The Clean House Truly fine in so many ways, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is thrilling, surprising and artful. The lovely comedy/drama actually lives up to all the hype it's gotten since it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. And the Alley Theatre has created a moving, inventive production that's one of the best nights of theater offered anywhere this season. Every character is a joy. The story opens with Matilde (Josie de Guzman), a Brazilian maid who hates to clean and would rather be telling jokes. Her harried employer Lane (Elizabeth Heflin) is a doctor who doesn't have time to clean her own house. Lane's sister Virginia (Annalee Jefferies) loves to scrub, saying, "If you don't clean, how do you know you're making any progress?" This strange group creates the core of Ruhl's wonderful tale of love and death. And yes, for all the talk about cleaning, this is ultimately a story about love and death. Swirling in the background are Matilde's much adored but very dead parents and Lane's estranged husband, along with his wacky lover (all four of these oddballs are played with charming passion by Paul Hope and Karmn Murcelo). Ruhl's wonderful writing is rich with gorgeous lines that send chills up your arms for all their truth. And the stunning performances from every actor make the entire theater radiate with talent. David Cromer's direction is often magical -- images that live in the characters' heads float around the stage in cloud-like projections. He finds that perfectly timed space between humor and grief that makes this play such a treat. Through May 27. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
The Dispute Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux is now recognized as France's greatest playwright of the 18th century -- the 17th belongs to Molire. Known at the time as the leading playwright for the farcical Comdie-Italienne, the playful rival to the staid Comdie-Franaise, Marivaux wrote a play a year for the Parisian home of Commedia dell'arte, filling the house with witty banter and plenty of bons mots while also infusing his one great theme, young love, with gentle philosophizing. His work was singularly his own and somewhat unappreciated during his life, mostly because his verbal style proved difficult to copy. The Dispute, his minor masterpiece from 1744 that's been given a sprightly staging by Theatre Collide, has repartee to spare and a nasty premise. To settle a longstanding dispute over whether man or woman betrays love first, the Prince (Brandon Hobratschk) raises four young people in total isolation from the world (and each other) and then releases them into a Garden of Eden setting to see what happens. Solitary narcissism leads to sexual awakening, then there's the bliss of discovering first love, declarations of fidelity, pangs of remorse at separation, contrary emotions when fresh faces are discovered and jealousy and betrayal when those new faces appear fresher than those original ones. In Marivaux, everyone commits infidelity equally, and the human heart can't be tamed. The fresh young actors (Kate Flanagan, Trevor Pittinger, Natalie Navar, Ronnie Williams) imbue these French original sinners with healthy, newly-scrubbed abandon, and the former Heights arts foundry serves as a funky garden setting. Through May 20. 602 W. 26th St., 713-528-5108.
The Lower Depths After seeing Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov's most famous play in dos chicas theater commune's stirring rendition, you can tell why he used the pen name Maxim Gorky ("bitter"). This drama is a harrowing view of society's most unfortunate. Crammed into a filthy basement apartment, the derelicts on display have no room at all to keep their personal demons at bay. At the mercy of a greedy landlord and his equally rapacious wife, the men and women consume themselves and each other with animal fury, pumped up with vodka and unattainable dreams. They yearn to escape, to "get away," but no one does -- except into the oblivion of death and disease. They rage at life as they gamble and drink away the few pennies they have, which only fuels more heated arguments, lies and mocking dreams of former loves. When a new boarder, mysterious old Laca (Lee Finch), tries to give them optimistic counsel and spiritual guidance, none of the lowlifes has the strength to battle the unyielding specter of bleak fate. They live by failing; they thrive on it; it's all they know. Gorky paints his pre-Revolution Russia with vivid strokes of inky black and sooty gray; devoid of color, his characters have had the life drained out of them. This unapologetic drama was quite a shocker in 1902 at the Moscow Art Theatre, already known for its psychologically probing productions of Chekhov and Tolstoy, and it's still a shock today. In its unflinching portrait of squalor and human misery, love is degraded, goodness is mocked and life is living death. Under Mark Carrier's piercing direction, the huge cast, especially the men and Donna Kay Yarborough (the dying Anna), mesh into an ensemble of dangerous desperation and fleeting alcoholic joy. John Dunn (unemployed locksmith Klestch), Brian Nichols (blackmailing lover Vassily), Jeremy Carlson (drunken musician Alyoshka), Wilson Limpo (street thug Satin) and Mike Switzer (dyspeptic Actor -- he's so sick, he can't remember his name) contribute immensely to the haunting Russian gloom. Through May 19. Freneticore Theater, 5102 Navigation. 832-283-0858.
The Clean House
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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.