Capsule Reviews

A Christmas Story Country Playhouse bathes Jean Shepherd's nostalgia-laden Christmas memoirs of his 1930s boyhood in a deep autumnal glow that's as toasty and warm as a snowsuit and mittens. Shepherd's short stories from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash were adapted into a sleeper of a holiday movie in 1983, but its considerable charms surfaced only after its release on video. Once cable giant TNT started broadcasting the movie every December, its popularity soared into cult status. Now, little Ralphie's obsession with that "legendary, official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with compass and the thing that tells time built right into the stock" is as familiar as Scrooge and dancing sugar plums. Lovingly adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, the play dramatizes all the movie's delightful high points: The adult Ralph (Larry Hermes) narrates with bittersweet reverie; little Ralphie (Zachary Hermes) fantasizes how his life will change once he owns that BB gun; the Old Man (Bob Maddox, who channels W.C. Fields in his characterization -- but it works) battles with that recalcitrant furnace and those hillbilly neighbor dogs and goes gaga over that hideous leg lamp; Mom (Lisa Schofield) always makes meat loaf and red cabbage for dinner but is the household's sweet, patient heart; little brother Randy (Taylor Anderson, a real scene stealer) eats like a pig when he's not hiding under the sink; Ralph's school buddy Flick (Ryan Hermes), on a "triple-dog dare," gets his tongue stuck on that frigid flagpole; bully Scut Farcas (Brendan Hermes) assaults his classmates with malevolent glee; and teacher Miss Shields (Salle Ellis) browbeats her students with proper margins and punctuation. Shepherd's Christmas memories -- all American, yet universal -- appeal to the kid in all of us. Through December 17. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Full Circle Charles Mee's Full Circle is a wild, rangy ride of a play stuffed full of smart ideas and strange images. Of course, strange and smart is what the folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions do so well -- and when that strangeness involves the politics of capitalism along with women baring their breasts, the show that results is as wonderfully bizarre as it gets. The story takes place during the chaos of 1989 East Berlin, just as the Wall is falling. The characters include a wealthy Western socialite named Pamela Dalrymple (Tek Wilson); the dreaded communist who ruled East Berlin from 1971 to 1989, Erich Honecker (Walt Zipprian); and an East German student named Dulle Griet (AJ Ware). Their tale slides easily between political rant and Stooge-like comedy. Stolen baby in tow, Pamela and Dulle Griet find themselves running from two clownish German guards (played with hilarious silliness by Noel Bowers and Cary Winscott) as they make their way through a country frothed up into a frenzy of change. Directed by Anthony Barilla with gleeful fun, the show integrates music, dance, political rants and a killer set (by Kirk Markley) to create a show about big ideas that makes thinking hard look like a whole lot of fun. Through December 17 at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

Matt & Ben In Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers's comic one-act play, the screenplay for Good Will Hunting (which inconceivably won the 1997 Academy Award for best original screenplay) literally falls from the sky into the midst of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It's the funniest moment in this extremely slight comedy. These best friends -- Oscar and Felix clones -- crave fame and fortune, and here's their meal ticket, free and clear. Dare they pass off the script as their own work? The two are desperate to break into the movies: Intense Matt wants to meet Scorsese and Spielberg, and clueless Ben just wants to bed Daisy Fuentes. Is God playing a nasty prank? Panicked and frightened, the impressionable duo throw the script out of Ben's messy apartment (beautifully rendered by set designer Francisco Robledo), but it pounds on the door until they retrieve it. They fight over who'll play Will Hunting; they invoke a vapid Gwyneth Paltrow and a supercilious J.D. Salinger to opine on their dilemma; they relive their high school days; they insult each other. But their goofy friendship overcomes all. Matt and Ben want the Hollywood dream so bad, we root for these losers. But we also know the inevitable outcome, and an hour of this uninspired satire is still way too long. The play's cause célèbre, not exactly a secret, is that Matt and Ben are played by women -- authors Kaling and Withers were the original cast. In Theater LaB's production, Stephanie Brown is Matt, and Lydia Meadows is Ben. This nifty idea could've complemented Damon and Affleck's sexual tension, which we know all too well from the incessant, overhyped publicity that has accompanied them since the beginning of their careers, but in this inconsequential sitcom, this authors' gimmick is just a gimmick. Through December 17. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

The Nutcracker The sweetest of holiday traditions, Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker is once again leaping its way across the stage of Wortham Center's opulent Brown Theater. The dreamy little story is a good part of what makes this gorgeous production such a favorite among families. It features a gamine girl named Clara (Laura Richards on opening night) who toe-walks through the Land of Nod one Christmas Eve. And this year, like every year, opening night was full of children sitting on the edges of their fancy theater seats, enthralled with little Clara's dream-induced adventures as she meets the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and, of course, the Nutcracker Prince (Jaquel Andrews, Amy Fote and Zdenek Konvalina, respectively, on opening night). Peter Tchaikovsky's unforgettable score and Ben Stevenson's stunning choreography send beautiful ballerinas into swoon-worthy spins across the stage. It's the grown-ups in the audience who adore the depth of the dancing. They erupt into "Bravos!" or long crescendos of applause as each soloist takes a glorious flight across the stage. All these elements come together on Desmond Heeley's breathtaking set, which features a sparkling dream sled and glittering snow drifting down as the dancers leap through it. And Heeley's costumes are the stuff of pure fantasy. The whimsical tapestry of colors and textures really is the stuff of beautiful Christmas dreams. Through December 26. 501 Texas, 713- 227-2787.

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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