Capsule Stage Reviews: July 24, 2014

All in the Timing Remember that old philosophy head-scratcher: Give a monkey a typewriter and enough time, and eventually he'll write Hamlet? That hardly gives proper credit to Shakespeare, but it says a great deal about Words, Words, Words, which happens to be the title of the second of six plays that make up David Ives's delightful All in the Timing (1993). He takes this premise and turns it nimbly inside out and upside down. Here in a nameless lab, three monkeys labor all day over their iPads. Type, type, type, bitch, bitch, bitch. They resent having to create something they don't even know. What's a Hamlet? they ask with simian inquisitiveness. They share their poetic drudgery with each other, while searching for fleas and eating the cigarettes thrown to them by their unseen caretaker. Called Swift (Lindsey Ball), Milton (Robert Meza) and Kakfa (Mai Hong Le), the three monkeys growl their discontent, but inadvertently come up with a Shakespeare quote every now and then. They've learned to "put an antic disposition on" to get treats. This experiment hath made them mad, says Meza's Milton. The laughs come from a certain rudimentary knowledge of Hamlet, but Ives's situation has comedy built in. Ives juggles like a circus clown. This sextet is a Sure Thing, the title of the opening play. Bill (the amazingly proficient Scott Gibbs with his pliantly rubber face and eyebrows) meets Betty (Le) in a crowded restaurant, asking to sit down in the unoccupied chair at her table. Whenever one of them says something the other doesn't like, a bell is rung, and the conversation rewinds to the previous sentence and they try again. "Is this seat taken? Yes. Ding. Is this seat taken? No, but I'm expecting somebody. Ding. Is this seat taken? No, please sit down. And off they go to the next topic until all problems are strategically worked out, everybody's content to go to the Woody Allen movie, they both like Faulkner and they vow to live happily ever after. Universal Language is a lovely study in communication and language, as Dawn (Sammi Sicinski) applies for a course in Unamunda, the new Esperanza, taught by Don (Will Gough Jr.). With proficiency and smarts that stop her stutter, Dawn picks up the wacky syntax and vocabulary — "Harvard U" means "how are you," that sort of thing — and the two of them are flying high in a gibberish that actually begins to make sense to us, too. Ives saves the best for last with Variations on the Death of Trotsky, a Monty Python sketch of the highest order. Sitting at his desk in Mexico, the Russian revolutionary founding father (Meza using incredulous deadpan) has a mountain ax sticking out of his skull. Whenever he quizzes his doleful wife (Sicincki) about why it's there or about the mysterious Mexican gardener (Gough), Trotsky suddenly drops over dead, then immediately pops back up alive, and another round starts. That Trotsky was indeed assassinated by his Mexican gardener using a mountaineer's ax only increases the existential comedy. In the bowling alley-size space of the trendy Alley Kat Bar and Lounge — through the bar, across the service alley, around another lounge and up the back stairs into the cement wall events space — director Paige Kiliany lets her actors loose in the intimate playing area. They can't move very much, but Timing doesn't require a lot of physicality. The lighting's rudimentary, but again, we're not here for atmosphere. In Ives's world view, not only do words keep us going, but if we laugh at the absurdity of it all, we delay the inevitable ever so slightly. Landing Theatre's Timing, abetted by some very comic actors, has got that down to a science. Through July 27. 3817 Main, 562-502-7469. — DLG

Fallen Angels While not in the pantheon of classic Coward (Private Lives, Cavalcade, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit and the films In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter), Fallen Angels is an utter lark of a sex comedy. Main Street Theater gives this romp the high gloss of Art Deco: stylish and stylized. The play gleams. Under director Claire Hart-Palumbo, who marshals her talented forces with the zing of a bracing martini, this cartoon farce is terrifically funny, constantly on the move and still rather shocking. Best girlfriends Julia (Crystal O'Brien in best comic form and looking period-lovely) and Jane (Lisa Villegas in Jean Harlow mode) are bored with their marriages. After five years, the passion has gone. They love their husbands, but there's got to be more. Can we blame them? Their husbands are fatuous and