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Capsule Stage Reviews: The Drowsy Chaperone, The Heiress, Mr. Marmalade, Present Laughter, Time of My Life, The Vagina Monologues

The Drowsy Chaperone Thank you, Canada! If that country didn't produce anything else in its history, it would forever have our undying gratitude for this absolutely fabulous show. There's nothing like The Drowsy Chaperone in the Broadway canon, and no original musical in recent memory can touch its free spirit or wit. It's nonstop smiles from the lights-out opening line "I hate theater" to the aviatrix-in-a-biplane ending, in which our narrator, The Man in Chair, flies away — again — into his own personal little world of Broadway musicals. A multiple Tony Award-winner from 2006 presented by Theatre Under the Stars, this show is a glorious, heartfelt, postmodern homage to the power of musicals to make us forget our troubles and "disappear for a while." It works like gangbusters. Whenever he feels blue, The Man in Chair (Jonathan Crombie) plays show tunes. This time, only his all-time favorite, 1928's Drowsy Chaperone, will do. He plays the original cast recording — yes, remember records? — and his drab apartment comes to life as the musical invades and transforms it. Periodically, he stops the action to comment on forgotten musical stars of yesteryear or the current state of showbiz. His asides overlay the silly plot with respectful reverence, while making fun of it at the same time. The Drowsy Chaperone is never smug in its cleverness, and that's part of its immense charm. While the show-within-the-show is a hilarious parody of a '20s musical, with its whimsical theatrical conventions and broad racial stereotypes (before they were "banished to Disney"), it's also testament to why musicals continue to have such a powerful hold over our psyche. Through June 1. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. 713-315-2525. — DLG

The Heiress Concisely adapted by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, Henry James's short psychological novel Washington Square (1880) became a successful Tony-winning Broadway play (1947) and then an equally successful Oscar-winning movie (1949). Writing of just one family — the rich Slopers of New York City's Washington Square — was unusual for James, who limited his usually sprawling canvas. Imbued with parental disapproval and the stifling effect of being plain in a world insistent upon beauty, the deceptively simple story takes on epic flavor. Despised by her father for lacking her dead mother's qualities and lovely outward appearance, shy and socially inept Catherine has become enamored of handsome wastrel Morris Townsend, who has swept her off her feet. Dr. Sloper, with a cruel honesty that borders on the sadistic, warns her that Morris only loves her money — for she has nothing whatever to offer any man. Is Morris sincere in his ardent declarations? Is the plain Catherine doomed to a life devoid of love? Directed with mounting tension by Jeannette Clift George, A.D. Players brings this snappily written play vibrantly to life. Sarah Cooksey is all fidgets and thumbs as ordinary Catherine, who, through love and love denied, is frighteningly transformed into the very thing she most abhors, her father. Marty Blair makes a most charismatic Morris, sparkling and bright as fool's gold. Lee Walker supplies the emotionally distant Dr. Sloper with a terrifying heart of ice. And Christy Watkins bustles and frets most wonderfully as busybody Aunt Lavinia. The handsome set by Mark Lewis and the eye-catching costumes by Patty Tuel Bailey add luster to this production's genuine shine. Through June 1. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Mr. Marmalade Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, is wonderfully odd and profoundly moving. The story centers on the childish fantasies of four-year-old Lucy, played with breathtaking charm by the grownup Mikelle Johnson. Lucy is a strange, lonely child who's been left to fend for herself for too many hours of the day by her equally lonely mother. When Lucy's alone, waiting for the baby-sitter or for her mother to show up, she dreams up another life, one that includes her well-dressed "friend"Mr. Marmalade (played by Justin Doran, who practically ignites the stage as the dream man). Sporting a dark suit and a clipped manner, Mr. Marmalade sits down for pretend coffee and suggests a pretend trip to Mexico, and Lucy is enthralled as she tries to be ever so grown-up with Mr. Marmalade. But during the course of the night, what starts out as an innocent game of make-believe devolves into a dangerous nightmare. It becomes evident that Mr. Marmalade has been shaped from the imagination of a child who's clearly been left in front of the television for too many hours of the day. Lucy's fantasy friend morphs from funny to sexy to fetishistic and violent as he snakes his way through the child's dark night. As directed by Alex Harvey, this strange tale somehow makes perfect sense. The boundaries between what is real and what is make-believe are in constant flux. Through June 1. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

