Capsule Reviews

Billy Bishop Goes to War As much as we love Canada and all things that sweet country to the north represents, John Gray and Eric Peterson's Canadian import Billy Bishop Goes to War is a hard play to get excited about. The Stages Repertory Theatre production, directed by Chelsey Santoro Krohn, is certainly earnest enough. The tiny musical about a Canadian World War I fighter pilot pays gung-ho homage to the rough-and-tumble soul of the "Colonials," as the English say. And in this production, the small cast, consisting of Jim Johnson as Billy Bishop (and several other characters) and Michael Harren as the Narrator/Pianist, does a bang-up job of bringing Billy's wartime struggles to life. But the slender tale that follows Billy from his early days as a ne'er-do-well in military school to his glory days as a decorated pilot should most appeal to fellow Canadians. Lots of jokes are made about the "Colonials" and their general brutishness compared to the elegant Europeans, and these jokes feel a bit foreign on an American stage. The two-performer format doesn't do much for the show either. As good as Johnson is (and he is often terrific) playing all the different characters who come into Billy's life -- including a proper English dowager, an Irish airplane mechanic and a naughty French chanteuse, among others -- the show would probably be more fiery if these characters could be inhabited by other actors. Still, given the restraints of the script and the budget of this production (the set consists of little more than a few posters tacked up on the theater walls), Johnson and Harren do as good a job as any two could at making an American audience care about a Canadian war hero. Through May 1. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

...for those who live in cities After suffering a humiliating defeat in World War I, Germany suffered further defeat. Inflation tore apart whatever remained of the fragile social structure; the cream of Teutonic manhood lay dead in the trenches; riots erupted over scarce jobs; bread lines snaked through once-great cities. You were forced to scrounge, or you might starve tomorrow. When the future loomed bleakest, the pursuit of pleasure became a priority. Amid crushing poverty and nihilism, the arts flourished, and one of the most powerful, idiosyncratic voices was that of playwright-provocateur Bertolt Brecht. His feverishly communistic, virulently antifascist works (The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, Galileo, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) are as revolutionary, controversial and relevant today as when they shocked the bourgeoisie in the '30s and '40s. His lesser-known poetry chronicles the turbulence of these post-WWI times like a deep-focus photo -- all the blemishes appear in the foreground, while foreboding shadows recede into infinity. Bob Morgan has adapted Brecht's trenchant verses into one of dos chicas theater commune's most satisfying works. Using haunting cabaret tunes by Mischa Spoliansky and Friedrich Hollaender as musical interludes and/or commentary (performed by Karen Schlag in pseudo-Dietrich mode), the poems are dramatized in brief scenes and monologues that visualize the dying gasps of the Weimar Republic. This is a nitty-gritty Cabaret, imbued with the caustic S&M spin that's so much a part of the dos chicas aesthetic. It works like a jackboot to the head. Through April 30 at Free Range Studios, 1719 Live Oak, 832-283-0858.

Four Dogs and a Bone Playwright-director John Patrick Shanley -- who received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for the drama Doubt and an earlier Academy Award for Moonstruck -- penned a black-edged valentine to the movie industry with his early-'90s comedy Four Dogs and a Bone. Two has-beens, the Producer and the Star, and two newcomers, the Second Lead and the Screenwriter, claw at one another for their chance to make it in Hollywood during the filming of the mother of all B movies. These shallow knuckleheads are, of course, inspired by the ones Shanley has had to deal with in his own career (though Shanley had his own knucklehead moment with his lame Joe vs. the Volcano). The Producer (John Stevens in a wry, knowing performance as both snake and snake charmer) wants to cut the screenplay to save money. He also needs a hit to remain viable in this town that values only what you've done lately. Collette (Tina Samuelsen) needs a smash to move from ingenue to leading lady, or it's character-actress time from now on. Dim but adorable Brenda (in a delectable turn by Julie Gutman) just wants to be famous -- and yet knows exactly what scenes need to be rewritten for her to take over the lead. Writer Victor (Howard Block), fresh from off-Broadway and full of principles, displays feet of clay as he's seduced by dreams of becoming a director. In the meantime, he's entirely content to sleep with either actress. The ins and outs of moviemaking on the cheap receive loving treatment from the excellent cast, but the play itself could benefit from its own rewrite to tighten the four scenes and give the caricatures a bit more oomph and believability. And would someone explain Collette and Brenda's thick Nuu Yawhk accents? Are they shooting this movie in the Bronx? Through April 23 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Morning Star Sylvia Regan's eternally optimistic Morning Star is a sugary throwback to better days. The play opened on Broadway in 1940, during an era when the American dream promised a glowing future to anyone willing to work. In keeping with the cloying hopefulness at the heart of the play, Main Street Theater's show, directed by Steve Garfinkel with boyish enthusiasm, is a bright, shining, happy production about the human heart's power to overcome adversity. The marathon (as one fellow theatergoer put it) three-act play covers lots of time and subject matter. Politics, culture and love all get their moments in this story about a Jewish immigrant family struggling to make it on New York City's Lower East Side. The story opens at the beginning of the 20th century. Events such as the infamous Triangle Factory Fire -- a real historical catastrophe in which 146 workers died, locked in on the burning top floors of the Asch Building -- and World War I find their way into the narrative. By Act III, it's 1931. The family is mired in desperate difficulties, but the matriarch, Becky Felderman, is always a survivor despite her family's troubles. This narrative represents the sort of "upbeat" mid-20th-century theater that has been replaced by Lifetime Television and Hallmark movies. The performers are an attractive bunch, even if they are a bit stiff (this is especially true of the younger members of the cast). And Karen Ross and Thomas Baird, who play the two leads with likable ease, are completely pleasant to watch. But, of course, running at just under three hours, with two intermissions, the production presses well into the outer reaches of pleasant. Through April 17 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

Office Hours It's not until the second scene of this sparkling little gem of a comedy, written by prolific Canadian playwright Norm Foster and playing at Company OnStage, that we realize what Foster's up to. Six separate scenes overlap during one Friday afternoon in six separate offices -- and everybody's interconnected in wonderfully goofy ways. Even certain inanimate objects show up to link each disparate story to the next. What at first seems totally random becomes clear when we least suspect it. The male ice-skater who's fleetingly perched on the building's ledge in scene one turns out to be the brother of the entertainment lawyer in scene four, who's putting a movie deal together with the toadying producer from scene two, who's the gay lover of the lawyer whose parents drop in unannounced right when he's late for a tryst. Meanwhile, there's the six-foot, 200-pound jockey in scene five who dreams of riding in the Kentucky Derby even though his last attempt gave his horse a heart attack; the agent in scene three who tries to convince his wife that the incriminating photographs she's holding are "the aftermath of some freak accident" in which he was thrown pantless into the back of a car; and a sleazy romance novel and Week-at-a-Glance daily planner that show up in each scene. Rest assured, it makes perfect sense by the final curtain. Audiences come away grinning, thanks to pinpoint performances -- Christine Vinh's tart-tongued wife with her purring voice, Bruce Countryman's harried dad, L. Robert Westeen's whining jockey, Donna Hainley's domineering mom. Through April 16. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

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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