The Boys in the Band Mart Crowley's historic gay play (1968) is the mother of them all. When it premiered off-Broadway a full year before the seminal Stonewall riots, Crowley's acid-dipped drama shocked theater-goers with its full frontal assault. No one had ever been this close to a homosexual onstage, and here were eight "screaming faggots" going at it without apology and without the wrath of God — nine if you count the question mark of married Alan. The view was mind-blowing. Closet doors blew off their hinges. Crowley led the way for Larry Kramer, Harry Kondoleon, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner. Everyone followed him. Gay granny still has the power to shock, I'm pleased to say, and in Country Playhouse's exceptionally vivid production, this dowager is still the Queen of the May. Crowley fills the stage with a panoply of gay archetypes. Cultured and sophisticated Michael (Travis Springfield), living the good life on credit while he quotes B-movies, throws a birthday party for best friend Harold (L. Robert Westeen), the bitch queen from hell, who is obsessed with fading looks and growing older. Among the friends are Hank and Larry (Tad Howington and Bob Galley), a straight-acting couple who bicker about monogamy. Emory (Jay Menchaca) is the flamer, the nellie queen whose limp wrist can whip up a casserole or lead the boys in old dance routines. He is "out" before there was a word for it. Bernard (Jarred Tettey) is black and the constant butt of Emory's Aunt Jemima sneers and taunts. Donald (Adam Richardson) is Michael's sometime lover who has moved out of New York and away from the gay scene. Naive hustler Cowboy (Jake Bevill) is the birthday present Emory has arranged for Harold. The surprise of the evening is the arrival of Alan (Louis Crespo), Michael's former college roommate, married with children, who calls in distress and must talk to his old friend immediately. Alan is the wrench thrown into the works. Fueled by alcohol, lots of it, and years of pent-up fury, the party rapidly spins out of control. Fears and obsessions are laid out, bare and unforgiving, allowing the fine ensemble, under the sensitive direction of Stuart Purdy, to ramp up the drama. Although the melodramatics get close to the edge, Crowley always falls back on Harold's wickedly funny one-liners or Emory's prancing lest the proceedings go too far. As a testament to its time, Boys' historical significance cannot be downplayed, but it's a mighty good play, too, full of laugh-out-loud wit and stop-your-breath action. It's still one of a kind. And you can't beat its message that no matter how beaten down you are, there's strength and solidarity in family, whatever that may be. No matter what — closeted, straight-acting, queeny, self-loathing — these guys stick together. There's pride in that. Through January 26. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. — DLG
Girls Only — the Secret Comedy of Women Two gifted female improv actors in Denver, Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein, discovered a golden lode of material in their high-school diaries and mined it into scripted vignettes of what it's like to be young and female. The resulting comedy is having its regional premiere after extended runs in major U.S. cities. The set is a pink teenage bedroom, frilly without being fussy. As the audience is seated, on stage are two local female actors, Tracy Ahern and Keri Henson, dressed in bra and panties, who mime conversations and laughter. Both Ahern and Henson are excellent comediennes with great timing. They discuss diaries; valentines, including those returned; the first crush; breast-feeding; and other topics. This comedy is intended for a female audience, but this may be too restrictive — these are babes, good-looking, fit, with outgoing personalities and a great sense of humor. They're good sports, they tell jokes well and they like men. What male wouldn't want to spend 90 minutes in their company? I especially liked the skit about sex education, as the actors play counselors so inept that they never get to the subject. The overall tone never strays far from sweet and amusing, although there is a hint of anger in a video section on restrictions on public breast-feeding. The event ends with a hilarious ballet to music as the ladies struggle to don pantyhose. The comedy is directed by Luanne Nunes de Char; this is her seventh time directing the work, and her experience pays off brilliantly, with pace and exuberance. These vignettes will warm your heart while convulsing you with laughter. Extended through February 3. Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — JJT
Last of the Red Hot Lovers The title is ironic, as restaurateur Barney Cashman's experience is so limited that the sexual revolution not only passed him by, it never threw him a fleeting glance. Playwright Neil Simon has given us a central character without experience, without charm and without a sense of humor. Only a truly gifted actor could make this role interesting, and director Lisa Schofield has found him in the person of Bob Maddox. The play has three acts, hence three attempted seductions, the first with Elaine, a cut-to-the-chase attractive woman, played with great timing and finesse by Melissa J. Mayo. Maddox and Mayo make this one-joke section work, carrying the burden of slack writing on the shoulders of acting skills. Simon's capacity for inventiveness picks up with Act Two as we meet Bobbi, played by Kelly Walker with an endearing bubbling charm. Walker portrays a vivacious nonstop talker, an airhead and a pot smoker, and makes her every move interesting. In Act Three, Barney is suddenly and unexpectedly feisty, intent on having his way with a family friend, Jeanette, played by Vicky McCormick. Jeanette is so deep into therapy and depression that one prays the seduction never occurs, as it would have all the excitement of watching grass grow. Maddox captures the intensity of desperation, delivers lines with convincing sincerity and is a master at conveying emotions, whether in lines or in reaction. Schofield's direction keeps the pace brisk and the movements of the actors fluid, and she finds humor in scenes that are inherently sad. Even for those lukewarm to Simon's comedies, it's well worth a visit to see what made B'way happy for so long and to see top actors plying their craft so well. Through Jan. 19, Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT
