Capsule Reviews

Deathtrap Ira Levin knows how to spin a yarn. The author of novels The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, he also wrote Deathtrap, the yummy confection of a theatrical thriller playing at the Alley Theatre. Directed by James Black with irreverent glee, this walk on the dark side offers all the murder and mystery we've come to expect from the Alley's Summer Chills offerings. But Black's version is more than deadly -- it's also deliciously funny and chock-full of delightful surprises. The story takes place in the stately workroom of Sidney Bruhl (Todd Waite), a once-successful playwright whose career has been in a downward spiral as of late. If Bruhl doesn't come up with a killer idea for a play, he's finished. But as luck would have it, an idea arrives in the mail in the form of a script called Deathtrap written by Clifford Anderson, one of Bruhl's former creative-writing students. In a scene crafted with terrifying precision, Bruhl concocts a brutal way to get his career back on track. If no other copies of Anderson's script exist, he can kill Anderson and claim the can't-miss play as his own. Myra (Elizabeth Heflin), his wife, is horrified. But that doesn't stop her husband, and of course the plot thickens. By the end, at least one person ends up dead. It's an ingenious story made even better by the Alley's wicked cast. Waite and Heflin work like perfectly synchronized clocks as they move around Ty Mayberry's innocent-looking Anderson, creating spooky tension even as they spark hoots of laughter. Mayberry is terrific, too. His Anderson is a charmer, but there's something a bit unsettling sparkling in those beautiful blue eyes. It would be unfair to say any more, as half the fun is not knowing what comes next. Let's just leave it with this: Levin's great plot and the Alley's enormously likable cast make Deathtrap everything summer theater ought to be -- a whip of a surprise that will leave you grinning all the way out to your car. Through July 10. 615 Texas Ave., 713-228-8421.

Mister Roberts It's hard keeping those crisp navy whites cleaned and pressed when you're on a "can" of a cargo ship called the USS Reluctant, somewhere in the South Pacific during the waning days of World War II, out of harm's way. The Reluctant is delivering needed supplies, but its crew, under the thumb of a by-the-book martinet of a commander, is bored and itching for action. Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan's 1948 Tony Award-winner (Best Play, Actor, Direction) arrives at the port of Country Playhouse more rusted than necessary, probably because the captain was relieved of duty two days before opening night, and his role is now played by director Steve Carpentier. Choppy seas ahead! This change of command has put a pall over the production -- there's a tentative quality throughout, with noticeable hesitations in tempo and line readings. The large cast is game, though, and there's little doubt that by the end of the run, the crew will be nicely shipshape. Nelson Heggen's Mister Roberts, one of the sailors aching to see action before war's end, is stalwart and quietly commanding in an American sort of way. Heggen can slide down the ship's ladder with the devil-may-care attitude of Errol Flynn in Seahawk. Thomas Blanton's Ensign Pulver (the role that catapulted Jack Lemmon to stardom) is a big lecherous kid, out to do as little work as possible, unless it involves sweet-talking navy nurses. Carpentier's captain is suitably gruff, pompous and jealous of Roberts's popularity with the crew. And as Doc, Joe Floyd manages to portray reserve and levelheadedness during all the ship's shenanigans while slyly hinting that he knows more than he lets on. The crew of misfits is ably mismatched, and the camaraderie of men at war is convincingly portrayed. Through July 16. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Shut Up and Drive No. 4 out of the 14 plays that make up Radio Music Theatre's enduring, hilarious saga of the Singing Fertle Family from Dumpster, Texas, this is the most physical of the comedies so far -- and every bit as wacky and laugh-out-loud funny as the preceding ones. In this installment, daughter Carol, who lives the high life in San Diego with husband George, feels guilty for not seeing her low-life family, and so invites Mom, Dad and brother Earl for a visit. This coincides with sister Justicena's visit to Dumpster, so in typical Fertle fashion, the entire clan ends up coming along, including Uncle Al (he of the eyebrow glasses and incessant stogie) and girlfriend Gwenda (she of the cat's-eye glasses and incessant stogie). Nine family members pretzel themselves into Lou's Buick Riviera and set off for sunny California. That the whole panoply of nutsy folk is played by the three multitalented members of RMT only makes this feat more impressive. The entire Fertle clan clambers over, under and around the front seat during their Act I adventure. Hands, legs and a foot-long sausage make appearances, as does a psychotic trucker with a purple Mohawk, along with Doc Moore (he of the gibberish speech). Somehow, the overloaded Buick limps into "San-di-damn-ego," as Lou calls it, and Act II is off and running amok as the family collides in utterly unpredictable, funny ways. Lou builds a boat in the garage and memorizes the Constitution (don't ask!); Earl wins a contest with his backward singing; Justicena finds her G-spot; Pete "bucks up"; and baby Angina learns to say, "My mommy is a slut." Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills are wondrous on stage, as are Mark Cain and Pat Southard backstage with their sound effects and music mixing. The evening flies by much too fast, and the show is brilliant and wild. Through August 27. 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