Capsule Stage Reviews: June 12, 2014

Middletown There's the miracle of birth, there's the mystery of death and then there's everything else in between. No contemporary playwright writes with more passion, theatricality and comedy about the "in between" than Will Eno (Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Flu Season, The Realistic Joneses). In a thoroughly illuminating production from Catastrophic Theatre, Eno's distinctively original off-Broadway prize-winner from 2010 is deliciously shaded with humor and pathos, sadness and awe, and the sublime ordinariness of everyday life. Trying to make sense out of it is the hard part for his cast of average Joes. "Everything is as everything seems," relates the gruff Cop (Rutherford Cravens), talking directly to us, who seconds later blurts out, "My life is a mystery to me." Nothing is remotely like what it seems. In Eno's little corner of the world called Middletown, no one is truly ordinary or predictable. No one's truly happy, either. In an exceedingly postmodern riff on Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town, Eno's world is bleakly comic. Laughing in the dark, you might say. Missed connections occur in every impressionistic scene, mainly through deliciously wicked non sequiturs — and Eno is a master of this jagged syntax. His characters spew whatever's on their mind, which is usually dire and fraught with existential angst, even when cleaning out a drain or manning the desk at the local library. Behold the loopy Mechanic (the plush Kyle Sturdivant, who also directs the play with a ripe, sure hand). Somewhat the play's conscience, he's a peeping Tom and a town drunk who rifles through bags of medical waste in hopes of finding something to dull his pain. He's never been able to live up to expectations. As he confesses with a knowledge misted in alcohol, "I'm nothing" Some townspeople are so lonely and lost, the only way out is a slash to the wrist. That would be John (Kevin Lusignolo), the town's handyman. Lanky and odd, he seems the most alone of them all. He forges a tentative alliance with married Mary (Patricia Duran, who adeptly juggles radiant and morose), who has recently moved into town with her husband, who's away on business and never there when she needs him. Totally adrift, John talks in choppy sentences, phrases mostly, and doesn't seem to know quite how to manage conversation. Lusignolo captures all of John's quirks and tics, and hones them into appealing angles and comfy neuroses. "I'm not crazy, just sad." As sunny, obtuse Librarian (Lyndsay Sweeney) observes with peppy frankness when asked by Mary for a library card, "Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother; I'm just going to die anyway.'" Even disconnects can be painfully funny. The scene with the most wonder doesn't even occur in Middletown but in outer space. It's a lovely bit of theater fairy dust. The town's most famous resident, the Astronaut (Greg Dean), is orbiting in his space capsule. Lit as if from the glow of the instrument panel, he muses to Houston command central about what he sees. Simple and affecting, he describes the earth and the mystery withal. "It doesn't look lonely up here," he says wistfully. "How'd we get so lucky?" There's a touch of genius in the cheery '50s TV theme music used to bridge the scenes. It sounds innocuous, comforting and then rather terrifying. It's a complete picture over at Catastrophic — a priceless Eno, delivered with an invigorating blast of powerhouse theater. Through June 14. 1119 East Freeway, 713-522-2723. — DLG

