Capsule Reviews

Comic Potential First produced in 1999, Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, about a man who falls in love with a beautiful android, trips lightly over what has become familiar territory. But Ayckbourn's version has its own quirky charm, and that's because it's set in the crass and fabulous world of actors. In this script, actors are actually "actoids," androids who spend their time acting in bad daytime soaps. All hell breaks loose when an actoid named Jacie (played by the charming Julie Simpson) develops a sense of humor and falls in love with a human. Turns out she has real heart -- and real comic potential. The best scenes teach us what makes comedy funny, something that Ayckbourn (who's written 68 plays to date) knows a lot about. Under Mark Adams's direction, the Main Street cast members are capable, if not always as nuanced as they might be. Besides Simpson's lovely Jacie, the real standout in this cast is Robert de los Reyes, who plays several small characters, each utterly original. Ayckbourn's script runs out of steam before we get to the end. He never does answer the question of what happens to a poor machine that falls in love. As Jacie points out, she will look 19 forever, while humans grow old and die. But despite its glitches, the story is full of amusing observations. Through December 12 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

A Pure Gospel Christmas Most Christmas shows have all the holiday spirit of a month-old fruitcake. But A Pure Gospel Christmas, now running at the Ensemble Theatre, is as fresh and spicy as a bubbling-hot apple pie. The story about a church choir trying to get in the mood for their Christmas show isn't what makes this production so fabulous. The real excitement comes from the Ensemble's fine cast of singers, who lift up their voices in happy, fulsome praise of the season. Headed up in grand style by Anthony Boggess-Glover, who plays the choir leader, the cast is by turns funny, sweet and exuberant -- in other words, a joy to behold. Conceived and directed by Leslie Dockery and David A. Tobin, the show works a little bit like a television special. The characters are all types: There are the young folks who want to jazz up the Christmas pageant, and the old-bitty dowagers who want to keep it all clean. And never mind the sometimes cheesy arrangements of songs like "O Holy Night" and "Joy to the World" -- all the music is delivered with such conviction that the audience can't help but break into hand-clapping praise of the good energy emanating from the stage. Even the band, directed by Lydia Alston in a bright red hat, is fun to watch. Unabashedly religious, the show gets to the heart of what Christmas is all about, celebrating what should be a wonderfully joyful day. Through December 31. 3535 Main, 713-807-4300.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife Consider Theater LaB's sparkling rendition of Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife an early Christmas present. You'll kick yourself if you miss it. This literate, witty and sexy comedy has playwright Busch going mainstream, after decades of gay camp classics including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommy, Die. If you're familiar with Busch's work as both writer and drag actor, you weren't surprised by all the breathless acclaim he's gotten lately -- or his Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2001. Marjorie (Terri Carter), married for more than 30 years, is in a midlife rut. Hell, she's in a chasm. Depressed and taking out her frustrations on the Disney mega-store by smashing pricey figurines, she's "curious, yes; profound, no!" Marjorie is hungry for life's meaning but thinks she's of limited intellect. Her loving husband (Mike Lovell), an allergist, is worried, but more concerned with his exalted position among his devoted students. Marjorie's Jewish yenta mom, Frieda (Dorothy Edwards), whose primary concern is undergoing yet another colonoscopy -- her third in six months -- just wants her to buck up. "Go, do volunteer work, make yourself useful," she crows while apotheosizing her bowel movements. Marjorie is pushed out of her lethargy -- they all are -- by the magical appearance of her childhood friend Lee (Josephine John), whose sophisticated yet sinister fairy godmother changes everything. The laughs are nonstop, even when the conversation turns to Marjorie's beloved German novelist, Hermann Hesse, and the deeper significance of Siddhartha. Sex, of course, is the great liberator, bringing morning-after guilt along with wonderful repercussions. Carter is splendid as out-of-sorts Marjorie, as is Edwards as Frieda, but it's Josephine John who centers the show with her sleek elegance and name-dropping and her panther sultriness. Lee is the great enigma, the girl who's both good and bad, seductive and creepy -- and John portrays her magnificently. Through December 12. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

You Can't Take It with You Some of the most difficult roles to pull off in the theater are "normal" people -- everyday, ordinary types you'd pass on the street without noticing. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's truly classic screwball comedy from 1936 has two of these roles: Alice (Ruth Shauberger), daughter of a nutty but adorable family of slackers and dreamers, and Tony (Matt Tramel), rich son of a Wall Street investment banker, who's in love with Alice. Swirling around these two are some of the wackiest, juiciest roles in theater history, and yet Shauberger and Tramel hold their own against all the loonies surrounding them. Alice's mom (Jaci Jeanne) writes racy, albeit unfinished, plays on a typewriter that was mistakenly delivered to the house eight years ago. Dad (Ron Putterman), with the help of best friend Mr. De Pinna (Jim Kearney), makes fireworks in the basement. Older daughter Essie (Diane Eschbacher) traipses about the living room in toe shoes because she thinks she'll become a great ballerina. Her husband, Ed (Jim Walsh), is devoted to his xylophone and amateur printing press, inserting communist slogans into boxes of candy he sells in the neighborhood. And patriarch Grandpa (Carl Masterson) gave up his lucrative career 35 years ago because he wasn't having any fun in life. Now he attends Columbia graduation ceremonies, goes to the zoo and dispenses wisdom. This whirligig of a play, the first comedy to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, is as relevant today as when it premiered during the Great Depression. Because it deals with the issue of happiness vs. career, You Can't Take It with You will always be relevant, and this rendition from Company OnStage displays all the zaniness and love inherent in the work. Through December 18. 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