The setup: The Back Porch Players makes a welcome return to a full season of productions with Woody Allen's two one-act comedies God and Death. God begins as a satire on Greek playwrights but quickly segues into a take-no-prisoners comedy complete with anachronisms, and missing only pratfalls. Death is a Kafka-esque take as an Everyman figure is bewildered by a middle-of-the-night assignment to help capture a homicidal maniac.
The execution: This production is the first in the handsome new theater at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance, and the sets for both plays are functional and crisp, and fit in beautifully with the elegant, understated decor. God is a vehicle for gags, some predictable and some heavy-handed, but achieves real humor in some surprising interaction with the audience, as well as rumination on whether the audience itself in an illusion -- except for the fat man in the third row.
David Wald plays the lead role of an actor playing a slave quite content with his lot in life. His role is to carry the narrative and Wald does that entertainingly, but a master of physical humor (which Wald is not) might have made more of it. The Greek playwright is portrayed by Neal Gage, and he captures perturbation and petulance, though his lust seems pedestrian. Brooke Singer is wonderfully funny as a philosophy major, and the large cast of 17 meshes well, but the entire effect is that of a souffle which has not quite risen to expectations.
Death is quite another matter, as Benito Vasquez commands the stage -- often alone on it -- in a brilliant portrayal of a well-intentioned human caught in a web of someone else's contrivance, anxious to escape or to do the right thing -- if only someone would tell him what that is. He only knows that he is part of a mob intent on capturing a maniac. Vasquez makes you care enormously about his lot, sharing with us his angst, while his nuanced voice and expressive body language permit us to savor a master at work. Jarred Tettey is wonderful as a doctor, James Monaghan is convincing and engaging as the maniac, and Matt Benton has an exciting star turn in a blond wig with some classy arabesques thrown in. Death, it turns out, can be a whole lot of fun, especially as ably directed by Nicholas Collins.
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The verdict: Two rarely produced gems from a master provide an evening of comic irreverence and surprising insights that make for a perfect pairing. The run is short but the pleasure long -- see it if you can.
Through August 18, Back Porch Players, Houston Ballet Center, 601 Preston, 1-800-494-8497./em>