Capsule Reviews

The Bad Seed Meet little Miss Rhoda Penmark (Katerina Pasat), an eight-year-old so neat, clean and tidy, she's every mother's dream. She charms with sweetness and composure and has perfect penmanship. But when she isn't rewarded with her school's coveted medal, she takes matters into her own dainty -- yet deadly -- hands. There are hints that this might not be the first time darling Rhoda has resorted to unsavory tactics when she doesn't get what she wants. Maxwell Anderson's 1954 psychological thriller, adapted from William March's phenomenally successful book, overplays the creaky theme of heredity versus environment, but it's a genuine crowd-pleaser on stage. There's nothing so satisfying as watching a sweet little girl commit multiple murders and then act as if there's nothing wrong in the world. Rhoda's mother faces the shocking avalanche of facts with mounting consternation and incredulity, and in a finely detailed performance, Malinda Dunlop plays her to the hilt. Pasat certainly has "creepy" down pat, and her psychotic stares are wonderfully chilling, but Rhoda's duplicitous charms and smiles unfortunately are played down. Theatre Southwest's loving, chilling, stylish production conjures up the rich look of '50s Hollywood cinematography. Through March 12. 8944-A Clarckcrest, 713-661-9505.

Boston Marriage David Mamet, one of America's most important living playwrights, is well known for his smutty-mouthed male characters -- they scrape the bottom of the world as they eke out a bitter living, usually involving some sort of nefarious activity. His 1999 Boston Marriage, getting its regional premiere with the folks at Unhinged Productions, gives us an altogether new spin on Mamet's quintessential scam artist. Set in the Victorian age, the play focuses on a pair of lesbians who live discreetly together in a "Boston marriage," which is a 19th-century term describing the close (supposedly nonsexual) friendships between women who choose to cohabitate instead of marrying. Born from Mamet's imagination, these ladies are as capable as any of his male characters of hurling a nasty insult. Anna (Sara Gaston) and Claire (Patricia Duran) call each other everything from "vacant cow" to "impertinent cooz" to "immoral harlot" as they battle over who gets to sleep with whom. In true Mamet form, they're also willing to scam for money and for sex. Lighter and funnier than much of Mamet's work, Boston Marriage is a celebration of language and philosophy. The characters say things like "what a vast and pointless shithole it all is" as they explore the meaning of words and the meaning of love. Directed by Michelle Edwards, this show is clean and tight and often laugh-out-loud funny. Especially riotous is Gaston as the acid-tongued Anna. These women are catered to by their Scottish maid Catherine, played by Kelley Stolte with flaming red hair and fiery wit. Her well-timed curtsies are priceless. No Mamet fan should miss this production. Through March 27 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Shadowlands Fittingly, the woman who brought life and love to dry-as-dust professor-author C.S. Lewis was named Joy. In William Nicholson's impressionistic -- and not altogether accurate -- play about their relationship, brash American poet Joy Gresham (played here with acerbic wit by Jennifer Dean) is described as "Jewish, communist, Christian...and divorced." After four years of marriage, Joy's untimely death from cancer causes Lewis to finally feel the pain and suffering that will allow him to hear "God's megaphone" that "awakens us to others." Nicholson's thesis is preoccupied with suffering: why God allows it, how it's the inevitable fate of man. But when you get into the meat of this play, it's really a high-toned weepie in which love blesses a sexually repressed intellectual, melts away the dust and cobwebs, and then is unfairly removed. The story is overlaid with intellectual discourse and weighty religious dogma, while the nitty-gritty romance is hastily shuffled off backstage. It's all quite pristine and unerotic, as if the very thought of sex were unseemly in the presence of God. The big surprise is that this peek-a-boo love story works so well and has such power. In this rendition from A.D. Players, much of the credit goes to Marion Arthur Kirby, who gives a devastatingly good performance as Lewis. Whether he's offering a withering put-down to his circle of academic friends, or arriving at wit's end with this baffling, infuriating woman who's wheedled her way into his heart, Kirby is a delight. He moves us, even when Nicholson's lumpy script gets in the way. In Lewis's view, we're all living in a shadowland before we get to heaven. Kirby, at least, supplies all the light necessary. Kevin Dean, as brittle, bitchy colleague Christopher Riley, rises to Kirby's level with a wonderfully smug performance; and Jeffrey McMorrough, as Lewis's live-in brother, is as comfy and personable as a pair of well-worn slippers and a bracing cup of Earl Grey. Director Sissy Pulley keeps the production taut and fluid. Through March 20. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Wiener Day at the Rollercade Okay, so who's the biggest wiener in Dumpster, Texas, now that the tiny town's favorite holiday is here? Is it Mildred, who's made her family's sacrosanct meal on the eve of wiener time: Vienna sausage roll-ups? Is it her husband, Ned, the town's former preacher, who seems to have lost his mind? Is it their daughter, Justicena, come all this way from Bangor, Maine -- without her husband because she wants to be assured of having a good time -- just to be "hurled" from the festival's tower? Is it loser son Lou, who's trying to invent a cheaper heart medicine using ordinary household chemicals? Is it their other son, dim and lovable Earl, who's raising a rabbit that's as "odd" as he is? Is it Uncle Al, still mourning the death of his beloved wife and bruised from a mammogram he received as a gift? Is it flittery, none-too-closeted Sheriff Benton, who loves roller-skating and wearing women's clothes? Maybe it's Bridgette, Lou's "slutty" wife, who's having an affair with singer Country Wayne Conway, or Doc Moore, whose gibberish conversations are Dumpster's own version of the Tower of Babel, or Gwenda, Dumpster's stogie-chomping postmistress, who lusts after Uncle Al even when he's wearing his dead wife's housedress. Maybe it's all of them, especially when they all make painful public confessions thinking the town is about to be destroyed (don't ask, but it has something to do with Lou smashing his car into the rollercade's generator after he's been beaten to a pulp by town bully Braxton Hix, lately out of prison, who attacks him every Wiener Day). Certainly, though, the wieners are not the mad trio responsible for this Fertle Family funfest: Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills. This live-action cartoon from Radio Music Theatre is the funniest show in town. If you don't go see it, the biggest wiener will be you. Through May 7. 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