Capsule Reviews

A Doll's House It's the most famous door slam in history. At the end of Henrik Ibsen's influential 1879 "problem play," Nora leaves the confines of her outwardly happy and conventional marriage and abandons her children, husband and social standing in order to "find herself." She might as well be slamming the door on the 19th century. Nora is selfish, pampered, spoiled and kept as sexual ornament by husband Torvald, who repeatedly calls her "my pet squirrel," "feather brain" and "child." Out of love for him, she's borrowed money from an unscrupulous business acquaintance. He proceeds to blackmail her since she forged a signature on the contract. While this action propels the well-made play, it's only the tip of the iceberg. It's the roiling stuff underneath -- 19th-century society's subtle put-downs, male chauvinism, the burgeoning feminist revolution -- that boils up in Nora and causes her, at last, to confront herself and rethink her entire life. Ibsen brought a daring psychological realism to the theater that was terrifying and new. He spotlighted his audience's own hypocrisy, and this controversial play was a sensation throughout Europe. Actresses clamored to portray this new woman, and the character of Nora became one of drama's lodestars. She's a difficult lady to put over -- girlish and giddy at the beginning, secretive and guilt-ridden during her potential exposure, strong and resolute at the conclusion. In a whirligig interpretation, Karen Schlag, at times, seems to be channeling one of D.W. Griffith's silent film heroines -- all fluttering virginity and perpetual motion -- but her edginess galvanizes our attention and pays off handsomely when she finds her center and calms down at the end. Less satisfying is Patrick Jennings as prig Torvald, who must convince as both lover and puritan. But Mark Carrier as blackmailer Krogstad and Kimberly Scoville as desperate Kristine supply a refreshing naturalism. Through February 19. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

Polish Joke David Ives's Polish Joke is a difficult play to like, but it's also one that's hard not to admire. The narrative, about a man who comes to embrace his Polish heritage, is as old hat as they come, but in the frame of this droopy tale, Ives manages to create some highly inventive theatrical moments. A very rocky -- and sometimes very funny -- night of theater emerges slowly from the play's collage of shape-shifting scenes. The scenes run the gamut from bizarre to utterly real. One of the strangest features a troupe of Irish travel agents who can't stop talking about how "grand" the morning is and how it's as sweet as "the swollen teat of a new mother" or the "first good fart after a plate of cooked cabbage." As funny as scenes like this are, they do little to develop Ives's story about a man named Jasiu (John R. Johnston) who's experiencing a Polish-American identity crisis. In the end, it turns out that Jasiu has to spend two acts learning what most theatergoing grown-ups already know: that underneath it all, people are very much the same, and that being Polish is every bit as good as being Irish. Through February 20 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Two Trains Running If you're counting, this is August Wilson's sixth installment in his monumental ten-part history of the American black experience, which includes Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Two Trains Running takes place in the 1960s in his beloved Pittsburgh, at a downtown hole-in-the-wall called Lee's Diner. If scrappy owner Memphis (the froggy-voiced Wayne DeHart) doesn't accept the city's offer to buy him out, the property will be condemned and demolished through eminent domain. Regular customers and neighbors include wise old Holloway (Clarence Whitmore), who's distrustful of whites and their government; waitress Risa (Aisha Moyo Ussery); attractive, bad-news Sterling (Timothy Eric Dickson); and numbers-playing, glib Wolf (Davi Jay). Then there's crazy Hambone (Troy A. Hogan), whose "where's my ham?" cry is the plaintive mantra of the downtrodden, and glove-wearing undertaker West (Willie Dirden), who always wipes off the utensils before eating. This cross-current of black spirit never for a moment feels like a screed, or a polemic, or a dry dissertation. It's amazingly real and theatrical at the same time, thanks to Wilson's dramatic surety, ear for poetic conversation, and reverence for the well-made play. The evening flies by as these seven characters interact, collide and commiserate, and the atmosphere is positively electric -- a tribute to both Wilson and his exceptional cast. August Wilson might be America's most humanistic playwright: He adores people. He might also be America's most American playwright. When his multifaceted characters fail -- for whatever reason -- to realize their dreams, he loves them more. Pound for pound, there's more hurt, hope and heart in a play by Wilson than by anyone else. Lovingly paced and filled with telling details by director Eileen J. Morris, Wilson's atmospheric play soars down the rails. All aboard. Through February 20 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward's Albee's blistering, award-winning 1962 masterpiece spews its toxic perfume with mesmerizing vigor in Country Playhouse's thoroughly fascinating production. Superbly cast and directed with clarifying perception by Penny Corden, America's own dysfunctional husband and wife, George and Martha, come to horrifying life. This blackest of black comedies is a blowtorch of a play -- cruel, humorous, outrageous -- stripping away the four characters' pretenses along with the audience's skin. And this acid-etched production is as good as it gets. Cocktails securely planted in fists, George and Martha lash out at each other with blood lust. The action begins at another drunken faculty party, when guests arrive. The fresh-meat visitors elicit the worst of George and Martha's bile, recriminations, lies and illusions. By sunrise, no one is unscathed. Although spent and chastened, George and Martha clasp each other in their first true embrace. George, unambitious to a fault, is brought to radiant life by Bob Maddox, who relishes his needle-sharp retorts. When Martha breaks the cardinal rule in the couple's desperate game of love, she sends him careening over the edge. Maddox takes every opportunity to unleash Albee's paroxysms of rage and betrayal, while also managing to display George's keen, savage wit and intelligence. Martha (Lisa Schofield) is truly something out of a nightmare -- the earth mother from hell -- and Schofield transforms what could be a blowsy, braying caricature into someone you've probably met at a drunken office party. She gives this gorgon a hidden soul, revealing her dashed hopes and wasted life, making her implosion at play's end all the more stunning. As Martha seduces puffed-up would-be stud Nick (Jeff Featherstone, in a perfect incarnation), she takes his tie and wraps it around her hand, pulling him to her. It might as well be a noose. Nick's wife of convenience, the mousy, brandy-swilling Honey, is played by the spot-on Stacie Williams. None of these fabulous four makes a false move. Ensemble acting of the highest caliber in one of American drama's supreme achievements -- what more could you want? Through February 26. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

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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