Capsule Reviews

All in the Timing If, in showbiz, timing is everything, then Country Playhouse's production of these six David Ives comedies is as accurate as an atomic clock. Prolific young Ives has a wonderfully goofy voice and a most particular way of speaking that channels both Monty Python's whacked-out humor and the Marx Brothers' anarchy. This sextet is both delightfully silly and thought-provoking, and the young, adept cast knows just how to play Ives's sweetly off-key music. In "Sure Thing," a budding relationship between Bill (Travis Ammons) and Betty (Lauren Hance) is continuously restarted -- if one of them doesn't like the other's answer, Bill or Betty rings a bell and the conversation jumps back one line, resuming until the next ding. By the end of the short scene, they've sorted out everything and are off on their date. In "Words, Words, Words," three monkeys (portrayed with howls, screeches and scratches by John Dunn, Matt Trammel and Leigh Anne Mitsakis) answer a common philosophical question: If given enough time, will a monkey with a typewriter produce Hamlet? In Ives's view, these simians are smarter than their keepers. And you can't get much better or funnier than "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," in which wild-haired Leo (Matt Hitchens) keeps repeating his death scene to a tolerant Mrs. Trotsky (Stacie Williams). He never quite gets it that he has a mountain ax embedded in the back of his skull. And if you think contempo playwright David Mamet is highly overrated, wait for "Speed the Play," Ives's seven-minute romp through Mamet's four seminal works, in which the playwright is lovingly skewered. After these six little plays, you'll be hungry for more time with Ives. Through October 22. 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497.

Be My Baby There's nothing intrinsically wrong with writing an old-fashioned, well-made play structured to be pleasing and filled with characters who show no dysfunction or psychosis, such as Ken Ludwig's ultra-nice, insignificant world-premiere comedy Be My Baby. But all we ask is for the playwright to at least make it more interesting than a generic pilot for a cancelled sitcom. Be My Baby is perfectly designed for TV, with quick scenes and plenty of space for sympathetic awws from the audience. Everything is routine and prepackaged. Instead of character development and conflict, we get retreads: diaper jokes, fear of flying, chintzy ScotsŠGloria and Christy (Elizabeth Bunch and Ty Mayberry) are much in love and getting married. Christy's secluded estate near Aberdeen, Scotland, is run by the crusty curmudgeon John (Hal Holbrook), who "takes some getting used to," we're told. Arriving for the wedding, Gloria's frumpy aunt Maud (Dixie Carter) is an opinionated busybody from London. They can't stand each other. John calls her a "she-devil" and flips up his kilt at her, and we know immediately they're destined to be together. Later, Gloria and Christy send John and Maud to the States to pick up a baby up for adoption. The remainder of the play concerns John and Maud's bickering, their travel delays, their fawning over the beautiful baby and their general softening toward each other. Holbrook and Carter work overtime to give this ordinary work a sheen it wouldn't have without them. Smoothing out the play's jagged edges, these two pros glitter. As the attractive young lovers, Bunch and Mayberry bring a freshness and believability to what may be their unraveling marriage. And all the supporting characters are comically limned by Robin Moseley and James Black. Tony-winning director John Rando keeps the rudderless play on course and chugging along cinematically, and Alexander Dodge's scenic design is wonderfully apt, atmospheric and minimal all at the same time. But Be My Baby is still forgettable. Through October 23 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Hapgood Too clever for its own good, Tom Stoppard's Hapgood often comes off like a convoluted math problem. The play is filled with long stretches of weirdly confusing plot twists made even more ponderous by its stitched-in poetic soliloquies on the wonders of quantum physics. Of course, most Stoppard fans go to his shows prepared to pay attention. But Hapgood spends too much time with its head in the clouds to pack much of an intellectual or emotional punch. The story, which takes place during the cold war, focuses on Elizabeth Hapgood (Josie de Guzman), the loving boss of a pack of rather hapless British agents who spend much of their time trying to keep secrets from the Russians. Among Hapgood's troubles is the fact that she can never be sure who is loyal to whom. Pitched into the middle of this thriller is Stoppard's fascination with the world of physics. A character named Kerner (Todd Waite) explains two theories of light as a means of explaining why we can't really know one another: If we try too hard to pin each other down, we're likely to get it all wrong. All this might be interesting, except we don't really see much in the way of human behavior here. These characters -- spies with little else in their lives to make them interesting -- are slight. Still, the Alley Theatre's production, directed by Gregory Boyd, will appeal to anybody who likes all the slick bells and whistles common in today's television spy shows. And Waite makes an enormously appealing Russian physicist. His utterly charismatic performance makes Kerner's poetic speeches about the secret life of light worth listening to. But taken as a whole, Hapgood lacks the humor, heart and elegance of most of Stoppard's work. And in the end it comes off like that student who sits in the front row, knowing all the correct formulas. He might be the smartest boy in the room, but he's also the most annoying. Through October 23. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

The Mousetrap This mother of all murder mystery plays, written by Dame Agatha Christie, the mother of all murder mystery writers, opened in London in November 1952, where it's still running. Needless to say, it's the longest-running play in the history of mankind. Whether it deserves such legendary longevity is questionable at best, since Christie was a much better novelist than playwright. This stage classic creaks a bit more than most other 53-year-old works, but the smooth production at A.D. Players keeps the unnecessary exposition, class commentary and clunky dramatics well oiled, quieting the noisy mechanics. Under Marion Arthur Kirby's thoughtful direction, the sprightly cast believes what it's doing, which goes a long way in making the audience itself believe in this old chestnut. Five guests arrive at a young couple's secluded hotel, as does a police sergeant on skis who's chasing a murderer among them. A snowstorm rages (although we never see any snow falling outside the large French doors), the telephone lines have been severed, there are back staircases galore, and we wait for the murderer to strike again if the policeman can't figure out whodunit in time. Of course, everyone has a secret that may link him or her to the past murder, which makes everyone a prime suspect or the next victim. This play has enough red herrings for a Russian fish market, and the ending is a classic among its kind. If you like murder mysteries, this Christie's for you. Through November 6. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

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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