Capsule Reviews

Birthday from Hell What has six arms, six legs and three heads -- and is one of the greatest comedy shows on earth? If you correctly guessed Radio Music Theatre and its three loony creators (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills), then you're probably still laughing about the latest misadventures of the Fertle family from Dumpster, Texas. If laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, then miracle cures occur at each performance. We recommend you visit -- and revisit -- this most dysfunctional town, which is filled to the rafters with goofy inhabitants, all portrayed to perfection by the three superb caricaturists. There's no social redemption, no political correctness and no great issues crowding the supper-club intimacy of RMT's stage at Richmond and Colquitt -- which is right across the street, we're reminded during the intro, from the "lovely and peaceful" Settegast-Kopf Funeral Home. There are only laughs. In Birthday from Hell, the 14th play in this wacky series, let's just say that a memorial service for the town's beloved minister also becomes the site of a surprise birthday party. How this happens is insanely logical -- insane because we're in a place where public monuments turn out to be blowup dolls, the town doctor speaks in gibberish, and the High Order of the Owls meets in secret in a toolshed. Don't ask, just go. Through May 15. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Eleemosynary Claude Debussy's impressionistic music is just the right accompaniment to Eleemosynary, Lee Blessing's dreamlike, amorphous three-character study on view at the Company OnStage. And so are the evocative swaths of blue and fuchsia that wash across the set's netting-draped flats, designed by director John Wind. Also spot-on is Patricia Shiro's costuming of the play's characters, three Westbrook women. Eccentric grandmother Dorothea is layered in chic peasant garb and has an aging-hippie pigtail braid; her emotionally stifled daughter Artemis is all buttoned up in a confining pantsuit; and Artemis's brainy and emotionally mature teenage daughter Echo is dressed like a goth vamp, wearing black lace and purple fingernails. In this gentle play full of remembrances and subtle recriminations, the layers that constitute that universal mother-daughter conflict are deftly peeled away. Each woman wants something from her mother that Mom can't give. "We try to be what the next one needs," Dorothea explains. "We never come close." To set herself free from her own mother's suffocating blandness, Dorothea has chosen to become the town's dotty old lady. Artemis is haunted by a previous teenage abortion, and she abandons her own daughter Echo, as well as stifling Dorothea. As for Echo, she just wants her mother back -- and to be the national spelling bee champion. That not much is revealed underneath all this intergenerational drama is certainly not the fault of the cast, which handles Blessing's quirky take on humanity with insight. The actresses manage to make us believe these three actors are actually related. Karen Schlag is chock-full of life and sparkle as intelligent Echo; Pam Lindsay brings quiet comedy and dignity to kooky Grandma; and Marianne Lyon, in the difficult role of brittle Artemis, is all pent-up breathlessness and steely resolve. Eleemosynary showcases beautiful ensemble work from all three. Through May 8. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

Guilty Conscience You'd think that award-winning television writers Richard Levinson and William Link, who created such American detective icons as Mannix, Jessica Fletcher and Columbo, and wrote countless episodes for series including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive and Desilu Playhouse, would know what they're doing with Guilty Conscience. Think again. Even pros have off days. This corpse of a murder mystery, which originally was written as a 1985 made-for-TV movie and then given a quickie stage adaptation by the prolific writers, is dead upon arrival at Theatre Suburbia. The show's hack script is television writing at its worst, dredged up from the absolute bottom of their trunk. A pompous, philandering and immensely unsympathetic super-attorney (Stephen Lovett) ponders various schemes to kill his wife (Tina Samuelsen). To test his "what if" theories, he imagines himself at his own trial, grilled by a prosecutor as skilled as he (Tony D'Armata). To sex up this clumsy idea, the authors toy with the time sequence -- to no valid dramatic purpose whatsoever. This obvious gimmick can't camouflage the show's appalling second-rate plot, lack of suspense and character-less characters. Even the arrival of Susanne Picheloup in an utterly refreshing and idiosyncratic performance as the lawyer's spacey mistress fails to fully resuscitate our interest. The stylish set, though, designed by Tim Newman and Elvin Moriarty, is above reproach. Through May 15. 1410 West 43rd Street, 713-682-3525.

Jekyll & Hyde When Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, he probably never imagined the melodramatic spectacle that is Jekyll & Hyde the musical. But Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's version of Stevenson's story is not without its campy charm. James Noone's set is full of Victorian flourishes. Especially priceless is the good Doctor Jekyll's gothic laboratory, where an enormous funhouse mirror flies down from the rafters and hangs above the scene, foreshadowing all the weirdness to come. Jekyll's image is distorted in the mirror as he turns into Hyde with great melodramatic flourish, and Kevin Gray plays the moment as well as any actor could. Mean as he is, the evil Hyde is actually a hottie; he becomes involved with a beautiful prostitute named Lucy, played by mesmerizing Luba Mason. There's no better reason to see this production than to experience the raw electricity that is Mason on stage. When everything gets dramatic with a capital D, the musical often approaches the ridiculous -- one particularly "serious" opening-night moment elicited smiles and even a few snickers from the audience. But director Robert Cuccioli manages to keep those moments to a minimum. And there are some terrific songs sprinkled throughout the otherwise sugary score that really do make the night worthwhile. Through May 9 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

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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