The First Church of Texaco A corporate tycoon returns to his roots in an abandoned gas station in Blessing, Texas, and hires the local librarian to be his secretary, while fighting a hostile takeover of his corporation, and the librarian uses him as surrogate pastor for the community. The tycoon is a bully, browbeating a junior executive. Craig Griffin portrays Stanley Presley, the magnate, and is quite good, though the role is a caricature. Blake Weir plays the junior executive, Brad, capturing the requisite toadying without losing his dignity and conveying an appealing intelligence that's thrown to the winds in Act Two. Things perk up when librarian Alice Mann enters, pretty, with big hair, spunky and nice; Christy Watkins nails this role. Later, a 15-year old runaway girl, Emmi, wanders in to include a miraculous coincidence of contrived spirituality. In Act Two, a gun plays a large part — most of the characters get to brandish it — a $15,000 check is torn up, Stanley undergoes a Damoscene conversion, Brad allows ambition to supplant judgment and romance blossoms. The set is deliberately downscale, admirably suited to movement and far more authentic than the script. The lighting works well, but one event desperately needs the illusion of headlights. The acting throughout is first-rate, with great comic timing, and intern Bethany Eggleston is excellent as the waif, with great, darting movements. The playwright, Andrew William Librizzi, has written a comedy without including motivations. It is deftly directed by Jennifer Dean, who keeps the action moving and allows the comic timing of savvy actors to carry it. Gifted performers bring an inferior play to comic life, and gaping flaws seem not to interfere with huge audience enjoyment. Through March 17. A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721. — JJT
God of Carnage What could be better in the theater than adults behaving badly? How about four of them? And what if the two married couples, seeming normal and under control, swiftly descend into the most uncivil behavior that is also screamingly funny? Scratch these yuppies and you'll discover underneath a jungle heart of darkness. In Stark Naked Theatre's sterling production of Yasmina Reza's Tony Award winner, the laughs and the barbarity don't just come in waves, they spew. This is the fastest one and a half hours on stage, a nonstop, in-your-face comedy that doesn't blink and keeps getting more outrageous by the minute. Six Flags' cyclone is tame by comparison. The fun begins as Veronica and Michael (Kim Tobin and Drake Simpson) invite Annette and Alan (Kay Allmand and John Gremillion) over to their smartly adorned Brooklyn apartment — Jodi Bobrovsky's sleek set design abounds with animal prints, African jugs and primitive art, to seal the idea of the jungle subtext — to "talk over" their sons' playground altercation. Benjamin, Annette and Alan's son, has knocked out two of Henry's teeth, and Veronica and Michael dictate the terms of the agreement to be signed, so they hope, by the contrite visiting parents. Before the frozen smiles have a chance to fade, the play zooms off and gallops at full speed. In a series of overlapping downward spirals, like an M.C. Escher drawing, the four quickly plunge into outrageous, swinish behavior that the kids from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf would blush at. As both marriages veer out of control, insults are hurled like poisoned-tipped spears, cell phones get dunked, copious amounts of rum are drunk, a lovely display of tulips is decapitated, Veronica tackles Michael when loyalties shift tectonically, and Annette hurls all over Veronica's limited, and beloved, edition of Kokoschka prints. Middle-class values corkscrew downhill. This adult-rated Punch and Judy show wouldn't have half the punch without a four-star cast ready and willing to go for broke. Under Justin Doran's meticulously fluid direction, the ensemble quartet is pitch-perfect. High-minded and socially conscious, Tobin's Veronica can't believe that the others don't take life as seriously as she does. She's the first to crack. Simpson plays rumpled dinosaur Michael with furious sputtering, which only makes him that much more absurd. Allmand, dressed to the nines in chic red and black as Annette, has shallow down pat. Gremillion, always so memorable on the musical stage, gives master of the universe Alan, boasting and smug, a spine of sponge. Not that these defeats stop any of them from continuing the battle. As in war, alliances merge, change sides or stand stubbornly apart. If you ever thought that civility and good manners might save our world, Yasmina Reza's comedy will slap that thought right out of your head. Through March 9. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St., 832-866-6514. — DLG
The Language Archive In Julia Cho's 2009 play, an academic linguist who's immersed in the problem of languages disappearing as people cease to speak them seeks to record one that may be saved from extinction. My admiration is unbounded for Rick Silverman, playing George, the absentminded professor. Silverman manages to make his paper-thin role both interesting and likable, no mean feat, and his body language is expressive. Yet one wonders why his assistant, Emma, played convincingly by Beth Lazarou, falls in love with this older, emotionally unavailable married man. George's wife, Mary, is played by Shelley Calene-Black, in a bipolar role in which she weeps in Act One and is supremely happy in Act Two. Two minor characters are the married peasants Resten, played by James Belcher, and Alta, played by Luisa Amaral-Smith, and both are genius itself, creating memorable portraits of a loving but contentious older couple. Both Belcher and Amaral-Smith also play other characters, and do so adroitly and deftly. What's missing from the work is a coherent theme or point of view. There is window dressing — languages are dying, the aroma of freshly baked bread is enticing, communication is difficult and a stranger will give you the key to his business — but at the core there is emptiness. This stunning production is anchored by a towering set of file cabinets, which contains its own surprises, is lit brilliantly and is clothed with wit. Sally Edmundson directed, and found the humor and the pathos, and succeeded in papering over the weaknesses in the script. Brilliant actors entertain lavishly, and quick changes of subject and the continuing introduction of new characters weave a theatrical tapestry that appears enticing but leaves one hungry for a dose of reality. Through March 3. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT
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Paradise Hotel In this classic farce by the master of the genre, Georges Feydeau, co-authored by Maurice Desvallières, a successful engineer seeks to seduce the wife of his business partner, ending up in the low-rent Paradise Hotel. The lascivious engineer, Benoit Pinglet, is portrayed by Matt Severyn in a superb, dazzling performance, bursting with joie de vivre, wonderful body language, an endearing leer, and an inventive, quick-witted mind filled with schemes and deceits. The object of Pinglet's lust is Marcelle Paillardin, and Sarah Cortez is slender and beautiful, capturing a neglected woman anxious for affection but hesitant in betraying her matrimonial bonds. Pinglet's wife, Angelique, is a dominating woman, and as she's played by Shelby Blocker, we see why Pinglet is searching for romance. She towers over Pinglet, seemingly twice his size, and the casting gag works beautifully. Marcelle's husband, Henri Paillardin, is portrayed by Miguel Angel Garcia, and he is excellent, capturing the air of self-righteous propriety. The supporting cast is large and talented. Especially good is Jason Ronje as Matthieu, a visitor from Marseille who stutters when it rains, and Saurabh Pande as a bellboy has a deadpan look and comic timing that gets every laugh he's entitled to, with a few more thrown in. The script is closely plotted, paying off in an exciting, building climactic scene where things are wrapped up in a series of carefully wrought twists and surprises that astonish and delight. Thanks to brilliant direction by Gus Kaikkonen, there is a laugh every minute, unflagging energy, amusing and strongly drawn characterizations, and split-second timing, all working to perfection. This is must-see theater, and the word of mouth may spread like wildfire - get your tickets early, for the run is brief. Through March 3. Wortham Theatre, 133 Wortham, University of Houston, 713-743-2929. — JJT