The Submission A young, gay white playwright writes a play about a black family struggling to escape from "The Projects" and submits it under the pseudonym of a black female to increase its chance of acceptance. The ensuing complications stem organically from the initial plan to deceive, and are compounded by playwright Danny (Ross Bautsch) hiring black actress Emilie (Candice D'Meza) to impersonate the playwright. The narrative is both masterfully amusing and also deeply serious in its insights into complicated issues. The writing, by new playwright Jeff Talbott, is simply superb, balancing sophisticated views on racial and gender-orientation issues with all-too-human character weaknesses, all explicated with wit that evolves into raw vitriol as tensions mount. The essential conflict is between Emilie and Danny, but we also meet Danny's best friend Trevor (Darcy Cadman) and Danny's live-in lover Pete (Matt Benton). All are excellent actors, and create portrayals pulsing with authenticity. Bausch as Danny provides a vivid portrait of an uptight, intense artist, increasingly tortured by seeing his work identified with another. D'Meza does Emilie justice in an admirably riveting and nuanced performance. Cadman brings a sense of balance to Trevor, torn between loyalty to Danny and a close relationship with Emilie, making him likable and interesting. Benton creates a parody of a gay man, a "screamer," which is strangely ajar in a play dealing so sensitively with issues of bigotry. The pace is rapid-fire, directed with flash-point velocity by Jordan Jaffe, artistic director of Black Lab Theatre, who takes us on a most enjoyable roller-coaster ride. This writing tour de force will leave you breathless with laughter and intrigued by revelations, brought to vibrant, exciting life by wonderful acting and direction, making it a must-see theatrical event. Through January 27, Black Lab Theatre at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-417-3552 or 713-515-4028. — JJT
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The Young Man from Atlanta The "young man" in the title of Horton Foote's 1995 drama is never seen. He's talked about by everybody, usually with suspicion, but sometimes with sympathy. He calls Mr. Kidder at work daily, although Kidder won't talk to him; he's been given thousands of dollars by Mrs. Kidder, unbeknownst to her husband, to pay for medical bills and other emergency family expenses; the young man even waits patiently in the car in the Kidder driveway in hopes of persuading Mr. Kidder to look upon him as fondly as Kidder's dead son supposedly once looked upon him. This young man is Foote's unseen deus ex machina — unknown, but known; mysterious, but always present; sinister, yet somehow comforting. More mysterious than the "young man" kept forever in the background is how this pale work ever won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Company OnStage doesn't ground this lightweight production with any sort of gravity. It floats out of their reach. After a most distinguished career that includes Academy Award-winners To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, as well as Broadway hits The Trip to Bountiful, Dividing the Estate and his epic nine-play The Orphans' Home Cycle, Foote's late play is irritatingly amorphous. Granted, it's set in the early '50s, when certain pointed questions — like, Who is this young man from Atlanta and what exactly is his relationship to the Kidders' unmarried son? — weren't talked about ever, but all this priggish circumspection reminds us of rehashed closeted Inge. We long for the young man to make a star turn and give this play a kick start. The world of old salesman Will Kidder is moving fast and out of his control, but the play's so overly calculated that nothing seems real. Big chunks of exposition are clumsily shoehorned into monologues; characters enter, leave, then re-enter to complete scenes in a stilted, bygone theatrical style; coincidences mount in an almost comic progression, prompting unforced laughter from the audience. This isn't the Foote we love, who can move us to tears with his simple honesty and homespun smartness; this is faux Foote. Company OnStage doesn't know what to do with this problematic play. Everything is off: the set, the music, the cast. The actors seem uncomfortable, either miscast, woefully underrehearsed or misdirected. Only Robert Lowe, as a knockoff Willy Loman-type salesman whose life quickly careens downward, strikes the right tone. While he doesn't dig deep enough, he digs deeper than the others and has enough confident bluster in the early scenes, later turning into feisty stubbornness until he reaches a deflating acceptance in the final scene. He doesn't move us as he should since he's basically acting alone. Through February 16. 536 Westbury Square. 713-726-1219. — DLG