Capsule Reviews

Closer Love goes terribly wrong in Patrick Marber's award-winning Closer, which is given a very adult spin by Country Playhouse. Like an ice pick through the heart, this lethal, contemporary and dark comedy kills without leaving much of a wound. The hurt is internal. In this brittle battle of the sexes, four disparate, desperate people meet, swap partners and swap again, searching for life's most precious commodity. That the quartet doesn't learn anything in the round-robin search is Marber's nasty take on modern life, but the bumpy road these characters insist on traveling is thoroughly satisfying, unpredictable and full of sexy trash-talk. As soon as love comes along, the characters muck it up by saying just what's on their minds. Invariably, it's the truth -- just what their lovers don't want to hear, although they all insist otherwise. Their lives intertwine so acutely, they strangle whatever chances they have for happiness. Under O'Dell Hutchison's pinpoint-accurate direction, actors Michelle Hill, Craig Cashio, Kenneth Jones and Julie Thornley limn the four wayward searchers with a searing, go-for-broke intensity that's adults-only viewing and extremely refreshing. "Where is this love?" Alice pleads with philandering Dan. "I can't see it. I can't feel it." Not one of them has a good answer, or gets any closer. The atmosphere might be toxic to the soul, but you'll leave the theater cleansed. Through April 22. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

The Dead Guy Satirizing what's already a parody -- the pop-culture phenomenon known as reality TV -- is a heady task, if not a downright futile one. But playwright Eric Coble succeeds better than most at making fun of this mind-numbing, overhyped trend, which doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon. To propel her flagging career, producer Gina (Elena Coates, in a witty, nasty, multifaceted take on Greta Van Susteren and her ilk) has a surefire sweeps-week idea to put viewers in front of the boob tube and advertisers at her feet. She'll pick a poor sap with nothing to lose, offer him $1 million to spend in one week's time, film his every moment and, at the end of the week, have the audience vote how they want to see him die. Amoral, mercenary and totally devoid of good taste, it's not such a far-fetched idea. Reality television seems headed there sooner or later, which is why the play works as well as it does. But it wouldn't work at all without Dwight Clark's winning portrayal of stoner deluxe Eldon. In his Led Zeppelin T-shirt and bad hair, he's the goofiest of goofs, in perpetual motion like some animatronic pinball, all sass and "cool, dude." Absolutely adorable in the role, he captivates from the get-go. It's a must-see performance. Joanne Bonasso, Adrianne Kipp, Brandon Peters and Michael Mullins round out the fine cast. If only Coble's one-note satire had more of the prickly, wicked bite that infuses its advertisement parodies, or had more of the mock/serious tone of its "show within the show" (with its own absolutely silly theme song), then The Dead Guy might have some real life to it. Through April 23. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

[sic] In the old days, Melissa James Gibson's comedy of manners would've been called experimental and avant-garde because of its overlapping dialogue, non sequiturs, intimate asides to the audience, flaccid plotline, linguistic flourishes, time bends and slacker characters not knowing which way to turn. It's still that -- the play's even written without punctuation -- but the old-hat unconventionality of its literary pretensions seems fresh and breezy in Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company's winsome production. Three loser friends live next door to one another on the third floor of a ratty apartment building in a nameless big city. These empathetic sad sacks, whose failures are ingrained within them, are joined at the soul; they're thirtysomethings who can't make anything work in their lives. Their constant bickering, teasing and dreaming only draw them more tightly together. Pining for what they can't have, they feed off one another. Hack musician Theo (Eric Doss) stumbles over composing a theme song for the Thrill-A-Rama ride at the amusement park; overly analytical writer Babette (Jennifer Decker) can't finish her magnum opus of "20th-century outbursts"; gay Frank (Alan Hall) obsesses over his ex-boyfriend, who introduced the three to one another, and practices to be an auctioneer by reciting tongue-twisters. Adding to the enchanting disenchantment of their lives are the disembodied angry voices rising from the air shaft and the surprisingly frisky -- and also unseen -- Mrs. Jorgensen down the hall, who may be dead, sleeping or sleeping around. This clever, brainy, constantly amusing play, superbly acted and gracefully directed by Michelle Edwards, may be about failure and dashed hopes, but it succeeds like gangbusters. Through April 15. Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 832-418-0973.

Sound of Murder English playwright-director William Fairchild, perhaps best known as the screenwriter of Star, the Gertrude Lawrence biopic starring Julie Andrews, wrote this nifty little murder mystery, which has the distinction of being twice adapted into a movie, in 1969 and 1982. The hook in this chamber piece for six characters is not "who done it?" but "will they get away with it?" Esteemed kids' book author Charles Norbury (L. Robert Westeen) hates children, despises his wife (Laura Brown), berates his secretary (Callista Clark) and treats everyone, even the kindly Inspector Davidson (Glenn Dodson), with pompous contempt and sarcastic ill will. No wonder no one can stand him. To top it off, he absolutely refuses, with sadistic glee, to grant a divorce to long-suffering Laura, who has found happiness at last with lover Peter (Dean Dicks). The adulterous pair concocts the "perfect murder" and, after some startling red herrings and tricky plotting, manages to get away with it. Or do they? You'll just have to go to Company OnStage to find out. You'll be pleasantly surprised with both the show's production and its denouement. Westeen, in aubergine smoking robe with white ascot, exudes oily charm as the famous author. Brown gives a Hitchcock-blond interpretation to the wife, all subterranean heat under the cool facade. Dicks smolders with appropriate masculine hurt pride; and Clark comes into her own when her secretarial wiles reveal the conniving little she-wolf beneath those comfy sweaters and sensible shoes. The English do have a way with murder. Through April 15. 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