Stage Capsule Reviews

Design for Living Nol Coward's Design for Living (1933) can be neatly summed up by Leo, one of the trio of main characters, as he explains the situation to Gilda: "The actual facts are so simple. I love you. You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me. There now! Start to unravel from there." Coward's clear-eyed look at a mnage trois and how natural such an arrangement can be was a scandalous affair at its Broadway premiere -- the hottest ticket in town, with Coward costarring with legendary married acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. (London had to wait until 1939, when Lord Chamberlain okayed Design.) The play hasn't lost one glimmer of its trenchant humor, sending off sparks of wit as if its atypical love triangle were encased in sequins. Gilda (Shannon Emerick, sleek and poised like an Ert sculpture) is the artistic catalyst for Leo (Dwight Clark, exuding youthful sexiness) and Otto (Ilich Guardiola, dapper and insouciant). She positively can not do without them, nor they without her, nor they without each other. Their bedroom repositioning throughout the comedy only reinforces what they have all realized from the beginning: The three of them are a unit -- inseparable, and to hell with convention. The bohemian life has never seemed so right and true as when Coward's patented banter is bandied about by these three pros. The dream Deco settings by Troy Scheid, the radiantly apt period costumes by Margaret Crowley and the swanky, white-tie-and-tails direction by Claire Hart-Palumbo present this Design in a memorable showcase fit for Tiffany. Through June 3. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.

It Could Be Any One of Us English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has to be one of history's most prolific writers for the stage. As of last count, there are 70 attributed works. Ayckbourn loves to play with theatrical structure, usually with simultaneous action that occurs in two places at the same time, accomplished via split-level sets or the mind-bending feat of two plays running concurrently. The farces are sidesplittingly funny, not only because of their jigsaw plots but also because the audience knows what physical stunts are being performed backstage to keep the plays running smoothly. His plays are deftly, dizzyingly constructed. So when Ayckbourn wrote a murder mystery in 1983, it was no surprise it wasn't like anyone else's. He took the classic plot (everyone in a lonely country house has a motive for knocking off a despised brother), added truly quirky characters and then tweaked it so that any one of the actors could be revealed as the murderer at each specific performance if they drew the right card during their Act I card game. That means that all the actors must remember at least five separate versions of their lines. Company OnStage's able-handed mechanics relish Ayckbourn's challenge and run with it. Best among the sextet are Jim Allman (as weird, childlike brother Brinton, a failed painter who has yet to finish a picture) and Ananka Kohnitz (as bottled-up sister Jocelyn, a failed writer who has yet to finish a book). There's a real person behind Kohnitz's breathy delivery and tightly-buttoned sweaters, someone with a life when the character exits offstage. She and Allman supply all the necessary quirks and finely hewn shading to keep us guessing -- and Ayckbourn gently smiling with appreciation. Through June 9. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) How many times have you been disappointed when a play was over, wanting it to go on and on? Not many, right? Well, this divinely inspired show at Theater LaB Houston has only one appropriate response: frenzied shouts of "Encore!" The play has a hackneyed plot: Naive, in-love heroine must pay the rent, but she doesn't have it, and if she doesn't pay up, the lecherous landlord will take her in lieu of money. No matter, that's not the divinely-inspired part, which is the telling of this tale in five different ways, as if it were five different Broadway musicals written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander and Ebb. Musical spoofs their styles, kicks them in the ass, pokes them in the eye and makes fun of them -- in short, it creates five wicked parodies that are a slice of Broadway heaven. Composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart lovingly screw them all to hilarious effect. Even with only a passing knowledge of musical lore, you'll still find plenty of humor in the silliness: What the hell is a cowboy "dream ballet" anyway, and what's it doing in an Oklahoma corn field? Why is everybody in Sondheim so angry and full of angst? Why is Jerry Herman so gay? Is Andrew Lloyd Webber receiving royalty checks from the estate of Puccini? Would there be Kander and Ebb without Bob Fosse's pelvis? These and other pressing issues will be answered in full. On the other hand, if you do know the difference between Irving Berlin and Berlin, Germany, then you'll eat up this delicious confection with a spoon! The musical crazies include director/choreographer Jimmy Phillips (brilliant), Haley Dyes (inspired), Dylan Godwin (pipes of gold), Melodie Smith (brilliant, inspired and golden pipes), and musical director Steven Jones (hands of gold). Through June 9. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.


Design for Living, It Could Be Any One of Us, The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) and Twenty Love Songs

Twenty Love Songs Infernal Bridegroom Productions' Tamarie Cooper spent a decade accumulating fans with her hilariously silly Tamalalia series. When it ended, summers didn't feel the same. But now Cooper has come up with a new concept-driven piece, a "variety show" called Twenty Love Songs. And though this new idea is not nearly as well developed as her Tamalalias, fans will recognize her supreme sense of the bizarre in the new show. Despite the title, much of this is not musical. In fact, the funniest piece, called "Young Love," features Cooper and Jennifer Mathieu Blessington perched on barstools at either end of the stage reading from their teenage diaries. It's a riot of sweet humor. But while some scenes are hysterical, others are just head-scratchers. In a skit called "(An Untitled Skit about a Woman's Complex Relationship With her Vibrator)," a woman's vibrator comes to life and tells her all about his love of demolition derbies. Other problems happen when the material gets sentimental, as when Blessington later reads from her grown-up diary in "The Most Important Thing," about Blessington's middle school students, who are going through what she did as a girl. Had Cooper and company cut Twenty Love Songs to one hour, it would be a great activity for a weekend night. But as it is, too much of the show isn't nearly as good as what we all know Cooper is capable of producing. Through June 9. The Axiom, 2525 McKinney, 713-522-8443.


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