Capsule Reviews

The Dying Gaul Playwright Craig Lucas, who delivered gentle magical realism in Prelude to a Kiss and genuine romance in Longtime Companion, delivers neither in The Dying Gaul. In fact, this bleak, graphic little shocker doesn't even bring decency or common sense to the table. Wannabe Hollywood screenwriter Robert (a miscast O'Dell Hutchison, who's too sad-sack to be a golden boy) is seduced by Tinseltown glamour in the guise of oily producer Jeffrey (Brent Biggs, who can play amoral and fatuous at the same time). Jeffrey's former countless flings have never fazed wife Elaine (Anne Zimmerman, whose melodious alto never quite wraps around Lucas's elliptical phrases), but when hubby falls a trifle too hard for this new young thing, she wonders what Robert has that she doesn't. Somehow she breaks into the locked office of Robert's psychiatrist (Walt Zipprian, who brings so much life to the underwritten Dr. Foss that he single-handedly saves the evening), steals Robert's files and then, using the personal info therein, communes with him over the Internet in a gay chat room, pretending to be his dead lover to learn his secrets. Buddha-loving Robert, who never stops spouting Hallmark sentiments, falls for this ruse -- he's such an innocent, don't you know? Much of the play consists of our watching two people type. This is death to a drama that doesn't have much kick to it anyway, and the work wilts on the vine as we watch. Bleak and unconvincing, and more blog than play, The Dying Gaul was typed, not written. Through September 9. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical This frothy bubble of silliness now running at Stages Repertory Theatre requires absolutely zero brain power to get through. Cobbled together out of stereotypes and a sitcom-like plot, the featherweight bit of camp by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso celebrates white-trash ladies and the men they love in a funky little tale about a phobic housewife and her lonely-heart man. Setting the stage and guiding us through the story is a chorus of three women: Betty (Susan O. Koozin), a sturdy mother hen with a heart of gold who runs the whole shebang; Pickles (Mikah Horn), a young dumb-as-dirt, sweet-as-sugar blond who shows all the signs of suffering from a hysterical pregnancy; and Lin (Carolyn Johnson), strutting around with her cleavage out to there and worrying all the while about her man on death row. This cartoon strip of a story focuses on Norbert and Jeannie Garstecki, a long-married couple who love each other despite the fact that Jeannie (Melodie Smith) suffers from agoraphobia and hasn't set foot outside her little trailer home in years. Nothing in the story is surprising, but the music is entertaining, and Stages has put together a cast of solid singers who capture their characters in bold, broad and colorful strokes. Through October 29. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Hotter than Houston St. Peter doesn't know what to do with Stan Wetzel. Stan's not bad enough for hell, but he's certainly not worthy of heaven. There aren't enough stars for good deeds tallied on St. Pete's celestial tote board. Not yet, anyway. "Can't I go to that middle place?" Stan pleads. To earn his wings, he's transported to -- where else? -- the center of Montrose in 1977, with $50 and a Greensheet. Pete gives him his orders: Be a force for positive change, or the pearly gates will be forever closed. So begins Radio Music Theatre's zany summer production, one of its "in-Fertle" musical comedies, in which the patented goofball family from Dumpster, Texas, does not appear. Instead, the company's inspired acting trio (Steve Farrell, who's also the playwright, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills) introduce us to a whole new galaxy of loonies, hucksters, shysters and clueless folks, as Stan's quest leads him through Houston's recent history of boom, bust and reboom. Barbara Bush and former mayor Kathy Whitmire make appearances, as does con man deluxe Aldine Bender. There's also Jake and Lunabelle, who live deep inside one of our streets' numerous potholes; a forever hopeful -- and scary -- duo in yellow rain hats who wait for the appearance of the bus; and Uncle Dan, the crappy-furniture salesman who advertises the "scoot and shoot," the ultimate recliner fitted with firearms. Steve Farrell's songs keep the laughs coming; among the best are the bus-stop anthem "The Bus Is Gonna Come," the correspondence-school-doctors' ditty "Can We Trust Him If He Survives?" and the toe-tapping "Who Took the Boom Out of Boomtown?" If we have to relive the hell of Houston's past, this is the way to do it. Through September 2. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Speeding Motorcycle He's back! Jason Nodler, the founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, has returned to Houston and the Axiom to direct Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston with grant monies from the Rockefeller Foundation. For the uninitiated, Johnston is a cult musician-artist who lives in Waller, where he continues to write and draw despite the fact that he suffers from severe bipolar disorder. As one might expect, Johnston's musical world is inflected by mental illness and extreme loneliness. He writes often of unrequited love, deep despair and death. So it's a strange and altogether wonderful surprise that the story Nodler has constructed out of Johnston's powerful music is nothing if not uplifting. The weirdly moving story focuses on a man who falls in love with an undertaker. When she marries another undertaker, our hero -- who goes by the unlikely name of Joe the Boxer and is played by three different actors (Kyle Sturdivant, Cary Winscott and Joe Folladori) -- realizes the best way to attract his lover's attention might be to die. After all, she is an undertaker. As maudlin as this might sound (and Johnston's songs are often so woeful they can move one to tears), the utterly unpredictable story turns in some fascinating directions. Angels appear. So do preachers. We watch an undertaker care for a dead body. And somehow all this gets happier and happier. One might read this musical as mimicking the emotional manic-depressive roller coaster that bipolars ride. But it is sweeter to think of this show as the least ironic and perhaps most joyful production that Nodler has ever created. Through September 2. 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

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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
Lee Williams