Capsule Reviews

Done to Death Vermont playwright Fred Carmichael's 30-plus light romances and murder comedies have been a boon to regional theaters, and his works and patronage have been instrumental in the reputation and success of that state's Dorset Theatre Playhouse. If you're acquainted with one of his most performed plays, thanks to Company OnStage, there's no need to rush to see another. This empty exercise at murder mystery/comedy has no style, little imagination and clunky dramatics. The premise has promise: Five out-of-style mystery writers have been hired to collaborate on a TV series. Whisked off to a deserted island, they discover their TV producer dead in the closet and their own ranks dispatched one by one. They must use their distinctive styles of deduction to discover the killer before more mayhem ensues. This might work if any conviction or depth had been given to the characters other than the clichs they've been clothed in, as Carmichael forces his convoluted plot twists into superficial pretzels and needless, unfunny digressions. Only Dottie McQuarrie, as a gruff Agatha Christie look-alike, and John Patterson, as a martini-swilling, urbane Nick Charles clone, find the correct tone in this toneless play. It's awfully difficult to supply these types with personality, logic or believability when the playwright can't be bothered. That's the ultimate mystery. Through June 11. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

Glengarry Glen Ross Clocking in at just under 90 minutes without an intermission, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is a fast gut-punch of a play. Done right, it will leave you breathless. And for the most part, the Alley Theatre's production of this postmodern tale about the nasty business of salesmen hits its target dead on. Directed by James Black with lean muscle and hair-raising rhythm, the show burns -- it's a thrilling celebration of greed, profanity and the sorry darkness in all our souls. Focusing on five middle-aged schmucks who slave away in a soul-crushing real estate office, the simple story is as disturbing as they come. The office is the sort of hellhole where every grunt must sell enough properties to get his name on the board. If you don't sell, you don't have a job. We meet the major players in three swiftly moving scenes in a Chinese restaurant across the street from the office. First up is the sniveling Shelly Levene (John Tyson), who's on a bad "streak" and trying to persuade his ice-hearted manager John Williamson (Jeffrey Bean) to give up the good leads. Scene two happens in a booth across the restaurant. There, George Aaronow (Todd Waite) and Dave Moss (James Belcher) sit bitching about their jobs, their boss, their lousy luck. Finally we meet the infamous Richard Roma (Sean Patrick Reilly), top man on the board. He's in the middle of his own special sales pitch, targeting one James Lingk (K. Todd Freeman), a twitchy little man who's mesmerized by Roma's strange methodology. Then comes the scene change. Lights come up on the office. Everything's trashed. Someone has broken in during the night, and now it's time to figure out whodunit. The production gathers speed as the men begin to unravel under the pressure. Of course, one man ends up completely demolished in this wasteland of greed and want. The final image will haunt you as you make your way to the car. Glengarry Glen Ross will make you squirm even as you thrill at its nastiness. Through June 5. 615 Texas, 713- 228-8421.

On the Razzle Tom Stoppard's theatrical facility and verbal quickness always leave audiences breathless. If plot and character sometimes seem diffuse or sketchy, one thing's certain: Stoppard's always drunk on words. Unfortunately, in the case of On the Razzle, he's not only drunk on words but just plain drunk. An adaptation of many earlier adaptations (which finally morphed into Jerry Herman's classic musical Hello, Dolly), On the Razzle tells the tale of two employees of a miserly and lecherous boss who run off to the big city for a day -- and a night, they hope. Travesties ensue. The play does showcase Stoppard's unique verbal filigree and love of low comedy, but it's a farcical grab bag -- there are so many different styles here that ultimately there is no style. There's no consistency, and less cohesion. When you have slapstick, groaning puns, men in bad drag, a talking parrot, a butt-obsessed coachman, an obsequious butler, trapdoors, a folding screen, an imaginary horse, lonely-hearts ads and Verdi's Macbeth -- and that's just a touch of the nonsense in this whirling dervish -- what do you emphasize, Monty Python or Noel Coward? Director Robert de los Reyes paints everything with broad strokes, leaving the cast adrift. That they never find land isn't entirely their fault; they're all good, but they seem to be from different plays. Through June 5. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

Sandpaper Ballet and The Firebird The New York Times has called Mark Morris the most influential choreographer alive. See the wonderfully irreverent Sandpaper Ballet and understand why. Houston Ballet is the first company to add this frothy confection to its repertoire since it was created for San Francisco Ballet in 1999. The witty dance moves to charmingly familiar tunes by mid-century composer Leroy Anderson. Anyone who hears "Syncopated Clock" (a popular TV theme song) or "Sleigh Ride" will instantly recognize the goofy music as part of American culture at its happiest. The dancers, who fill the stage and move with easy, floppy arms and loose-limbed feet, are all dressed in the same whimsical costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, suggesting lovely lawns of green grass topped with blue skies and white clouds. Moving across the stage in large groups, the dancers invoke images of everything from mechanical typewriters to old-style drill teams. But Morris has the most fun when he reverses our expectations by having his performers disrupt the seemingly perfect lines. They leap out of order; they enter and exit when least expected; men are often paired together; and when individuals do take the stage, they do it without any of the divalike grandeur that is the norm for ballet. Instead, they dance joyously and exuberantly, serving Morris's delectably charming creation. Paired with this creation is The Firebird, which comes off as stuffy and traditional by comparison. Choreographed by James Kudelka to music by Igor Stravinsky, the dance narrates the story of a magical bird (danced beautifully on May 28 by Leticia Oliveira) who saves the life of a prince. Those looking for pure joyous dance might find this wooden production in need of some shaping after seeing Sandpaper Ballet. Through June 5 at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 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