Three's too much company: Mary (Christine Auten) 
    gets kisses from her husband (Corby Sullivan) and 
    from her "cowboy" (Susan O. Koozin, background) in 
    Late: A Cowboy Song.
Three's too much company: Mary (Christine Auten) gets kisses from her husband (Corby Sullivan) and from her "cowboy" (Susan O. Koozin, background) in Late: A Cowboy Song.

Songs of Himself

In 1975, Edward Kleban was riding high. As the lyricist for a huge Broadway bonanza -- a little show about dancers called A Chorus Line -- he was the toast of the Great White Way. That year Kleban won a whole slew of awards, including a Tony and a Pulitzer, and it seemed as if the songwriter, who'd been hammering away at his piano for years, had finally arrived. But sadly, that singular sensation of a show turned out to be Kleban's one and only success. Though he continued to write songs for years, at times compulsively, the writer would die of cancer in 1987 at the age of 48, never seeing another of his shows produced. He bequeathed his vault full of unproduced tunes to his friends in hopes that they'd somehow get the works on the stage. A Class Act, now running at Theater LaB, is the fulfillment of that wish.

The wonderfully tender homage that writers Linda Kline and Lonnie Price built out of Kleban's songs tells the songwriter's own story, following his often troubled life from the beginning of his career until his death. Nominated for several Tonys in 2001, the sweet musical captures the writer's phobic and often difficult personality even as it makes clear that the people who put the show together adored the demanding artist.

It begins at Kleban's wake, where the songwriter shows up as a sort ghostly apparition looking on. As his friends talk about him, his life begins to play out, starting with the time he spent in a mental hospital, where he first learned that he wanted to write songs for the theater.


A Class Act and Late: A Cowboy Song

A Class Act: Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Late: A Cowboy Song: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

A Class Act: Through June 26. $23.

Late: A Cowboy Song: Through June 19. $25-$35.

From this revelation, the story moves through Kleban's tumultuous ups and downs, using the songs he wrote years earlier to illuminate his interior life. Given that the music and the story were stitched together in such an unlikely way, the show is surprisingly coherent. Its songs cover Kleban's sexual escapades ("Mona"), his bouts with lost love ("The Next Best Thing to Love") and the drudgery of making a living when he'd rather be making music ("Gauguin's Shoes").

One of the best tunes in Theater LaB's production is "Paris Through the Window," a whimsically nostalgic song about looking back to sweeter days. It will remind anyone familiar with A Chorus Line that Kleban was especially good at writing songs that make the heart shiver.

A good part of what makes this song and so many others effective is David Wald, who plays the difficult Kleban with a warm, rich voice and a glowing personality. He's supported by a strong ensemble put together by director Jimmy Phillips. Especially good are Holland Vavra and Josh Wright, who play two of Kleban's loyal friends.

Running at well over two hours, the show could use some major editing. But since these songs have spent so much time lingering in the dark, perhaps they deserve a few extra moments under the bright lights of the stage. Mary in the Middle

She's just 30, but Sarah Ruhl is already a rising star of the American theater. The playwright won several major awards in 2004, and this year she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. So it was with great anticipation that in-the-know Houstonians awaited the premiere of her most recent work, Late: A Cowboy Song, at Stages Repertory Theatre this past weekend.

Ruhl has called Late a "meditation," and indeed, a contemplative quiet runs throughout this play, about a woman named Mary (Christine Auten) who is late to everything. Most of all, she's late discovering that perhaps she doesn't love her husband, Crick (Corby Sullivan), the way she ought to. Mary's frustrated life is filled with banal holidays and birthdays and deep kisses from her goofy husband. But what she wants most is to spend time with a woman named Red (Susan O. Koozin), who calls herself a cowboy, spends her days outside Pittsburgh riding the range and carries a guitar so she can sing cowboy songs when the moment's right.

Throughout the two-act play, Mary spends her days and nights slipping back and forth between jealous Crick and easygoing Red -- she eats Chinese food with Red, kisses Crick on the couch, dances with Red under the stars and stares in quiet awe at the glowing factories in the distance once she gets outside of town with Red. Crick gets increasingly jealous, as he should, given Mary's flirtatious infatuation with Red. He also seems to gets increasingly violent. But the actual conflict in the play is difficult to pinpoint in all the discussions these characters have about art (Crick loves paintings) and horses (Red loves to ride). Issues of sexuality also arise when Crick and Mary have a baby and the newborn's sex is indeterminate (this is not, however, the major focus of the play).

There's such a vapory mystery to Mary's story, it's hard to know how to feel about it. It's clear throughout that she's unhappy. But as played by the lovely Auten, Mary is mostly a cipher without much of a core. She lets Crick and Red tell her how to feel. It's hard to care much when, in the end, she finally makes a decision about her life. And while Rob Bundy's direction uses the stage with artful grace, it doesn't help to clarify the emotional conflict at the center of the play. This show will leave audience members wishing they'd gotten to see The Clean House, the play that sent Ruhl's star shooting so high.


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