Capsule Reviews

Cabin Fever Theatre Suburbia has a bona fide hit on its hands with Mark Dunn's feel-good comedy-drama Cabin Fever. Perhaps the theater could be persuaded to extend the show's run. Not only is Dunn's gentle play an absolute joy, but its exceptional performers delightfully flesh out their characters with heart and brains. The four Beckle sisters, their widowed father and their dead mother's sister reunite at the family cabin on the Guadalupe River over Memorial Day weekend. Their intertwining lives collide, mesh and ultimately triumph as the splintered family heals itself from within. Karen (Tina Samuelsen) is the type-A bossy sister; Cesca (Lindsey Michelle Brunson) is in an abusive relationship; Georgina (Laura Schlecht) goes through life worrying about her weight while chowing down on pecan sandies; and Pidge (Morgan Mayes) marches to her own drummer and now resides at a halfway mental hospital. Dad (Gene Griesbach) has taken to drink since Mom's death; Aunt Tammy (Carolyn Montgomery) has inadvertently locked herself in the bathroom for all of Act I. And Cesca's husband, Mike (Jesse Bainbridge), arrives unexpectedly in a marvelous comic twist. The familial recriminations and restitutions fuse seamlessly under the co-direction of Elvin Moriarty and Barbara S. Hartman, who give this production a great big heart. Griesbach finds just the right tone of exasperation tinged with desperation as he watches his family spin out of control through a haze of Jack Daniel's. Veteran Montgomery simply can't be bettered in her performance as the warm and kindly Aunt Tammy, whose idiosyncratic cracked voice radiates maternal goodness and decency. But the revelation is Mayes as lost, good-hearted Pidge. She gives a season-best performance that's as close to perfection as it can get, blasting the play alive in unexpected ways. Through July 3. 1410 W. 43rd St., 713-682-3525.

Life Beyond the Loop That loony Fertle family is on hiatus until September, so instead you'll just have to content yourself with Radio Music Theatre's hilarious parody Life Beyond the Loop. The show is as bracing as a headfirst dunk into a bucket of ice water. Here, the superb comic trio (author Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills -- with sound- and music-effects wizards Mark Cain and Pat Southard) takes us to Houston-area planned community Precious Trees and proceeds to shake out enough nuts to feed the elephants at the zoo. Among the numerous topical items and persons expertly lambasted: our new accident-prone Metro, the unstoppable developer Tilman Fertitta, the nudie bar/restaurant Kajankers, George and Barbara Bush, the sleazy televangelist Jiffy Dillman and the incompetent Spy Eye News, with its consumer advocate Damuel Madd ("I'm Dam Madd"). There's a plot -- there's always a good plot at RMT's three-ring circus -- but it's only an excuse for timely gags, razor-sharp timing and brilliant song parodies. And let's not forget the Margaret Mueller Miller Mitchell...something, something...Pavilion, the "instant damnation" of Al Franken, Uncle Dan's insane furniture commercials and the dessert of choice at Precious Trees: pudding! Through August 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

The Unexpected Guest Everything's a little off-kilter in the Company OnStage's rendition of Agatha Christie's Unexpected Guest. The play itself is the main culprit. Dame Christie may be the most published author in history, after the Bible and Shakespeare, but she's a lame playwright. Her improbable and overly knotty plots work much better in books than on stage. Christie resorts to implausible twists and turns to keep us guessing and on edge. No character, especially in this 1958 murder mystery, behaves like a real person. Michael Starkwedder (Mark Carrier) has wrecked his car on a foggy night. He enters the only house in the area and stumbles upon a dead body. Standing nearby is the deceased's attractive wife (Ashley Heathcock), holding a gun. Although she takes credit for the murder, Michael convinces her to blame someone else, going so far as to cut out letters from the newspaper to make a note to be pinned on the body. No one could be so gullible as this wife, or so conniving as this unexpected guest, but everyone carries on regardless. This is the type of play where Carrier knows just the right desk drawer to open for scissors and glue for his dastardly note. This kind of drama has its own rules and must be played with utter conviction so the audience doesn't have time to do too much thinking. Only Carrier knows how to do this. The other actors fumble through a variety of undecipherable accents and unconvincing line readings. Even the curtain call looks painful. Why, if the character of Inspector Thomas is played by a woman (Dottie McQuarrie), do the others all refer to her as "sir"? And no self-respecting valet would ever be caught dead wearing formal white evening wear. Butlers wear black. That much Christie did know. Through July 3. 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