Style Pile

Razzle, fizzle: The actors -- here, Steve Garfinkel, Laurie Scott and Nicholas Collins -- are all good, but they seem to be from different plays.
Doug Killgore

Most of Tom Stoppard's lesser works beat the best works of his contemporaries. The playwright is engaged in a lifelong affair with the English language -- puns, word games, linguistic curlicues and wonderfully windy monologues dance through his plays as high and low art mix with a knowing, sly wink. Yes, Stoppard's cool sophistication, reserve and intellectual cuteness can be off-putting, and his works have been criticized for their chill and lack of heart, but the power in his best plays -- The Real Thing, The Invention of Love, Travesties -- as well as screenplays Shakespeare in Love and Brazil, is undeniable. His theatrical facility and verbal quickness leave us breathless. If plot and character sometimes seem diffuse or sketchy, one thing's certain: Stoppard's always drunk on words.

On the Razzle is lesser Stoppard. Unfortunately, here he's not only drunk on words but just plain drunk.

An adaptation of many earlier adaptations (which finally morphed into Jerry Herman's classic musical Hello, Dolly), On the Razzle tells the tale of two employees of a miserly and lecherous boss who run off to the big city for a day -- and night, they hope. Travesties ensue.


On the Razzle and Steel Magnolias

On the Razzle: Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

Steel Magnolias: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-238-8421.

On the Razzle: through June 5. $13-$30.

Steel Magnolias: through June 5. $35-$54.

The play does showcase Stoppard's unique verbal filigree and love of low comedy, but it's a farcical grab bag -- there are so many different styles here that ultimately there is no style. There's no consistency, and less cohesion. When you have slapstick, groaning puns, men in bad drag, a talking parrot, a butt-obsessed coachman, an obsequious butler, trapdoors, a folding screen, an imaginary horse, lonely-hearts ads and Verdi's Macbeth -- and that's just a touch of the nonsense in this whirling dervish -- what do you emphasize, Monty Python or Noel Coward?

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Director Robert de los Reyes paints everything with broad strokes, leaving the cast adrift. That they never find land isn't entirely their fault; they're all good, but they seem to be from different plays. Steve Garfinkel bellows perfectly as the bourgeois, malapropian buffoon Zangler; Joel Sandel and Mark Roberts capture the employees' wicked glee at fleeing to the big city; Kregg Alan Dailey is Webster's definition of a valet's superciliousness; Carolyn Johnson has the right uppercrust attitude as Mrs. Fischer; Katharine Randolph supplies all the hot sauce necessary for the French maid; Sheryl Croix is comically flummoxed as Zangler's overtaxed housekeeper.

"I'm not the woman you think I am," proclaims a disguised Roberts in falsetto from under a tartan cape. "I'm not even the woman you think is the woman you think I am." If this sort of thing tickles you, you'll have a fine time going on the razzle. If hoary farce curls your toes, take your feet elsewhere.

Steel Sass

If you've got a hankering for green beans stewed in lard, or you're a sucker for Hallmark cards, or you like your entertainment dolled up with clouds of hairspray and trowelfuls of blue eye shadow, then here's a play for you: that phenomenally popular, crowd-pleasing chick play deluxe, Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias. The Alley production, smartly directed by Tony winner Judith Ivey (last seen here as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), gives this velvet painting of a comedy the sheen of a Rembrandt.

Built to be lovable, the play is shameless in its manipulation. There's no doubt about its enduring appeal -- audience members whispering their favorite lines seconds before the actors recite them is testament to its universal allure. The uncanny ability to tap into some kind of primal viewer response is a rare gift. We immediately love these six Louisiana curler cuties. They bitch, sass, prop each other up when down and spew genuinely hilarious wisecracks and epigrams in an ungodly mix of Eudora Welty and Neil Simon. They don't change over time, or even want to get from A to B. The only real action in the play: What's going to happen to pretty-in-pink Shelby? Will she get married, get pregnant, have the baby? And what about that nasty kidney dialysis? Throughout the play, the interlocking friends -- and one new one, scared rabbit Annelle -- continue their hand-holding at Truvy's garage beauty parlor. But we know them no better at the end of the play than we did at first entrance. It's all surface: brilliantine and lacquer.

Steel Magnolias may lack depth, but Harling has certainly written six juicy roles, and the Alley actors lovingly squeeze them dry. Annalee Jefferies (Truvy) is Tabasco outside but toasty marshmallow inside. Elizabeth Bunch (born-again Annelle) skitters like a cricket on a skillet. Melissa Hart (Clairee, the first lady of Chinquapin) exudes patrician sass. Charlotte Booker (control-freak mother M'Lynn) is tightly wound until her magnificent Act II meltdown. Christian Corp (Shelby) twinkles bravely as the life force drains out of her. Bettye Fitzpatrick (the cantankerous Ouiser) sparkles and has one hell of a time playing this wickedly funny biddy.

The delightfully tacky, thick production design by Hugh Landwehr (sets) and Andrea Lauer (costumes) depicts these Southern belles better than the playwright. You'll laugh, you'll cry, then you'll laugh again. Sometimes, that's all we need.

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