The Government Inspector There are many ways of staging Nikolai Gogol's absurdist classic comedy. This University of Houston School of Theatre production isn't one of them. Overwrought and heavy, this show delivers knockwurst and stale beer instead of caviar and blini. It yells when it should purr, clumps when it should glide, yodels when it should sing. Gogol's universal indictment of government bureaucracy, crass humanity and social inequality is played like Benny Hill on steroids. It's just wrong. In some backwater Russian town, the corrupt mayor has received word that an inspector general is arriving incognito with "secret instructions" Graft and corruption run rampant here, and the leaders decide to clean up the place to pass inspection. If that fails, there's always a bribe. They mistake a spendthrift, driftless clerk for the government official and fawn all over him. The opportunist takes the townsfolk for all they're worth, simultaneously wooing the mayor's wife and daughter, and gladly accepts all the rubles everyone hands him. When he skips town, the dumbfounded citizens are left in a state of shock as the real inspector general is announced. Rutherford Cravens catches the mayor's bluster and oily charm but has nowhere to go since he starts off in hurricane mode. As the fake government inspector, Caleb George plays it much too urbane for Gogol's grand joke to take flight. Timmy Wood, as valet Osip who's smarter than his master, is refreshingly cool but has no one to play against. And David Ello, as the snooping Postmaster, and Scotty Fults, as the idiotic Superintendent of Schools, capture village ineptitude with flair and precision, when not directed to overplay in boldface. The sets and costumes, by Kevin Rigdon and Margaret M. Crowley, are sumptuous and clever. The incidental balalaika music is comic and apt. The direction is unforgivable. Through March 26. Wortham Theatre at the University of Houston, entrance No.16 (off Cullen Blvd.), 713-743-2929.
The Human Voice and Send (who are you? I love you) Forty-three minutes of a woman whining on the phone to her departing lover, even when they're scored by the incomparable Francis Poulenc, is about 40 minutes too much. But that hasn't stopped Houston Grand Opera from presenting the one-woman vehicle The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine), a 1959 "lyric tragedy" with libretto by Jean Cocteau, translated almost word for word from the original. The Human Voice isn't Poulenc's best work; the Frenchman is at a loss to breathe life into this masochistic, B-grade melodrama. After a five-year affair, "She" is losing her lover to another. Having already downed a fistful of pills, she keeps popping them during her interminable phone call to "He." At first she's sweet and noble, then she's shrill and accusing; always, she blames herself for the failure of the relationship. It's hard to take in French, but in English it's unbearable. What happened to the female self-respect so prominently on display two decades earlier in those hardscrabble '30s films? Where's Joan Blondell when you need her? Caressed by the creamy, dramatic voice of Audra McDonald, we're lulled into thinking - momentarily - that this is better than it is. That's the power of an authentic Broadway diva. Send (who are you? I love you), Broadway composer John LaChiusa's curtain-raiser, is a contemporary reworking of the Poulenc - a prequel, as it were. Still creamy, McDonald can't make LaChiusa's innocuous, disposable music sound any better. The "Woman" waits by her laptop, hoping for an instant message from someone she has yet to meet in person. She smokes dope, drinks wine and fantasizes about their life together. After much psychobabble, she finally gets that all-important call for which she has put her entire day on hold. Some power-woman. She seems nuts to me, although she does have a smashing pop-art-style apartment. Through March 26 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.
An Infinite Ache David Schulner's play is a minor miracle of writing. Now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, it manages to move across a wide landscape even as it plunges deep. The story, about marriage and how difficult it is to love someone till death, starts with Charles (David Kenner) and Hope (Tasheena Miyagi) on their first date and follows the ordinary American couple through the joys of childbirth, the trials of familial loss and, ultimately, the sorrows of sickness and old age. The couple also deals with everything in between, including sleepless baby nights, difficulties with parents and a wild teenage daughter. After getting off to a creaky start, the story about long love moves quickly. This is a fast two hours of theater, but for all its speed, it often cuts to the quick, especially when it lingers over the most banal sorrows a married couple encounters, such as Charles's difficulties getting a well-paying job and Hope's wandering eye. And even though the young cast at Stages is inexperienced, and Peter Webster's direction doesn't do much to develop the emotional nuances of the story, the writing is strong enough to lift up this attractive couple and carry them along on the powerful wave of truth. Through March 12. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0220.