwin, the duo has no shame and less talent; they'd better not quit their day jobs at Starbucks and the nursing home. Assisted at the piano by Steven Jones and smartly directed and choreographed by Linda Phenix, this little show that could is every big bad Broadway musical condensed into one little lump of — well according to their own deathless lyrics — feces. Through April 19. Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — DLG
Othello Veteran Alley actor James Black slips so completely under the skin of Shakespeare's most malignant knave, he might as well be slathered in K-Y. The role of blackhearted Iago in the Bard's mighty Othello is Black's career capstone, a magnificent portrait of immoral evil. Sly and astute as a dramatist, Shakespeare never gives Iago a concise motive for falsely convincing Othello that his new wife has been untrue, but hints at many: Iago's jealous that Othello has promoted the untested Cassio; he thinks Othello has cuckolded him by sleeping with his wife Emilia; or maybe Iago, too, is in love with Othello's chaste wife Desdemona. It's too bad Black doesn't have a more worthy opponent to play against. Sadly, David Rainey's Othello is neither great warrior nor great lover. Othello must command the stage, first as Venice's "valiant" commander-in-chief, then as ardent suitor and husband. Neither battle-scarred nor overly amorous, Rainey sounds whiny when he should be passionate, which throws Shakespeare's vise-like plot out of joint. Director Scott Schwartz has offered up a punk homage to Elizabethan staging: no sets, plush costumes. Walt Spangler's nihilistic Euro-trash design doesn't greatly illuminate Othello, but it doesn't offend or get in the way, either. Wardrobe cases, searchlights, plastic sheeting and metal scaffolding are effectively used to set Shakespeare's ever more claustrophobic mood. To its credit, the Alley's able cast "speaks the speech...trippingly on the tongue," as if Shakespearean cadence, fluency and comprehension are second nature. The two Elizabeths — Bunch and Heflin, as Desdemona and Emilia — are exemplary. Through March 30. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG
Pack of Lies Let's say you're a typical English middle-class family: sweet, gentle, rather boring. What would you do if you were told that your oldest and best friends — your neighbors right across the street — were Russian spies, and that for the security of the country, you had to keep the friendship going and, naturally, your knowledge secret? How long could you keep up appearances? How long until the tension and the constant lying got to you? Could your marriage survive? These are the questions asked by playwright Hugh Whitemore, who's made a career out of English ordinariness and espionage (84 Charing Cross Road, Breaking the Code). While gnawing moral pain and guilt wrack wife Barbara (Karla Brandau), husband Bob (Casey Coale) doesn't react as violently to the emotional toll. But then, he's not around during the day when pseudo-spy Helen (Rose Trauschke) drops by for a chat or a spot of tea. Daughter Julie (young pro Alexandra Addison) is kept in the dark by her parents and by the mysterious government man Mr. Stewart (Glenn Dodson), who cavalierly informs the unsuspecting couple that the Reds have landed right across the way. Unfortunately, Whitemore intersperses short, "meaningful" monologues between the scenes that muddy up the drama, but Brandau is very good as she slowly unravels in front of our eyes and makes us aware that lying — even to a Commie — takes a bite out of the soul. Through April 12. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury, 713-726-1219. — DLG
Gutenberg! The Musical!
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Young and Fertle If you think the goofy Fertle family of Dumpster, Texas, is hilarious enough in the present, you should see them back in the day. In this installment, the 20th Sentral High School Reunion sends the loons time-tripping into their past, which is just as screwy and dysfunctional as their lives today. If you're new to Radio Music Theatre — and just what has taken you so long? — you don't need to know the backstory to appreciate the nonstop nuttiness, since the witty script by Steve Farrell fills in the blanks. Of course, if you're already a committed Fertle Head, the extra details just make the show funnier. The three actors who play all the characters (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills) are at the top of their form, and their glee is as infectious as ever. In the old days, Justicena and Bridgette were already bitch-fighting; Lou was as clueless as ever; sweet, dumb Earl found a friend in sweet, dumb Special Ed; Doc Moore couldn't be understood any better than he is now; greaser Braxton Hix continued his mischief; fey Curtis Miller dreamed of wearing a uniform; and Michael (who's never seen) spent all his time in the boy's bathroom with Bruce Nelly, much to the chagrin of Justicena, who carried a torch for him that would light up west Texas. Well, it certainly would light up Clem, Texas, next door to Dumpster, because only Clem lived there. It doesn't get any funnier — or smarter — than the Fertle family and their bizarre neighbors. Through May 10. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG