Capsule Stage Reviews: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Little Shop of Horrors, The Psychic, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, Travelsty

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs This portrait of a small-town family dealing with the changing world of the 1920s features playwright William Inge's talent for authentic characterizations, and his abiding interest in family dynamics. In a small town near Oklahoma City, Cora and Rubin Flood bicker. Cora is a well-meaning, goodhearted wife, but controlling as well. Rubin, a free spirit who courted Cora on a horse, is chafing at the reins, and his business of selling said reins is dwindling as automobiles rise. Daughter Reenie is painfully shy at 16, and the ten-year old son, Sonny, won't stand up to the bullies tormenting him. Act I is slow, but things pick up in Act II as Cora's sister Lottie and her husband Morris arrive for dinner. The acting is excellent. Sharon Appel plays Cora and captures her spirit, but the script consists of such a drumbeat of her controlling demands that variety becomes difficult. Michael Thorpe, as Rubin, beautifully captures the rhythm of a steed tethered too tightly. Michael Gallegos creates a memorable character in Morris. Brenda Kuciemba, as Lottie, succeeds in a difficult, complex role. Mollie Mae Herron plays Reenie — she looks wonderful and captures her character's insecurity and painful shyness. Hannah Finney plays Flirt, a friend of Reenie, with teenage enthusiasm. Parker Hearon, in his first role, plays ten-year-old Sonny, and his reactions are breathtakingly accurate, adding a fresh dimension to the drama and providing contemporary relevance. Young Hearon has remarkable stage presence, and director David Hymel is to be commended for finding such a talent and nurturing such a performance. This play about the 1920s from a master craftsmen is well-acted and made surprisingly relevant by its extraordinary, fine-tuned performances. Through July 1. Cast Theatrical Company, 1909 Avenue G, Rosenberg, 832-889-3808. — JJT

Little Shop of Horrors You don't go to Dionysus Theatre for slick. Its sets are rudimentary, its lighting is sketchy and the direction concentrates on getting the actors out of the way. You don't expect shattering insights into a play's emotional core. This is bare-bones theater with an aura of let's-put-on-a-play. But there's one attribute that Dionysus possesses that puts all other companies in the shade — heart. You see it in the actors' faces. They're having a ball with all this make-believe, and their joy from performing is infectious, deliciously so. Dionysus is an "inclusive" company, a nonprofit that weaves together actors with disabilities with those who are not disabled. This mesh of pros and not-so-pros adds up to something much better than you'd expect. Inspiration emanates from the stage like a halo. Cheery and cheesy, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's funky little off-Broadway musical sensation, Little Shop of Horrors (1982), about nebbish Seymour (Michael J. Escamilla), who sells his soul to a man-eating alien plant (Theodore M.E. Taylor) to get fame, fortune and the girl of his dreams (Julia Becker), is just the right material to showcase the particular talents of Dionysus. With his Steve Urkel-esque pants pulled up almost to his neck and sporting thick, black-rimmed glasses, Escamilla makes nerdy Seymour goofy and lovable, heartfelt and funny. As Seymour's pined-for inamorata Audrey, Becker radiates sweet sexiness with her kewpie-doll blond curls and breathy delivery. She's your innocent masochist next door, yearning for plastic-covered furniture and Pine-Sol scent. Ted Doolittle brings a Borscht Belt belt and vaudeville delivery to harried florist Mr. Mushnik; Andrew Barrett is comically menacing as sadist dentist Orin, Audrey's bad boy main squeeze; and Theodore Taylor (heard but not seen as blood-loving Audrey II) gives this vampire plant from outer space a real downtown pizzazz. The Doo-Wop girl group (Lori Evans, Teresa Gallagher, Noriann Doguim, Mariann Cano and Monica Gaseor) catches the show's funky spirit with poodle skirts and ponytails, while the rest of the cast (Shaun Linsey, Jayson White, Joshua Sims and Jayson Looney) embodies the musical's quirky charm and wit. The cast's high-flying spirits buoy us with unstoppable enthusiasm. Through June 30. Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, 5601 South Braeswood, 713-728-0041. — DLG

