Capsule Reviews

Charlie & Out at Sea Having lived under Communist domination, modern Polish emigre writer Slawomir Mrozek thrives in the "theater of the absurd" as if he were a hothouse exotic bloom, fragrant but deadly, colorful but showing rot around the edges. His early short works -- two of which, from 1961, are being put on by dos chicas theater commune -- are polemics masquerading as dramas. The characters might as well wear sandwich boards advertising what they stand for: capitalist pig, hapless bureaucrat, nave simpleton, sniveling toady. These one-acters work well in spite of Mrozek's capital-letter signage because the absurdity of the situations kicks everything into goofy high gear. Life's senselessness reigns. Mumbling, shuffling Grandpa wants glasses so he can find the elusive Charlie and shoot him dead. Once he can see, though, everyone looks like Charlie, and the murder spree begins. This opening piece is stiffer than it should be thanks to an awkward translation. The characters are "ideas," but so is their dialogue. Out at Sea is the better play. Stranded on a raft, "Fat" (David Harlan), "Medium" (Julie Boneau) and "Thin" (Heidi Daniel-Morgan) decide who should be eaten so the other two can survive. The symbolism of its political satire is obvious, but the absurdity is so over-the-top (the dinner service brought out of the trunk, the postman and obsequious butler who swim up to the raft) that the subversive message arrives fresh and wicked. Through February 24. Freneticore Theater, 5102 Navigation St., 832-283-0858.

The Diary of Anne Frank A more stirring, thoroughly committed production of Wendy Kesselman's new Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning adaptation of teenage Anne Frank's immortal diary would be difficult to find. Beautifully produced and consummately acted by Main Street Youth Theater, Frank's harrowing tale -- almost too heartbreakingly sad, yet incredibly uplifting -- breathes with life as the characters' lives are slowly, inevitably snuffed out. Young actress Jerin Julia's portrayal of feisty Anne amazes with nuance and revelation. In this adaptation, the Jewish elements that were downplayed in the first Broadway production have been enriched, while all the mounting terror, claustrophobia and unbearable tension of Goodrich and Hackett's original play have been heightened. For 25 months, the Franks, another family and a dentist hide from the Nazis in the upper floors of Frank's spice warehouse on a canal in Amsterdam. Their daily routine of deprivation, their small joys, and Anne's own emotional and physical changes were meticulously chronicled in many notebooks she filled during that bleak, harrowing time. Betrayed by someone still unknown to history, the eight were deported to concentration camps where all, save Mr. Frank, died. Miraculously, Anne's "diary" did survive. Published to wild international acclaim in 1957, later transferred into stage and film adaptations, her radiant diary became the world's living testament to the Holocaust: her childhood dream of "writing something great" ultimately, heartrendingly realized. This production will break your heart, too, but leave you changed forever. A sublime night at the theater. Through February 19. 4617 Montrose Blvd., 713-524-6706.

Fat Pig Love does not conquer all, not in playwright Neil LaBute's nasty little world (In the Company of Men, Bash, The Shape of Things), where personal corruption is mother's milk and characters say just what's on their minds, no matter how vile or hurtful. Here, in LaBute's coruscating landscape from 2004, physical attractiveness is worshipped as the epitome of success and happiness; anyone not up to par is cruelly mocked, dismissed and, ultimately, destroyed. Successful, handsome, essentially boyish Tom (Jeff Featherston) has fallen in love with Helen (Andrea Hyde), the "fat pig" of the title, whose easy laugh and self-deprecating humor shield her, so she thinks, from the taunts and disapproving looks of others. Tom assures her of his devotion but is only truly comfortable with her when they're alone. He has never introduced her to his friends from the office. Who would? These sadistic harpies flay everyone alive with their acid, black-comedy tongues. The office scamp, bratty, judgmental Carter (Robert de los Reyes), and svelte, seething-with-jealousy ex-girlfriend Jeannie (Allison Gabbard) attack Tom with a vengeance, slowly eroding his moral stance -- shaky to begin with -- that he doesn't care what people think of Helen's size. He does, of course, more deeply than he knows, and the final scene is a soul-baring, wrenching moment of truth. The talented quartet, under Ed Muth's cushy direction, delivers the script with all its mean-spirited put-downs and bittersweet sentiment intact and on target, making this production a heartfelt Valentine's Day bouquet -- from the Addams Family. Through February 18. Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Subject to Fits One must enter the strange world of Robert Montgomery's Subject to Fits with some care, for all manner of absurdity -- both beautiful and hideous -- flies in from the rafters (sometimes literally) over the course of the evening. Called "A Response to Dostoevsky's The Idiot" by the playwright, the challenging, sometimes hilariously weird landscape of the 1970 script is currently meeting its creative match in Gregory Boyd's tightly directed production now running at the Alley Theatre. The characters will be familiar to anyone who's read The Idiot, especially the oddball at the center, sweet Prince Myshkin (Jeffrey Bean), who suffers from epilepsy and just wants to be kind in a world full of unmitigated cruelty. The strange play follows Myshkin through his difficult, oftentimes absurd friendships with an assortment of Russians who treat him very badly. They are cruel for sport, and Boyd's wild theatrical style lends itself beautifully to this idiom. He pulls an almost childlike petulance from these strange beings trapped in the dark elegance of Dostoevsky's gray world. They sing at odd moments; they bicker and swoon; they are nothing if not contradictory at every step. In the end, the story suggests that there is no happy place for kindness in our world full of arbitrary and ceaseless pain. But reveling in our very bad behavior brings an almost exuberant joy. Through February 18. 615 Texas Ave., 713-228-8421.

Waiting to Be Invited In S.M. Shephard-Massat's uplifting comedy/drama on glorious parade at the Ensemble Theatre, the simple act of eating lunch at a department store takes on earth-shaking importance. Why? Because we're in Atlanta in 1964, and the Supreme Court has just upheld the sweepingly straightforward Civil Rights Act. So when four middle-class black women, decked out in their Sunday best, decide to march into the classy lunchroom of Marsh's Department Store and order its famous fish sticks, their determination and grit are as momentous as a thunderclap from Mount Sinai. Refreshingly free of cant, the play stalls at times, but the four ladies are endearingly written and portrayed (by Shirley Marks Whitmore, Joyce Anastasia Murray, BeBe Wilson and Deborah Oliver Artis). Although all take turns keeping the group on track when anxiety threatens to sunder their resolve, it's cantankerous Odessa, with her take-no-prisoners style, who centers the play, and Ms. Whitmore, arms akimbo and defiantly planting her feet like the flag on Iwo Jima, grumbles and sasses with trademark precision. She gets laughs just by her silent, seething impatience with the others. Ably supported by Wayne DeHart as wise, avuncular bus driver Palmeroy and Julie Oliver as prattling biddy Miss Greyson, whose condescension hides a sympathetic heart, the four women, hand in hand, stand at the store's entrance as the curtain falls. It's a rich image of solidarity and unconquerable courage. History may be the province of the great, but it's the thousands of little people who made it happen. Through February 25. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

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