The Cripple of Inishmaan The University of Houston School of Theatre brings a bit of Ireland to Houston, re-creating the small-mindedness, boredom and bickering of a coastal island while vividly etching its inhabitants, in a dark comedy by acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh. The Irish accents and authentic costumes anchor the play. Playwright McDonagh sees the pettiness and meanness in ordinary lives, as well as the penchant for cruelty, but he also sees the glimmer of hope and the shimmer of love. Director Steven W. Wallace keeps the pace interesting even when the dialogue is desultory. The fulcrum on which the plot turns is the filming of a movie on a nearby island, and Cripple Billy's desire to get included in it. The cast is superb, and Wallace has achieved mostly ensemble acting. Joshua Kyle Hoppe portrays Billy, and captures his longing, courage and humor. Also strong is Christine Arnold as Helen — forthright, hearty and given to cruel pranks on her brother Bartley, well played by Jason Ronje. Philip Orazio plays the island's gossip Johnnypateenmike, and fleshes out the interesting and varied role. Kayla Brown plays Kate, and Laurel Schroeder plays Eileen, both shopkeepers and the adoptive aunts of the orphaned Billy; both have wonderful comic timing. Colin David is very effective as a brusque, strong-willed boatman given to sudden violence. Director Wallace has done the playwright justice, in re-creating the atmosphere of Inishmaan, finding the lilt in Irish speech and the warmth beneath the cruel rejoinder, and in mounting this original and well-crafted play. Savvy staging, superb acting and rich brogues re-create a small coastal Irish town, as an acclaimed playwright and storyteller takes us on an exciting and humorous journey into the heart of humanity. Through April 29. Jose Quintero Theatre, University of Houston, 133 Wortham, 713-743-2929. — JJT
Don't Drink the Water Woody Allen, already famous for his stand-up routines and comedy writing for TV giant Sid Caesar, went solo with his first Broadway comedy, Don't Drink the Water (1966). The play had a successful run for a year and a half, but it wasn't very good then, and it's not any better in this mildly updated version at Country Playhouse. It's a sketch of a play whose structure is skewed and off, with characters coming and going, mostly going, leaving scenes flat and unfulfilled. The most inventive idea is Father Drobney (warmly played by Dave Howell), a priest living in sanctuary inside the U.S. embassy, who's a bad amateur magician. It's so bizarre, it's endearing. American tourists Marion and Walter (Sylvia Armendariz and Marq Del Monte) and daughter Susan (Kaitlyn Walker) take refuge inside the American embassy in Beijing, fleeing evil Commie Krojack (Steven Martinez), who thinks they are spies. The ambassador has left for two weeks, leaving his incompetent son Axel (Taylor Biltoft) and officious Kilroy (Louis A. Crespo) in charge. Axel is the Woody Allen personae not yet formed, and we miss him terribly, for there's nothing for him to do except be stupid, trip over his feet and get his hand stuck in Susan's hair. Biltoft does fairly well when he's not bellowing his inability to do anything right. He's not alone in not knowing what to do in this paper-thin comedy. There's no consistent style. It's every man for himself. Armendariz, as a prototypical, Woody Allen-whiney Jewish mother, gets it right, as do Martinez as the bullying Krojack (a character name left over from when the play was originally set in a nameless central European dictatorship) and Walker as the giddy daughter out for adventure. Crespo is crisply efficient as killjoy Killroy, while the rest manage as well as possible. Through May 5. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG
Mary Stuart There's an old Italian operatic term, prima donna assoluta. It denotes the female singer without equal, the first among firsts, the absolute best that opera delivers. It's rarely used seriously anymore, but after Houston Grand Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Mary Stuart (1835), the moniker should be bestowed upon mezzo Joyce DiDonato. There is no one like her on the opera stage today. She is a star, a superstar, in fact. A prime example of bel canto opera ("beautiful singing"), Mary is not one of Donizetti's prime-time best, and shows its turbulent censored past with an out-of-balance structure which drops Elizabeth after the beginning of Act II, downplays the love interest and keeps Maria center stage in too many prayerful scenes until her demise. Once she's condemned, there's no drama left. There's plenty of opportunity for great singing, though, and when you have the caliber of DiDonato soaring through her prayers, augmented by a magnificent choral number to boot in Act II, it's all worth hearing. Like Mary Queen of Scots, DiDonato has her rival in soprano Katie Van Kooten as proud, jealous Elizabeth I, Queen of England. It's a match made in opera heaven. Van Kooten blows the roof off the Wortham as imperious Liz, with a sumptuous voice that eats up Donizetti's dramatic line with amazing agility and temperament. When the two queens finally meet in one of opera's great duets, it's a scene Verdi would have died to compose. Astute both psychologically and musically, it's the opera's zenith, and maestro Patrick Summers meets it with his usual orchestral ferocity and transparent playing of the finest order. The Kevin Newbury production is minimal, with no Euro-trash fuss and bother. Except for the lavish period costumes by Jessica Jahn, the stage is swept of extraneous chaff, just enough to tell us where we are and give a mood. The singing is why we're here, and Newbury keeps motivations clear and our eyes focused on who should be in the spotlight. When minor bel canto works are this beautifully realized, nothing else is needed. Hail to the queen. Hail, DiDonato! Long may you reign! Through May 4. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG
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The Seafarer Guess who's coming to play cards? If you're hell-bent on seeing Conor McPherson's brogue-laced Christian tall tale The Seafarer, read no further, because here comes a spoiler. It's Christmas Eve, and blind Richard (John Tyson), now in the care of brother Sharky (James Black), has asked buddies Ivan (Declan Mooney) and Nicky (Chris Hutchison) over to play cards. But Nicky brings an unexpected guest, someone he met at the pub who's looking for Sharky, a Mr. Lockhart (Todd Waite), mysterious but willing to join in the alcohol-fueled game. Here's the spoiler: Lockhart is the Devil. Yes, the actual ruler of Hell has come to claim Sharky's soul, which Sharky gave him 25 years ago when he beat a murder rap. Lockhart will play poker with the boys. Unbeknownst to the rest of them, if Sharky loses, it's eternal bye-bye. (Why Mr. Satan is required to play games at all for the souls he collects is never explained. Maybe the Big Guy Upstairs sets the rules.) While filled with clipped and jagged dialogue that has the air of verisimilitude, McPherson's play doesn't really surprise. The guys are lovable losers even when sloshed and acting stupid, but the story is right out of Twilight Zone, albeit punctured with nonstop profanity and regional color. The ensemble is above reproach, layering their woebegone losers with a fine Irish whiskey fog and impeccable technique, but the real surprise is newcomer Mooney, an understudy when the play opened on Broadway in 2007. His style is refreshing and unaffected. He's continuously tipsy throughout and blighted by farsightedness, and even his smallest gestures carry immense comic weight. He's just another average bloke blindly stumbling through life. The production is ravishing, with Hugh Landwehr's dank, decayed setting a major character. Director Gregory Boyd keeps the action taut, even when it flags under McPherson, and there's a lively rhythm between the guys that keeps us involved and amused. McPherson's comic little ghost story resolves into a nifty morality tale, and it's sort of shocking to see such naked faith given such a positive nod. We should be thankful for the life affirmation, if we all don't go to hell first. Through May 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG