A Classic Mistake

Main Street Theater's latest offering is simply a tough play to like. Frederick Lonsdale's 1927 On Approval takes us to a rarefied universe that hardly seems relevant to current American audiences. It's a place where snooty dukes recline across silk-covered chaise lounges, wealthy grandes dames in diamonds whine about the servants, grown men who live on "allowances" sip whiskey highballs while smoking fat brown cigars, and everybody has so much time on their soft white hands that they have to cook up cockamamy ideas about their dreary love lives just to provide some entertainment.

Even worse, the story surrounding these wealthy whiners feels unfinished. The first act takes a long time to set up the very silly conflict. Helen (Kara Greenberg) and Maria (Leslie Maness) swoop into the drawing room dressed in glittering gowns, discussing the men they've just dined with: George, the Duke of Bristol (Joel Sandel), is wild, spoiled and demanding -- like middle-aged Maria. Handsome, gray-haired bachelor Richard (David Downing), on the other hand, is kind and patient -- much like the lovely and long-suffering Helen.

Unfortunately, opposites attract. Maria thinks her male counterpart is an insufferable boor; instead, she and tenderhearted Richard decide to spend a month together in a Scotland summer home where they can try out married life before committing to it. Helen and George agree to come along just for the fun of it.

The show finally kicks into high gear when the foursome arrives on foreign soil. There are some funny moments in these scenes, and director Claire Hart-Palumbo makes the most of them. Maria and George turn out to be big babies (surprise), capable of running off all the servants with their endless demands. They also manage to scare off Richard and Helen, both of whom come to the conclusion that they couldn't possibly marry these tyrants.

Maness and Sandel are clearly having the time of their lives playing spoiled rich folks who stomp about when the butter is all eaten and the newspaper doesn't come on time. Greenberg is charming as the levelheaded Helen, who keeps her sense of humor as she schemes to teach Maria and George a lesson. Downing is also appealing as the sad-sack Richard, who finally discovers that Maria is a brat not fit to marry anyone.

But just when the story gets interesting, it ends. We never get to see what comes from Helen and Richard's whispered plans for payback. In fact, the story ends so abruptly that it's a complete surprise when the actors come out to take their bows.

It's no wonder that Lonsdale's scripts are rarely produced anymore. The writer enjoyed brief fame in the 1920s, but the world he wrote about now feels about as vital as Masterpiece Theatre -- less so, even. Main Street prides itself on introducing "classics" to Houston audiences, but Lonsdale's scattershot script is no classic; it's just old.

Theatre New West developed a campy show last spring that they called Dirty Little Showtunes. Written by Tom Orr, the revue riffed off well-known musicals, changing familiar song lyrics to make them about everything gay. Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," already a gay anthem of sorts, was an especially big hit as a screed against gay bumper stickers and the commercialization of gay identity. But most of all, the showtunes made naughty fun of stereotypical elements of the gay lifestyle, from leather bars to bath houses. And the mostly gay male audiences were charmed by the parade of leather-bound actors who reveled in every sexy minute on stage.

In an effort to capitalize on last year's success, Orr has written Dirty Little Showtunes...Encore. Unfortunately, like most sequels, this one is a shadow of its predecessor.

Many of the songs are repeats, but when David Barron sings, "I'm so over the rainbow" now, the joke's punch is lost. Even the new stuff comes off stale: In "I Enjoy Being a Girl," when Rodney Doyle croons about cybersex ("I'm strictly an e-mail female"), the song seems labored.

But there are a few funny moments. "Peepholes," sung to the tune of Barbra Streisand's "People," is hilarious. "Peepholes / people who use peepholes / are the creepiest people in the world," belts Tracy Barcelona.

Strangely enough, the biggest problem with this sequel is with the performers, many of whom were in the original. This year the cast seems to be a bit bored with the whole thing. And without their infectious joy, the parody falls flat.

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Lee Williams