Over the River and Through the Woods River is Neil Simon without the burlesque, Eugene O'Neill without the terrifying angst, Thornton Wilder with a sense of humor. It's all about family, an Italian extended family, an immigrant Italian extended family. And the wonderful news is that you don't have to be Italian to enjoy it. Any family will do nicely, thank you. River is a memory play, with all characters at some time reminiscing directly to us about what we're seeing. Nick, appealingly played with equal amounts of exasperation and forgiveness by Marty Blair, is the main guy. Twentysomething, unmarried, career-oriented and orphaned, he visits his grandparents in Hoboken every Sunday for dinner. All four of them — Frank and Aida (Marion Atthur Kirby and Patty Tuel Bailey), and Nunzio and Emma (Ted Doolittle and Marcy Bannor), who drop in constantly. There are no surprises, really, just all the drama that's the stuff of everyday life: Frank shouldn't drive anymore, who wants more to eat, what's a VCR?, Nunzio has cancer, the five play a hilarious game of Trivial Pursuit. But the continual buildup of the average troubles and delights that make living both heartbreaking and elevating adds up to so much more. When Nick surprises the old folks with news that he's been promoted and is moving to Seattle, the temperature inside the house, kept on constant boil by Aida, drops precipitously. But we're your family, they shout over one another. "Tengo famiglia," warns Frank, whose motto is, I have a family, I have reason for being alive. Your family's here, they cry out loud, why leave? When Nick lets slip that he doesn't need them anymore, he might as well have said that Aida's veal Parmesan is tasteless. The quartet goes into overdrive to get him to stay. Emma knows an unmarried niece of her canasta buddies and sets a trap. Joe DiPietro gins up the suspense with the appearance of the attractive Caitlin as Nick's blind date at dinner. Katherine Hatcher is appropriately lovely and street-smart, later chiding Nick for his gruff treatment of these wonderful people who love him so much. Emma might be right, Nick might stay here for her, who wouldn't? One by one, the old ones fall by the wayside, but Nick has made up his mind by then. Another family, new but tied to the past, has begun. The suspense of whether Nick will leave or stay isn't the issue, really, but how much of the family goes with you when you do leave. Under the cozy direction of Christy Watkins, the ensemble cast is impeccable and actually seems to be part of the same family. How wonderful to see Marion Arthur Kirby back on his home turf again, where he was an A.D. Players member for 25 years. Through June 29. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the 2013 Tony Award as Best New Play. Masha is a much-married Hollywood star who supports siblings Vanya and Sonia in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Visiting, she brings along her athletic boy toy, Spike. Sonia, adopted and bitter, and Vanya, resigned and gay, are recluses, living out uneventful lives in the family home, where they stayed to care for Alzheimer's-stricken parents. Spike (Jay Sullivan) has a remarkably low level of body fat, easily verified since Spike tends to remove his clothing. He's invariably cheerful and charming, bounds like a gazelle, and takes over the play — the other characters can't stop talking about him. The dynamic cleaning woman, Cassandra (Rachael Holmes), practices voodoo, and sticks pins into a doll dressed like Masha, with wonderful success. Vanya (Jeffrey Bean) is the peacekeeper, anchoring the play, but becomes enraged when a play reading is interrupted by Spike's cellphone, and launches into an eloquent, powerful tirade against contemporary life that is memorable and the highlight of the play. Sonia (Sharon Lockwood) evolves from early whining to vivacious, outgoing personality when she dons a party costume. Nina (Sarah Nealis), a fan of Masha, is young, beautiful and sweet, as the role requires. Josie de Guzman is captivating and amusing as the star Masha, and shows some human warmth in the play's sentimental ending, where the bonding of family is celebrated. The scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt is terrific, all books and stone, some memorabilia of the departed parents, and grassy plots that engender belief as they desperately need tending. The comedy is well-directed by Jonathan Moscone. This is a high-water mark of comedy. Through June 15. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Xanadu Xanadu was a 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John that was savaged by critics. A stage version seemed unlikely, but gifted playwright Douglas Carter Beane updated the book and it opened on Broadway to acclaim and a 513-performance run. The plot? Demigods on Mount Olympus are forbidden to fall in love with mortals, but the muse Clio falls for Sonny Malone, an artist who draws chalk murals in Venice, California. Sonny is dissatisfied with his work and decides to commit suicide, but is dissuaded by Clio. Instead, he seeks to open a roller-skating rink as an art haven. Mitchell Greco directed and choreographed, brilliantly, keeping the pace moving vigorously and finding the laughs. Holland Vavra plays Clio with a luminous beauty, acting chops and a compelling way with a song, and could not be better. Cameron Bautsch plays Sonny, providing an endearing portrait of a likable nerd, but the sexual chemistry between the two is largely invisible. Beane added a plot twist, as muse Melpomene (Tamara Siler, great gospel voice) and muse Calliope (Julie Simpson Garcia, in harlequin glasses) plot against Clio. Both are hilarious and their bonding in evildoing delightful. Thomas Prior plays Danny Maguire, and is excellent as a businessman with a backstory of missed opportunities. The entire chorus is wonderful, but special mention must go to Mark Ivy, who is outstanding as the muse Thalia, and as the young Maguire in a flashback. The four-piece band is great and the production first-rate. Music and lyrics are by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. I especially liked "I'm Alive," "Evil Woman," "Don't Walk Away," "Fool" and "Have You Never Been Mellow." This is a triumphant lark of a musical, as light as a cloud and as joyous as a sunbeam, funny and endearing. See it for a rollicking good time. Through June 29. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT


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