Capsule Reviews

Envy the Cockroach If you just can't get enough of "chicks behind bars" exploitation dramas -- like those cheesy Roger Corman movies Caged Heat and The Big Doll House -- then Bob Morgan's Envy the Cockroach, presented by dos chicas theater commune, should satisfy every lustful desire. The work starts out in documentary mode, with facts and figures from the Department of Justice detailing the alarmingly high percentages of physical, emotional and substance abuse that have led women to the big house. But it doesn't take long for Morgan's thoughtful, sympathetic study to switch gears and drive smack into his unique, patented S&M view of the world. His well-thought-out drama about three incarcerated women takes a nosedive in Act II as the outrages pile up -- and the more gruesome the better, it seems. Morgan tars his characters in 3D, surround sound and smell-o-rama. He doesn't know when to stop. The lives of Kaitlyn (Elizabeth Seabolt), Zoe (Jennifer Decker) and Jolene (Anne Zimmerman) have enough drama for three plays, yet at the conclusion, we don't understand them with any deeper insight than if we'd read about them in some dry psychological dissertation. Morgan shows us the salacious perversity of these women's lives in almost novelistic detail but only sketches in their hearts. The center is missing. He can clothe his problem play with missionary zeal, but in the end, Morgan would rather shock than reform. Through December 10. Free Range Studios, 1719 Live Oak, 832-283-0858.

Night Must Fall What you hear creaking during Emlyn Williams's 1935 psychological thriller (a hit in London and on Broadway that was successfully filmed in 1937 and unsuccessfully filmed in 1964) is not the storm-tossed trees surrounding old Mrs. Bramson's cottage, nor her well-worn wheelchair, nor the cranky bones of the lady herself. No, that unmistakable groaning is built right into the play. The work starts off as a taut case study of sweet-talking psychopath "Baby Face" Dan (Adan Gonzalez), who wheedles his way into Bramson's (Salle Ellis) good graces in spite of his suspicious behavior and a spooky hat box that may contain a severed head. But soon enough the play starts tripping over itself with transparent red herrings and a lurching tone that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be: a drawing-room comedy of bad manners or a modern portrait (well, by 1935 standards) of female frigidity thawed by a sexual outlaw. Olivia (Holly Weiss), Bramson's uptight niece, is a buttoned-to-the-collar type who vacillates between her forbidden desires for Dan's smarmy advances and her desire to run out of the house like a Victorian maiden in a silent-movie melodrama. A faster, tighter pace would help bridge the play's glaring holes and its characters' inconsistencies. Fortunately, the supporting roles bring needed verisimilitude: Melrose Fougere (as cantankerous cook Mrs. Terrence), Steve Carpentier (as stuffy and ineffectual Hubert, fiancé of Olivia) and Mack Hays (as smarter-than-he-seems Inspector Belsize) help keep this old chestnut warm and toasty. Through November 19. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

Whatshisname? The citizens of Dumpster, Texas, are at it again. Created by a trio of actors at Radio Music Theatre, the wacky Fertle family and all their friends and silly neighbors are now starring in Whatshisname?, a featherweight comedy about a stranger with an eye patch who comes visiting one fine day. Created by Steve and Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills (who also play all of the characters), along with two backstage guys named Mark Cain and Pat Southard, the play tells what happens when a man knocks on the Fertles' door one day, suitcase in hand, for an overnight visit. Only trouble is, nobody can remember who the fellow is. Being the polite people that they are, the Fertles figure that they're at fault. They must know this guy, since he seems to be so chummy with them. So the family makes nice and pretends that this stranger is as familiar as a "little baby owl" (as the Fertles like to say), all the while doing their darnedest to figure out who the heck he is. They serve him fruitcake, they ask him how he's doing, and they even let him put his suitcase in the "other room." Meanwhile, an all-points bulletin goes out to the Fertles' friends and family. They get so desperate, they even put up a $10 reward to anyone who can identify this strange man. As one character says, the situation is a "double order of weird with extra odd sauce." When the mystery is solved at last, the whole thing is perfectly logical, in a kooky, small-town kind of way. And though they might not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, nobody could ever say the Fertles don't practice Southern hospitality. Through November 19. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

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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