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.

Dirty Story No side of the horrific Palestinian/Israeli conflict is served by the cartoon treatment John Patrick Shanley's black farce gives both in Dirty Story, now on view in a handsome production at Stages Repertory Theatre. Jewish writer Wanda (Christine Auten) seeks help on her novel from tormented and condescending firebrand Brutus (Alex Kilgore) and then moves in and appropriates his apartment. A disastrous S&M love-hate relationship ensues. Through broad hints and references to territory, identity, Wanda's dream ("Someday I'm going to have my own place") and Brutus's impermanence and lack of roots, it doesn't take long before we realize that these two characters are stand-ins for larger issues. Wanda's dramatic revelation -- "Call me Israel" -- as she aims a gun at sadistic Brutus, from whose tortures she has escaped thanks to the timely arrival of cowboy boyfriend Frank (John Richard Johnston, read: USA), puts a grand end to Act I, but it also puts an end to the play's intriguing mystery. Act II is coarse, overblown, obvious and quite a letdown after Act I and its dangerous, compelling battle of the sexes. Still, Kilgore makes a sexy grunge Palestinian as he hurls impassioned polemics and coils up seductively against a helpless Wanda before he goes after her with a buzz saw. As an actor, he keeps us on edge throughout; we never know exactly what he's going to do. It's a provocative, hip performance. Auten smoothly goes from naive idealist to victim to beret-wearing, Uzi-toting aggressor, and she manages to be whiny, air-headed, ultra feminine and tough as nails, sometimes all in the same scene. Johnston plays the gruff "I just want to be loved" cowboy industrialist with buffoon conviction. And David Born is excellent as Frank's boot-licking sidekick Watson (read: England), down on his luck and galled to grovel at America's feet. Even so, there's got to be a better way of enlightening us than this play's smug conceit. Through April 11. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Our Lady of 121st Street Stephen Adly Guirgis, one of the newest voices in American theater, has been called "immensely gifted," "startlingly fresh" and "the poet laureate of the angry." After seeing his explode across the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus stage, it's easy to understand what the hoopla is all about. Guirgis is a master of the sort of black magic that comes along all too rarely in the theater: He has conjured a world full of heartbreaking characters and low-down lyrical language that blazes so hot and wild it threatens to scorch your soul -- that is, if you don't die laughing first. The story unfolds during the chaotic reunion of Sister Rose's family, friends and ex-students, who have all crawled out of their respective dark holes of despair to pay their respects. Two of the most voluble characters are ex-lovers Rooftop and Inez. Alex Morris is the best he's been in years as the unforgettable Rooftop, a "lyin', cheatin', stealin' and humpin'" kind of guy who comes back to Harlem from Los Angeles to pay his respects to Sister Rose. As Rooftop's ex, the bitterest woman in Harlem, Alice Gatling can't help but walk off with the show every time her character speaks. And these are just two of the angry inhabitants of this world. The rest are played by an extraordinary ensemble, who are electric under James Black's passionate, muscular direction. But it's Guirgis's haunting and funny script that makes the characters sing with the rich poison of life. He's filled the stage with incendiary dialogue that's unforgettably raw and real. This world will burn in the imagination long after the actors have taken their bows. Through April 18. 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421.

Steel Magnolias UpStage Theatre's fragrant rendition of Robert Harling's tale of small-town southern womanhood, Steel Magnolias, might succeed with some other actress playing beauty-parlor maven Truvy, but Lisa Schofield is, in a word, magnificent -- and reason enough to head to the Jewish Community Center for this show. It's refreshing to find such a centered performer, so at home in turquoise toreador pants, tight black sequined top and killer high-heel sandals. Truvy is the big mushy heart of this southern-fried comedy/drama, whose immense success has turned the play into a cult franchise. A tower of strength to the other women at her salon, she gets the show's best one-liners. Hard as press-on nails, she's a softie underneath, waiting for her "sofa slug" husband to rekindle romance and her two from-hell grown boys to settle down. With a voice like a whiskey sour and a star's presence, Schofield nails her role. Dottie McQuarrie's football-lovin' Clairee is close on Schofield's heels, giving the "first lady of Cinquapin, Louisiana" a highball-tinged touch of class. Sheri Lynn's haunted-rabbit Annelle blossoms in the second act when her character finds Jesus. Christiana Carroll's mean ol' Ouiser pulls back just short of over-the-top, which is too bad, because the town curmudgeon is an over-the-top character. The hankie-wringing drama comes from the illness of vibrant young Shelby (Alex Aurisch) and her combative yet loving mother M' Lynn (Ann Reese). The actresses' tentative approach saps the play, so by the final scene, when mom breaks down, we've stopped caring. Reese, though, finally comes alive at the end. And count on Schofield's Truvy to pull us back in and makes us care -- both about these six best friends and about the power of live theater. Through April 10 at JCC, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-838-7191.

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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