Mrs. Toothe (Jackie Pender-Lovell, right) makes Jenny (Elizabeth Marshall Black) an offer she can't refuse.
Mrs. Toothe (Jackie Pender-Lovell, right) makes Jenny (Elizabeth Marshall Black) an offer she can't refuse.
Courtesy of Theatre Southwest

Indecent Proposal

Edward Albee's adaptation of Englishman Giles Cooper's snake-in-the-garden black comedy, Everything in the Garden, is, perhaps, the most satisfying evening in the theater in a long time — not just at Theatre Southwest, which is having a banner season, but anywhere else in town. Garden is a ripping good show, one of Albee's most entertaining, if almost completely unknown, works.

Eyebrows arched high like St. Louis's Gateway, hair elegantly coiffed, and poised to a fault, Jackie Pender-Lovell as Mrs. Toothe drips sophistication. She is utterly in control and controlling, fascinating to behold and terrifying to contemplate. You don't mess with her.

This formidable woman arrives unbidden into the middle-class suburban home of Richard and Jenny (Kevin Daugherty and Elizabeth Marshall Black, perfect exemplars of your average American Albee couple) while they're comically bewailing their lack of money. It's all about keeping up appearances in '60s American suburbia. Prim and proper, she settles in on the couch, crosses her legs just so and makes an offer to Jenny that she can't refuse, her voice oozing honeyed charm and class. Work for me, she purrs, and you'll have all the money you want. Problem is: Richard is stuck in middle-class morality and will not abide a working wife.


Everything in the Garden

Through April 28. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. $14-$16.

Don Carlos

Through April 28. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. $38-$303.

Crisp and efficient, Mrs. Toothe is Albee's dea ex machina. When a package containing $4,900 is anonymously sent to Richard — and stuffed into the clock, secreted in the desk, found in the sewing basket — Richard gets suspicious, then apoplectic. Good wife Jenny (amazingly handled by Black with equal amounts dizziness and aplomb) is too honest to deny that, yes indeed, the money is hers, or theirs, and that she's earned it by moonlighting for Mrs. Toothe. What's wrong with that?

Rich neighbor Jack (Brian Heaton in world-weary mode), who has the hots for Jenny but is always too drunk and dissolute to do anything about it, is Albee's Greek chorus, addressing us directly about what's going to happen and why. He narrates in a martini-dry tone, but there are things even he doesn't know about this peaceful little community where everything seems so normal. Comfortably detailed in John Stevens's set design, Jenny and Richard's home is airy and uncluttered, a wide-open space for goblins to enter and make mischief.

Albee, the dean of living American playwrights, makes Cooper's 1962 play uniquely his own: bitchy and mordant, utterly theatrical, painful and poignantly true. Under Mimi Holloway's ultra-smart direction, the ensemble cast sparkles as if lit from within. They play Albee like Coward, which brings out the wicked fun, but when things turn serious, they know exactly how to land the punches for maximum damaging effect.

Albee should be immensely pleased to see that Everything in the Garden blooms so fine and fair...and thoroughly crooked.

Must-Hear Verdi

In HGO's production of Giuseppe Verdi's "grand opera" masterpiece, Don Carlos (1867) — commissioned for Paris, which liked its Second Empire productions big and long — it's the magnificent singing and conducting that can rightly be called grand. The rest of this co-production, borrowed from Welsh National Opera and Canadian Opera, is cramped and unimpressive. There's nothing grand about it.

Fortunately, Verdi's exquisitely expressive and powerful music, realized by ideal casting and the sure guiding hand of maestro Patrick Summers, soars magnificently above an impoverished design, including an "auto-da-fé" scene that should be DeMillean in its visual splendor, but here is rendered in meager strokes. The unfortunate heretics, like herring, are smoked, not burned.

The best ensemble acting on any Houston stage right now is to be found at HGO. For that, director John Caird, a Tony winner for Broadway classics Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby, is responsible. But he's also responsible for the overall non-period look (although you probably wouldn't be far off if you guessed Spanish Civil War) and the questionable ending, against Verdi's specific instructions.

Carlos (tenor Brandon Jovanovich), heir to the throne of Spain, and Elisabeth (soprano Tamara Wilson), princess of France, are separated as soon as they fall in love. To broker peace between their warring countries, she is given to Carlos's father, King Philip II (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), the despotic ruler of Spain who is quashing a rebellion in occupied Flanders, fomented by Carlos's best friend Rodrigue (baritone Scott Hendricks). Phillip in turn has a mistress, Princess Eboli (mezzo Christine Goerke), who's jealous of Elisabeth's arrival and secretly in love with Carlos, too. The entire realm is under the sadistic influence of the church, represented by the blind, unyielding Grand Inquisitor (bass Samuel Ramey).

The whole panoply moves swiftly, even at four hours, because the six main characters are delineated so fully, in both drama and music. The singers are incomparable. Looking every inch the rebellious heartthrob, Jovanovich is ardent and impulsive as Verdi's hero. Wilson has never been better. Her Elisabeth is elegantly phrased, and the role fits her rich, plangent voice like a tailored gown. Goerke is a phenomenon as Eboli, delivering her showstopping aria "O Don Fatale" with volcanic ease. With his cavernous voice, Silvestrelli reveals Phillip as tyrant and, ironically, a man just looking for a little love. Hendricks relishes the impassioned heart within rebel Rodrigue, while Ramey is chilling as his dastardly Grand Inquisitor character, turning this frightening churchman into wily foe.

Throughout, the voices and Summers's orchestra swell forth in magnificence. For operaphiles, this original French version — which is sort of an urtext, although there are about nine versions Verdi reworked over 20 years — is, if not a must-see, a definite must-hear. Aurally, Verdi doesn't get any better.


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