nonresponsive, and have more fun playing golf together than paying attention to their hot-to-trot wives. Fred (Bobby Haworth, super as a twit) and Willy (Dain Geist, insufferably stuffy) are clueless. Sporting a fine brush of a mustache, Haworth bears an uncanny resemblance to J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Years before their marriages, Julia and Jane each had affairs with Frenchman Maurice (Joel Sandel in perfectly smarmy Pepé Le Pew imitation oozes Continental charm like an oil slick). He's back in town and wants to see them. The girls are so giddy at the prospect, they practically swoon. With their husbands off on another golf outing, they make a pact to stay together and await the rendezvous. Julia drapes herself over the sofa, while Jane poses languidly against a column. They're ripe for picking. The waiting occurs in the second act; so does a lot of drinking and very little eating. The girls get blasted and secrets come out, as do the claws. Overseeing this farce is the classic sassy Coward maid who knows more than all of them put together (Elizabeth Marshall Black, who steals every scene with twinkling yet bulldozing aplomb). With a symmetry resembling Buckingham Palace, Coward structures his comedy with extraordinary technique, wit and surefire pace. Situations mirror each other, so if one couple has trouble, so will the other couple soon enough. When Julia and Jane have an argument, rest assured that Fred and Willy will fight, too. Coward juggles the nuts and bolts of playwriting with consummate flair, and the cast plays him with heigh-ho infectious glee. The production is tasty, enveloped in Eric L. Marsh's subtle lighting design and Claire A. Jac Jones's Deco-inspired set design. Margaret Crowley's costumes are aptly tweedy for the guys and diaphanous and silky for the gals. Julia's pajama pants are a singular Cowardly touch. But those wigs for the leading ladies?! They're appropriately styled for the period, but where'd they come from, Arne's? Sometimes an intimate theater space is just that, too intimate. Coward's deliciously prickly sex farce seems amazingly fresh even today. Julia and Jane eventually get what they want. If you think they're actually checking out Maurice's curtains as all three head upstairs, you've been watching the wrong marital comedy. Through August 10. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — DLG

Festival of Originals Cause for joy, Theatre Southwest celebrates its 17th annual Festival of Originals. Produced by Southwest's artistic director, Mimi Holloway, this evening of world-premiere short plays is a must-see for theater junkies. Where else in Houston can you watch five new one-acts, each with its own distinct cast and direction? The idea is a crap shoot, for sure, since you never know exactly how these works, all unproduced and unseen, will play before an audience. Theatre Southwest's intimate stage space has been scrubbed clean for the festival. Stripped of color, it's been turned into a black box, which means no built pieces for the sets, only rudimentary props, just bare bones. This lets the plays shine without distraction. This, of course, also lays bare their more obvious faults. Steven Oberman's sci-fi psycho drama A Slip from Reality (two bodies, one person), is a watered-down Twilight Zone episode; Jeffrey Strausser's Peaks and Valleys, another country-fried diner comedy, has downtrodden waitresses who crack wise to persevere through their troubles. Raymond Fast's heavily symbolic The Train to Tranquility, a visible portrait of Asperger's syndrome, is gracefully acted by young actors Sydney Dunlap and Helen Rios, who portray the two sides: her physical self and her thoughts. The audience favorite is Steve Stewart's Last Ride of the Iron Angels, with four tough biker mamas of a certain age, dressed in skintight black leather, drinking like sailors and acting like 'em, too. The play's practically sure proof. Friends since high school, they obviously haven't seen each other in years, because once the beer and tequila are swilled, secrets pour out of them. Soap actress Alex (Sonia Kronberg) — her chopper jacket accessorized with pounds of bling — has been axed from her show and has lost all her money because of her shady business manager. Flight attendant Winnie (Suzanne King) is divorcing her wayward husband, who's drained the bank account and fled to Russia with his young mistress. Lesbian Wall Street wizard Liz (Jada August) is about to be prosecuted for massive bank fraud. Clueless Janie (Anne Boyd), the Republican of the group, treads water with her constant