The Psychic The ever-popular genre of humorous murder mysteries takes some strange twists and turns in The Psychic, from prolific playwright Sam Bobrick, as an impoverished writer seeks to finish a novel. The main characters are the writer, portrayed by Ryan Rasmussen, and the wealthy Laura Benson, played by Vicky McCormick, and both say their lines flatly, so that the narrative is conveyed but not the flavor. Rasmussen was excellent in the recent Play On at this same theater, so director Lee Raymond must share some of the responsibility, as the too-rapid speech of Rasmussen must have caught her attention, as well as the largely emotionless line readings of McCormick. Bob Galley plays Laura's husband, Roy Benson, and he mugs and widens his eyes to ensure we see that chicanery is afoot — this might be over-acting in a different production; here it is a breath of fresh air. Natasha Sebeyran plays Rita Malone, mistress of Roy; she is intended to be a bit of a strumpet and is dressed accordingly. Dean R. Dicks plays another lover of Rita, a gangster, and he is excellent, both credible and interesting. Gene Griesbach plays detective Norris Coslow, and brings an urbane charm and quiet confidence that is disarming, and unusual. The Psychic won the Edgar Award as the Best Mystery Play of 2010, a mystery in itself. In the beginning, writer Adam was seized unwittingly by outbursts of truth, in which he foresaw events like a psychic, but playwright Bobrick soon dropped this promising theme. Some strong acting by secondary characters helps overcome weak leads, and some occasional humor and an inventive finale end the performance on a strong note. This one is best enjoyed by lovers of the mystery genre. Through June 30. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. — JJT

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins The life and times of famed Texan journalist Molly Ivins are chronicled in a one-woman show at Main Street Theater, spiced by samples of invective wit aimed at elected officials. Sara Gaston plays Ivins — she looks a lot like Ivins when she was younger, and keeps this persona throughout. Gaston is likable, perhaps more so than Ivins, who relished the role of attack dog. Ivins's life has been organized into a play by the twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, themselves journalists, and the script is largely chronological, as Gaston recounts Ivins's early family life with an articulate and dominating father, her variety of jobs at Texas newspapers as well as at The New York Times, and her evolution into a nationally syndicated columnist and best-selling author. Examples of Ivins's rapier wit are many and delightful. There are moments of drama — the death of lovers, for example — and Gaston describes these, but is less successful in conveying the depths of Ivins's anguish at these losses. Ivins's battle with breast cancer is bravely described, and Gaston captures the mixture of wit holding at bay the deep pain. Ivins's courage in publicly recording the treatment and surgery is admirable, and well-portrayed. The set is simple, a bare office with a teletype machine; two screens show slides of Texas governors and U.S. presidents, but these add little zest. Patti Bean directed the proceedings, handicapped by a script that contains too much preaching. Ivins knew that battles were won by skewering opponents, not by wagging a finger at them, but the Engels have forgotten that. An enjoyable tour of reminiscences, and abundant examples of Ivins's trenchant wit, make this docudrama both amusing and insightful. Through July 1. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — JJT

Travelsty Two couples travel around the country, singing about various states or cities, and through the alchemy of talent and showmanship turn this slight material into a totally entertaining two hours of pure pleasure. The setting is cabaret, with the talented four-piece band G Sharp and the MBT 3, and refreshments are available. The concept is minor, but the skits that bridge the songs — all original writing — range from merely pleasant to absolutely hilarious. Three of the skits had punch lines that seemed to come out of the blue but paid off so well I was blown away. The gifted performers are Rebekah Dahl and Brad Scarborough, married in real life and founders of The Music Box Theater, and Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel, and after journeying cross-country with them, I'm calling them by their given names. All are attractive and work well together in harmony and in the choreography supporting the songs. Rebekah is tall and blond, Cay is medium height and dark, Luke looks like an American David Niven, and Brad has movie star looks but excels here as a comedic actor. He plays briefly several singers in a skit about Record #17 of Tony Bennett's Duets — it's fast-paced and huge fun. A recurring thread has them all in a car, Luke driving and Brad in the passenger seat, with the ladies behind. They also travel by rail and, hilariously, by plane. Videos accompany the opening and closing songs and add fun, but the show's triumph is the ensemble acting that creates a sense of friends off on a madcap odyssey. Four strong performers and a witty script weave familiar pop hits into a thoroughly pleasurable evening, a must-see for cabaret aficionados and for music lovers of any stripe. Through August 5. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — JJT


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