Capsule Reviews

Boy Gets Girl In award-winning playwright Rebecca Gilman's thought-provoking 2001 drama, in its premiere production for Houston's newest theater group, The Pendulum Theatre Company, we have an Alfred Hitchcock movie without a murder. The movie master's palpable sense of dread intensifies into fear as the play progresses. Icy blond career woman Theresa (Holly Vogt Wilkison, Pendulum's founder and artistic director) is smart, independent and married to her work, but she nevertheless submits to a blind date. Tony (Travis Ammons), hyper and a touch too eager for commitment, doesn't light her fire, and she says good-bye with a forceful "no." But he sends her bouquets, calls her constantly and barges into her office, refusing to go away and pleading for another chance. Theresa thinks he's stalking her. An accident that happens to her editor (Marc Shellum) might be Tony's fault. Her co-worker Mercer (Steve Scott) is sympathetic but sees her predicament as fodder for a story, while her ditsy secretary (Sara Jo Dunstan), thinking Tony's "cute" and that Theresa needs someone in her life, supplies him with Theresa's phone number and other private info. A psychotic new message from Tony sends in a police detective (Norelia Reed), but the authorities are understaffed and powerless to do anything but issue a restraining order. As Theresa falls apart, Gilman ratchets up the suspense with stylish command, but she also annoyingly preaches about Woman's plight and Man's piggishness, especially when Theresa interviews a soft-porn cult movie director (Ken Watkins). Gilman stacks the deck and holds all the aces, but it's amazing how entertaining -- and thrilling -- the game becomes. Bet on this one. Through September 30. Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 832-746-7347.

Fiorello! Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's first big success on Broadway won the Tony Award for Best Musical (shared with The Sound of Music) and the daddy of all theatrical laurels, the Pulitzer Prize. It played more than 790 performances, had a successful national tour and then disappeared. This may be the most famous musical no one knows. Kudos, then, to Paul Hope's Bayou City Concert Musicals and their sparkling revival, which played five performances last weekend. They raised Lazarus. What an effervescent show this is -- classy, clever, beautifully put together -- as it tells the story of Fiorello LaGuardia, a principled, bull-headed Italian-Jewish Greenwich Village lawyer in 1915 who fights for the rights of the disenfranchised, gets elected to Congress, serves in World War I and loses both a big New York City election and his wife, but perseveres to become, at final curtain in 1933, NYC's most beloved mayor, and find his true love, who's been by his side all along. He's a nice-guy politician: gruff but principled, and brutally honest. We see him through the folks who know him: his staff, his first wife, the factory girls, the district hotshots, the thuggish Tammany grafters and his gal Friday, who loves him from afar. Fiorello is still a mystery at the end -- he's had only two songs all evening and they're both campaign numbers -- but the way everyone perceives the "little flower" and reacts to him is the reason the musical works so well. Like BCCM's previous shows, this one was incredibly cast by a who's who of Houston musical glitterati (David Wald, Karen Ross, Natalie Arneson, Rutherford Cravens, Carolina Botero, Justin Doran, Larry Dachslager, Jordan Craig and Marsha Carlton). Impeccably directed by Hope and Leslie Swackhamer, with zingy choreography by Melissa Pritchett and Paula Hammons, inspired costumes by Pat Padilla and imaginative lighting by Josh Harbour, this neglected show came alive and raised the roof. A landslide victory for everyone.

The Lion in Winter The royal spiders of the Plantagenet family deliciously spin their treacherous webs in Playhouse 1960's deft production of James Goldman's 1966 Tony- and 1968 Academy Award-winner. The love-hate relationships among the parents, Henry II (John Stevens) and his fallen-from-grace queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Salle Ellis), and their no-count sons, Richard pre-Lionheart (Jeff Featherston), scheming Geoffrey (Katt Gilcrease) and dim John (Brian Heaton), are brought to life in this anachronistic but detailed history lesson, co-directed with panache by Sheryl Stanley and Michel Brown. Tying this dysfunctional family in all manner of entertaining Gordian knots are lies, shifting alliances, assassination plots and affairs -- Henry's with Alais of France (a delightfully fresh Laura Romero) and Richard's with Philip, King of France (Andrew Adams). Goldman's crafty, darkly humorous style mixes High Middle Ages argot with contemporary attitudes, like Eleanor's gentle rebuff to dopey John, who interrupts her during a skirmish with Henry ("Hush, dear, Mother's fighting"), or Henry's smug boast that "I do love being king." Stevens, indeed, does love being king, as evidenced by his powerhouse performance. Ellis matches him crown for crown, evoking a cold beauty gone to seed, ingratiating herself to him or playing each son against him. The boys are perfect: Featherston, handsome, aloof, dangerous; Gilcrease, all serpent, unloved for so long he's forgotten what that emotion feels like; and Heaton, whose stupidity knows no bounds, which is just as dangerous as knowing too much. Familial fun and games haven't been this entertaining since Edward Albee. Lovely. The one downer is the toneless lighting that washes the entire stage with searchlight intensity. Lion roars for shadows -- better to camouflage duplicity or the knife behind the back. Through September 16. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243.

The Normal Heart Larry Kramer's prescient novel Faggots, published in 1978, graphically detailed -- and railed against -- the hedonistic gay scene of New York City during the era, with its soulless, disease-spreading anonymous sex. He received death threats; his best friends turned against him; the nascent gay press condemned him; and NYC's lone gay bookstore banned the book. Kramer's unofficial title is "Angriest Gay Man in America," and his semiautobiographical play The Normal Heart, which premiered in 1985, is his revenge -- and his testament. Though not the first in the subgenre of gay theater known as AIDS plays (that would probably be Jeffrey Hagedorn's 1983 one-acter One), Heart is certifiably the best. A primer on the physical and emotional beginnings of AIDS, the story is imbued with paint-blistering condemnation, righteous anger and bitchy humor. Theatre New West's production, under the stylish and prudent direction of Joe Watts, is everything Kramer's drama aims to be, and then some. The play builds inexorably, so that the final scene, the quiet hospital-bedside wedding between protagonist Ned (Steve Bullitt) and dying partner Felix (Joseph Zoellers), becomes overwhelming -- the distillation of all that's come before. It has showstopping (and heart-stopping) impact. The production is marvelously cast with an acting dream team. Bullitt's self-effacing dignity grounds them all. Through September 30. Bering & James Gallery, 805 Rhoda. For tickets, call Theatre New West, 713-522-2204.

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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