grieving over her dead husband. Todd the bartender (Sam Martinez) oversees the rowdy group. His is the hardest role, for he has to react to the confessions but say nothing. When he's paid to perform a lap dance for the girls, another set of secrets is revealed. From behind the bar, Martinez is this side of brilliant — and his lap dancing isn't bad, either. Janie's munificence settles all their problems, and they, like a younger Thelma and Louise quartet, vow to keep riding across country. The heck with it, swears Janie, let's live! The gals are a lively group, no question about it. Of the five plays, Steven Alan McGraw's Rougher Stuff is the most intriguing, with menace to spare. It's both hot and cold-blooded. Screwup nephew Joe (Jose Luis Rivera), in need of quick cash to run off to California and elude the police, attempts to rob his favorite uncle, Jim (Scott Holmes), a rich, powerful and corrupt attorney. Unbeknownst to hapless Joe, his uncle is on to him, as is Jim's hothead son Alex (Aaron Echegaray). Stuff has the feeling of Mamet and a lot of clever Hitchcock, for there's an overwhelming chill of dread just under the brittle, well-written surface. You know that universal theater precept: If there's a gun in the first scene, it had better go off in the last scene. Well, there is Joe's gun, but there's also Alex's baseball bat. One of Houston's best, Holmes is ideal as malevolent Uncle Jim, oily and smart, like an inverse Perry Mason; Rivera has pitiful loser Joe down pat; and Echegaray, so memorable as regal Oberon in Theatre Southwest's recent Shakespeare in Hollywood, steams and sputters with banked fury. Director David Hymel keeps the play bubbling on near-boil; the cast supplies the fire; McGraw fans the flames. We shiver and sweat. Through August 2. 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Sorcerer This third collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, their first full-length musical (1877) and the one that convinced producer D'Oyly Carte to bankroll their future partnership, is all about magic and love. Strange, then, that there is no magic whatsoever in this production from our own internationally awarded Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston. This is their most dreary production in memory, certainly the most plodding and soporific. Even the sprightly overture is played without spirit. Where's the duo's patented sparkle, the razor wit, the exciting élan? Why is everybody stuck in tar? Why do they talk in slow-motion? W.S. Gilbert, the prototype of the modern auteur director, never would have allowed such fly-paper delivery. Get on with it, he would have yelled at his actors over the hissing gas lights. Although The Sorcerer is hardly A-list G&S, it nevertheless possesses abundant charm, wicked lyrics and lilting melodies that showcase what this musical comedy team would later produce (H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, The Mikado, Yeomen of the Guard). Director Alistair Donkin, veteran "Savoy Opera" performer and director with an impressive G&S lineage, does no one any favors with this production, not even himself as J.W. Wells, the eponymous sorcerer who conjures up a love potion for the unsuspecting villagers. Why does he allow the misguided hero Alexis, who's lauded throughout as "brave" and "pride of his sex," to speak with fey falsetto and act like queen of the May? This is so wrong and annoying. Why does he let the pace slacken into glacial? Why is everyone arrayed across the front of the stage in a straight line, like some antique 18th-century stage picture, as if Sarah Siddons were about to make a star turn? The G&S Society needs a blast of fresh air and a clarifying slap in the face to bring it boldly into the 21st century. G&S set the gold standard for musical comedy, and their influence changed show business forever. Without them there would be no Cole Porter, Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, name anyone you like. Everyone on Broadway is indebted to G&S. While the show is pleasantly sung (especially by Megan Stapleton as heroine Aline, Sarah L. Lee as imposing Lady Sangazure, Sarah Santos as ingenue Constance, and the entire chorus) and looks most impressive in Dena Scheh's sumptuously Edwardian hobble skirts and pheasant-plumed millinery, there's no life in it. This is theater on autopilot. While this early G&S work is no BMW, it was never a Model T. More gas and pedal to the metal, please. Through July 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 281-724-8363, — DLG


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