Present Laughter "I'm always acting, watching myself go by," emotes protagonist Garry Essendine, played by the incomparable Joel Sandel in this semiautographical play by Noël Coward, to anyone who crosses his path. Today, that would include his dewy morning-after lover, whose name he can't remember (Morgan McCarthy), his blasé maid (Sheryl Croix), his astringent secretary (Terri Branda Carter), his sensible former wife (Kara Greenberg), his harried business associates (David Harlan and David Wald), his worldly butler (Harlan again), the panther-like, seductive Joanna (Sara Gaston) and a mad playwright wannabe who lives to worship him (Nicholas Collins). And that's just during the morning. Staring into a mirror and watching his hair recede, Garry wails dramatically that he's not experiencing life and is weary of being adored. But we wouldn't have him any other way. In satin dressing gown with cocktail cemented firmly in hand, he spouts Coward's archly artificial, yet highly musical, dialogue. Garry doesn't want to be free of fame's trappings — it's mother's milk to him, if poured in a highball. Though not as well-known as Coward classics Design for Living and Private Lives, this immensely droll comedy is equally witty, well crafted and entertaining. This stylish Art Deco piece is caviar for the well-heeled cast at Main Street Theater. From top down — including costumes, lighting, set and crisp direction by Claire Hart-Palumbo — everything is pitch-perfect, led by the outstanding Sandel, who lounges, pouts and poses while he laps up his fawning press and basks gloriously in his own klieg light. Through June 22. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

Time of My Life English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn is not only one of theater's most prolific writers (some 50-plus works since 1959) but also one of its most experimental and innovative. His work is complex, captivating, a little crazy, revelatory and achingly funny, as the middle class gets its nose tweaked. Don't ever pass up an Ayckbourn. In this little jewel from Company OnStage, love and marriage get dissected, but so does time. After we meet the family of six boisterously gathered to celebrate Mom's birthday at their favorite restaurant, the scenes fragment into a series of intensifying duets — and duels. The parents (Carl Masterson and Cheryl Tanner) stay in the present, full of regret and incriminations; philandering oldest son and mousey wife (Brian Heaton and Kristi Jones Pewthers) move into the future; and spoiled youngest son and girlfriend (Norm Dillon and Renata Santoro) move backward through time, until their last scene is their first meeting. Various waiters at the restaurant pop in and out, too, all lovingly played by John Patterson. The nonchronological order of the scenes lifts what appears to be mundane and ordinary into a realm of heightened sympathy and understanding. It's quite a beautiful effect, pushed even higher by the superlative Masterson and Tanner. The exquisitely shaded performances of these two pros have it all — the faded passion, nitpicking and thousand little cuts that happen as a marriage slowly bleeds to death. If you want to experience unobtrusive acting at its finest and truest, watch these two. The same could be said of Ayckbourn's intimate, yet universal, play. Through June 7. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

The Vagina Monologues When I last saw Eve Ensler's triumphant feminist deification of "down there," a.k.a. "the Bermuda triangle," a.k.a. "cootie snatcher," the few men in the audience slouched in their seats, desperately trying not to be noticed. But theater impresario Joe Watts is just mad enough to upend expectations and put the guys right onstage — only now they're transgendered (male to female, and female to male) or in drag. Strange as it may seem for a work whose very essence revolves around the very essence of being a woman, this reversal is an absolute revelation. This version of Ensler's power play reveals unexpected layers and plunges deeper into the psyche. It's quite a thrill. And while all this happens, we completely forget that sexy, glamorous Carmen is really Rafael Aparicio, or that peppy, preppy Stacey Meier only began hormones last year, or that Georges Zemanek, who gives a stunning knockout of a monologue about a grisly clitoridectomy, was not born with a beard. Not even Meg Ryan could out-moan Jenifer Rene Pool during her hilarious "big O" routine, and Julia Christine Oliver adds a touch of normalcy to wherever Ensler's edgy anecdotes take her. In the extremely intimate surroundings of the Montrose Counseling Center — an appropriate venue — Ensler's theme and variations have been freshly buffed and brightly burnished. A trace of five o'clock shadow and some lip gloss do wonders for Ensler's old gal. Through May 31. 401 Branard St., 713-522-2204. — DLG


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