Capsule Reviews

Enter Laughing You'd be hard-pressed to find a play as sweet and family-friendly as this one. It's as warm and cozy as your favorite old sweater, if a little threadbare. Based on a partly autobiographical novel by legendary comedy writer Carl Reiner (Your Show of Shows, Dick Van Dyke Show), Joseph Stein's 1963 adaptation for Broadway is loving and nonthreatening, entertaining and genial. If plays were rated like movies, Theatre Southwest's production would be a definite G, suitable for all audiences, which is fine, because every now and then, it's nice to go to the theater and not have to think -- just sit back, relax and grin. Nebbish David (an easygoing, charming Aaron Thompson) "wants to be somebody" but right now works as a delivery boy for a small-time women's hatmaker in NYC's garment center. His parents, strictly out of the Jewish school of theatrical parents, who know all about guilt and worry, want David to be a pharmacist, but David dreams of being an actor. When he spies an ad in the paper for prospective students for Harrison Marlowe's school of dramatic arts, his heart leaps. Marlowe (Scott Holmes), a rich-voiced, second-rate ham, bilks his students for tuition, but he sorely needs a leading man, and Marlowe's sexpot daughter takes a liking to the eager puppy. Complications ensue, of course, as David stays out too late rehearsing, his parents fret and his girlfriend gets jealous. The sprightly cast makes the most of this fluff, with Thompson, Holmes and Mack Hays, as the fatherly hatter, delivering standout performances that make us believe in a story where the conflicts are small, gentleness is all and dreams are fulfilled. Through January 27. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

Hamlet The world's most famous -- and, some would say, best -- play goes goth in Nova Arts Project's somewhat misguided, but vigorous, staging. In this show, adapted and directed by noted Houston "fight director" Brian Byrnes, Prince Hamlet and the entire court at Elsinore zoom and ricochet around the midnight-dark small theater space with no downtime for anything so mundane as introspection or self-awareness. Shakespeare's justly celebrated soliloquies have been slashed to the bone, rearranged or deleted, as if the characters can't be bothered to tell us their thoughts. This makes mincemeat of poor Will's great themes and psychological understanding, but it does move the story by astounding leaps and bounds. For a man of crippling inaction, this Hamlet never stops moving. Fortunately, Aaron White, as the young prince commanded by the ghost of his dead father to avenge his murder, moves superbly and tosses off the Bard's fabulous poetry with astonishing aplomb and conversational know-how. His is a vibrant, young, deeply-felt Hamlet who shines through all the murky trappings that threaten to turn Shakespeare's sublime tragedy into something akin to CSI: Denmark. When we're at a loss with cremation chambers, riot police, prisoners from Abu Ghraib, demented Ophelia strapped to a gurney or Queen Gertrude severing the finger from her dead husband to get at the wedding ring, there's energetic White to pull our focus squarely back where it belongs: to this most glorious play, and the young man caught so horribly in a world not of his choosing. Through January 20. Jose Quintero Lab Theatre at the University of Houston, Entrance No. 16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-623-4033.

Bell, Book and Candle Casting directors take note: There's a new face in town (new to us, anyway), and it belongs to one of the most strikingly original actors we've seen in a long time -- Morgan McCarthy, now setting the stage afire at Country Playhouse as the enchantingly sexy witch Gillian in John Van Druten's 1950 romantic comedy. Young McCarthy, fresh out of the University of St. Thomas, needs no potions nor spells to bewitch, bother and bewilder; she performs her theatrical magic without tricks and so totally inhabits her character, it's difficult to tell where her prodigious powers might lead. Now, if director Joey Milillo would just leave her be, instead of zooming her across the stage at every opportunity, we could concentrate on what she's doing. She's up, down, practically flying through the air, and so is everybody else in this frenetic staging -- when they're not standing behind the sofa that blocks our view. There's a telling gay subtext in Van Druten's alchemy, with its emphasis on being "one of them," "ashamed of what you are" and having "regular hangouts and bars," but you could also read into this references to the Communist witch-hunts of Joe McCarthy. That's just the minor fun in this elegant, sly play, anyway. John Dunn, as the hapless mortal who falls hard under Gillian's spell and even harder when the spell's reversed, plays the arch dialogue with easy charm; Thomas Blanton, as Gillian's playboy brother who uses his magic as a parlor trick to get girls, is all wicked bad-boy; and Carolyn Montgomery, as the dotty aunt all atwitter at her underworld powers, has daffy charm. Chris Tennison, as anthropologist Redlitch, who stumbles into the coven, bellows and roars as if in deepest Africa searching for Livingston. He has no charm. I think he's in the wrong play. But exotic McCarthy is definitely in the right spot, and you should be, too, to witness her thorough enchantment. Through January 28. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Barefoot in the Park Neil Simon's idea of bohemian is ordering a Princess phone for a new fifth-floor walkup apartment -- remember, this is 1963 -- and dialing the weather report. Stylish and elegant, newlywed Corie Bratter (Lauren Bigelow) is a far cry from Haight-Ashbury, but she's game enough to eat in an Albanian restaurant and set up a blind date for her conventional mother (Jo Ann Levine) with rou Victor (John Kaiser), who uses their bedroom window to climb into his apartment on the roof. After six days of marriage between Corie and Paul (Matt Tramel), a conventional "stuffed shirt" who never does anything impulsive, their perfect honeymoon at the Plaza is a distant memory. She wants the honeymoon to continue, but he has to prepare for his first day in court, there's a hole in the ceiling and the building, he says, is filled with weirdoes. Simon's way with a gag line, after years of writing for the early giants of TV comedy, is genuine and laugh-out-loud funny. When Corie's mother realizes that she's going on a date and not meeting Paul's parents for dinner, she fusses over her appearance. Told she looks fine, she retorts, "For Paul's parents, I just wanted to look clean." Levine's dazed performance subtly defines her character, as does Tramel's, whose dignified demeanor unravels under the onslaught of everyday life. Kaiser captures the irrepressible life force of Victor, and Bigelow turns Corie into something more than a spoiled '60s whiner. Through February 17. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover