Capsule Stage Reviews: The First Church of Texaco, The Language Archive, True West

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

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

True West There are two brothers. Each wants what the other has. By the end of the play, they've switched roles, but the family dynamic remains the same. Sam Shepard uses this simple premise to spin a tale with mesmerizing archetypes that go far beyond family. In a superb rendition from Country Playhouse, brothers Austin (Sam Martinez) and Lee (Bryan Maynard) are total opposites, one neat and fussy, the other slovenly and ready to pounce. Austin's married with kids, but the lure of Hollywood's good life goads him onward. For all his protests, he really wants something else. Lee's a lot more dangerous, with a threat of violence and distemper simmering right on the surface that disquiets workaholic Austin, who's trying to finish a treatment he can sell to his producer Saul (Scott Holmes, perfect as an opportunistic and oily example of moviedom). Lee keeps interrupting, spraying beer all over, and yelling at the annoying crickets and coyotes outside the door. He's a petty thief and a loner, having just spent three months in the desert because he can't do anything else. When he glad-hands Saul on the golf course and tells him his screenplay idea for a new western, the brothers suddenly flip roles. If Austin will agree to collaborate — Lee can't type and can barely spell — what a combo they'll make. When fortune turns, though, so does Austin. Shepard keeps this boozy night spinning just this side of out-of-control. It's poetic in its debauchery and deeply moving in its depiction of these pathetic souls who can't break from their family ties. It's a finely balanced juggling act, comic one moment, tragic the next. Watch and laugh at how a drunk Martinez spins his feet on the linoleum floor trying to get hold of the kitchen chair to sit down, then catch that laughter as his frame turns limp and defeated while he delivers a striking monologue about his alcoholic dad losing his teeth on a trip to Mexico. It's a definite star turn, shades upon shades. With his deep baritone, Maynard growls with seething discontent as Lee, the showier of the two characters. On constant boil, he's ready to scald. When he drapes an arm over Austin's shoulder and draws him close, you instinctively cringe that he'll sock him, not comfort him. The two actors play off each other like flints, sending out sparks that threaten to combust Mom's kitchen, while keeping oblivious Mom (Julie Oliver) at arm's length. Director Debra Schultz plays up the comedy and the danger with finesse, and we're never quite sure what's going to happen between the brothers or how we should react. Setting them on firm ground, she lets her actors go and they run trippingly through Shepard, showering us with hot cinders. Through February 23. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

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