Stage Capsule Reviews

An American Brat Anyone who thinks the generation gap closed way back in the 1970s needs a ticket to Bapsi Sidhwa's hilarious new play An American Brat. Based on the writer's novel of the same title, the charming story, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre, demonstrates how wide that chasm remains. In Sidhwa's tale, parents Zareen (Rahnuma Panthaky) and Cyrus (Sundy Srinivasan) send their daughter Feroza (Arzan Gonda) to the United States because Mom worries that daughter is becoming too influenced by fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan. But they never expected Feroza to fall for a nice American boy -- a nice American Jewish boy. And when Feroza does just that, Zareen embarks on a journey that will change both her and her daughter's lives forever. While a lot of this is laugh-out-loud funny, the real strength in this production lies in its subtle shift from comedy to drama. The writing, the direction and the strong cast all contribute to this shift. But Panthaky's Zareen, beautiful, tender and frighteningly powerful after all is said and done, is particularly impressive, as is Gonda's Feroza. And Brad Dalton's direction is layered and artful. What starts out as a funny look at the gap between generations turns into a moving examination of the way those gaps contort lives and contribute to the seemingly everlasting boundaries that keep cultures and religions apart. Through March 25. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

A Flea in her Ear Georges Feydeau's sparkling bauble of a comedy -- the mother of all French farces -- loses much of its glitter in Playhouse 1960's flat-footed production. Maybe it's the leaden translation, which saps the original wit out of this classic; perhaps it's the production's overheated tone that causes this airy souffl to fall; or it might be the uneven cast, who seem dazed and confused when it should be their characters who are at wit's end. For certain, though, what works is Mack Hays's pitch-perfect portrayal of harried husband Monsieur Chandel and Brian Heaton's lisping Camille. Seeing the pizzazz flee her bedroom, and assuming it's because her husband is having an affair, Mrs. Chandel sends him an anonymous love letter asking for a rendezvous in order to catch him in the act. Since this is a classic setup for a sex farce, everything that could possibly go wrong with her plan does. Doors slam, walls with attached beds revolve, mistaken identities abound, sexual consummations go unconsummated and, for an extra measure of hilarity, Monsieur Chandel has an identical twin who works at the bordello where the assignation is to take place. Old as it may be, this classic contraption should work on autopilot, flying along at breakneck speed, the faster the better so as not to allow the audience to think too much. As if the stage were spread with glue, this production, once mired, never gets off the ground. Through March 31. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone "Everybody has to find his own song...when a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it, till he find out he's got it with him all the time." So states old lame shaman Bynum Walker (a phenomenal Wayne DeHart) to whoever will listen at the 1911 Pittsburgh boardinghouse where August Wilson's compelling drama occurs. To practical homeowner Seth (Byron Jacquet), this is all so much "heebie-jeebies" stuff, while Seth's wife Bertha (BeBe Wilson) sees no harm in Bynum's pigeon sacrifices and loopy dances at dawn. Naive country boy Jeremy (Broderick Jones), fresh to the big Northern city, wants the good life and the loose women who go along with it and pays no mind to Bynum's warnings. New tenant Mattie (Autumn Knight) wants Bynum to "fix it" and find her man, who walked out on her. Meanwhile, Bynum's charms and spells frighten sexy, headstrong Molly (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), who doesn't want to be tied down to any man. And then there's Loomis (Timothy Eric Dickson), foreboding and grim with voice to match, who's on a quest to find the wife who abandoned him when he was illegally sent to a chain gang for seven years. Wilson supplies haunting poetry, gorgeous melody and magic realism to his characters, who have been displaced from their Southern roots. They're all searching for something, and it's the individual's quest effortlessly morphed into the universal that gives this play its magnificent resonance. In Ensemble Theatre's masterful hands, this powerful, mesmerizing drama sings out loud and proud and beautiful. It's a Houston theatrical event not to be missed. Through April 8. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.


