Capsule Stage Reviews: Lucky Stiff, Pack of Lies, Sty of the Blind Pig, Underneath the Lintel, Wit

Lucky Stiff The Tony Award-winning musical theater duo of Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), creators of Ragtime, Seussical the Musical and, on April 19, the world premiere of their commedia dell'arte The Glorious Ones, had to start someplace. Even though this musical, based on Michael Butterworth's goofy murder mystery The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, is laden with future promises to be fulfilled, we're left with a show that's not very good. It's a quirky cartoon farce, too silly to be much fun, but not loopy enough to be truly distinctive. To get his uncle's $6 million estate, sweet, naive Harry (Brad Scarborough, who sings heavenly) must cart the corpse around the Riviera, giving Uncle Tony one last fling. Harry is dogged by Annabel (Allison Sumrall, who sings and mugs heavenly), who works for an animal shelter that's next in line to inherit if Harry screws up. They, in turn, are tailed by Rita, Tony's "New Joysey" moll, who wants the hot diamonds that...oh, never mind, it's not worth it. To their grand credit, the pros at Masquerade Theatre play this dumbbell material like it were some classic golden oldie from Rodgers and Hart. (Not to be missed is Michael Ross's pickled-in-oil Emcee.) Ahrens's wise but bitter lyrics are indeed infused with the cold sincerity of Lorentz Hart or Dorothy Fields, but only in the wistful ballad "Times Like This" do the musical gods nod their approval. The rest of the numbers just take up time — and space — as does the show. Through April 6. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713-861-7045. — 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

Sty of the Blind Pig Playwright Phillip Hayes Dean keeps us mesmerized with this intriguing, finely wrought comedy/drama, a New York Drama Desk winner from 1971. It's the story of controlling matriarch Weedy Warren (Deborah Oliver Artis); her spinster daughter Alberta (Cheray Dawn Josiah); her gambling, "whiskey head" son Doc (Wayne DeHart); and street singer Blind Jordan (Timothy Eric), who arrives at the doorstep of their south side Chicago apartment and changes their lives. The Warrens are on the verge of momentous social history but don't realize it. At the end of Act II, Weedy takes a church trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where she witnesses the famous "bus boycott" that will usher in the modern civil rights movement. She returns complaining about sore feet and all the young people who have let their hair go natural. Her generation can't grasp the significance of what's happening. Daughter Alberta's too introspective and vulnerable to see history right in front of her, but she is cleansed by Blind Jordan. In a tour de force monologue, she pours forth emotion as she relives the funeral of an unrequited love. Although Weedy isn't given as showy a set piece as Alberta's confessional, Artis keeps her character front and center at all times. Consummate pro Wayne DeHart is so at home onstage, it's impossible for him to give a bad performance; Doc, the lovable wastrel, is another of his distinguished, full-bodied portraits. And though it's difficult to play a symbol and make it real, Timothy Eric as Blind Jordan succeeds in giving this deus ex machina a sexy, mysterious presence. This play is a rare work of poetry and power. Through April 13. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG


Lucky Stiff

Underneath the Lintel John Tyson's Librarian, in the Alley Theatre's lovely production of Glen Berger's one-man show Underneath the Lintel, is just the sort of city worker most of us never, ever want to meet. He lives for late fines. Imagine his excitement when he discovers a book left in the night-drop-box that's more than 100 years overdue! With a handful of clues that include an old laundry ticket left in the late book, he sets out on a weeklong trip to find the cheeky culprit who's dared to keep a book out for so long. What he ends up with is a life-changing journey that takes him far, far from home. This small play that's shaped into a speech given by the Librarian to inform the public of his journey deals with such large ideas as how to live a life that actually matters. And it is surprisingly rich, especially as rendered by Tyson with the help of director Alex Harvey. Tyson's Librarian shows us that passions run deep in the quietest souls. When he holds up the library date-stamper he wears on a cotton string around his neck and declares that the date of everyone's death can be found in the little device, the moment resonates with a profound truth. And Tyson so thoroughly inhabits this misanthrope with his slightly turned-in toes and his awkward attempts at jokes that the character and his quest move from funny to outrageous and finally to deeply moving. Designer Kevin Rigdon's bleak, bare stage, which looks a bit like an auditorium about to be torn down, underscores the frail hope found in this tender play that anyone who's looking for a little bit of meaning in this world should not miss. Through April 20. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW

Wit At first glance, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play could be a downer of colossal proportions: not only does its leading character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, die from ovarian cancer, which we witness with horrid precision and clinical intimacy, but Professor Bearing is also the foremost authority on the 17th-century metaphysical poet John Donne -— "death be not proud," "no man is an island" and other heady, religious thoughts — and throughout the play we are treated to snippets from her probing lectures and random thoughts on Donne's "Holy Sonnets." This has every intention of transforming into the most insufferable of dramas, like something meaningful and good for you from Public Broadcasting. But Edson performs the miraculous: harrowing as it ultimately is, she makes the act of dying entertaining and full of grace. Bearing's only passion in life is Donne; she has no lover, no family, no friends, and is fiercely proud of her immense intellect and cognitive skills. However, these will do her no good as she screams in pain from the treatments meant to cure her. Self-absorbed lovers of research and as dedicated as she to pure knowledge, her doctors dissect her malady with as much unemotional precision as she once used to parse the great Jacobean poet. Neither art nor science, Ms. Edson states with utter felicity and theatrical know-how in her dexterously intelligent and playful play, is of much comfort when one faces death. Everything boils down to a great essence: a kind word or a soothing deed. In Texas Rep's sublime rendition, Pamela Vogel, as Vivian, is show-stoppingly radiant: icy, Olympian, witty and, at the end, all too human as she heads into the light. Edson's play is equally redeeming and triumphant, and must not be missed. Through April 13. 14243 Steubner Airline. 281-583-7573. — DLG.


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