An American Brat

Of Mice and Men If you want living proof of the Depression, cast your gaze to Country Playhouse and look upon Allen Dorris as beaten-down George in John Steinbeck's elemental tale of hardship and friendship on the migrant farms around Salinas, California, in the 1930s. He's the epitome of a Walker Evans or Dorothea Lang photograph come to life. The color of blown-away dust, Dorris slouches on stage in battered fedora and worn overalls as if kicked one too many times. His voice is caked in mud, too, gravelly but resonant. His is the best George I've ever seen on stage. There's still a core of goodness and strength within him even though he can't stop the battering life gives him. Through it all, he dreams of owning a little farm -- that precious dream of the future is about all he's got left, except for Lennie (Martin Estridge), of course, the "slow," oversize, powerful man/boy George looks after. They're quite a team, these two mismatched loners and drifters, working in the field for a few dollars before Lennie unintentionally mucks things up and the pair's got to get the hell out of there. "God, you're a lot of trouble," George chastises the big lug. "You keep me in hot water all the time." But George would never desert him -- how could he? They're one and the same. George may not have anything but dreams, but he's got his honor and his word, and that, Steinbeck implies, is the meaning of a man, no matter what vexations are set against him. Within this almost woeful Biblical story, it's a woman (Julie Thornley), the sexy new wife of the farm's foreman, who's the cause of their downfall. Dreams can't save any of them. Through March 31. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers The best you could say about Theatre Under the Stars's stage adaptation of the burly 1954 MGM musical is that it's harmless. This lackluster, tired and predictable version has been on life support since 1982, when it opened and closed on Broadway after five performances. You'd think the producers would've had mercy and pulled the plug, but they persevered and kept tinkering -- and this is what their years of persistent toil have produced? I doubt the original show could have been any less distinctive. Certainly, the film was no great shakes to begin with, except for the incredibly muscular choreography by Michael Kidd, which -- to eternal consternation -- was discarded for the stage, replaced by Patti Colombo's lukewarm routines, which have no life or character in them. Come to think of it, none of the seven brides or brothers has any life or character in them, either. From the goofy outdoorsman trying to act dignified after decorum lessons from feisty first bride Milly (Michelle Dawson, a Miss Manners in buckskin), the brothers are absolutely the same down the line. Same holds for the brides, who first squeal at the men's pursuit, then give in so languidly. Trying to give a semblance of drama to this wispy frontier comedy, soaring pop anthems have been tacked onto the original dePaul and Mercer score, but they only trip up the musical's meager momentum. The show's most memorable features are its grand and clever settings and costumes. Through March 25. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

Valhalla "I believe that the world should be beautiful." No, that's not Blanche DuBois sighing so plaintively -- it's mad, gay King Ludwig of Bavaria (Godfrey Plata) pleading for not only beauty but lots more gold lam, in Paul Rudnick's politically incorrect phantasmagoria, presently on delightful view thanks to Joe Watts's Theatre New West. In Rudnick's madcap whirl, Ludwig isn't really mad, but my, oh my, is he gay. The terribly misunderstood king goes from dreaming of castles in the air to actually building them. "You're no good at reality; go mad," he's advised by hunchbacked princess Sophie (Beth DeLozier), who then offhandedly adds, "I wish I could shrug." Parallel to Ludwig's witty, wicked story is that of James (the ultra-smooth Houston Hayes), a gay boy from small-town Texas who dreams of "out there," a place to find happiness. While his sexual adventures include true love Henry Lee (John Dunn) and a pre-wedding fling with Henry's fiance, James reaches an apotheosis on army patrol at Neuschwanstein, Ludwig's rococo wet-dream of a castle. Underscored by the radiant operatic strains of Wagner (although smoother sound mixing would immensely enhance the mood), the two men's tales coalesce in a grand fantasy where a modern yenta tour guide (Holly Wilkison) yammers hilariously about Ludwig's plush, erotic subterranean surroundings as "Bed, Bath and Beyond." The young, talented cast of six (including Michael Shukis) plays with effortless guile. Realize your dreams, says Rudnick. No matter how nuts they may seem to others, they're the only road to happiness. It's a premise that holds true for anyone, not just mad kings and sexy bad boys from Texas. Through March 31. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-522-2204.


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