A New Brain Charming and strange, William Finn and James Lapine's odd little musical A New Brain fits perfectly on the small stage at the Masquerade Theatre. Not the stuff of typical musicals, A New Brain tells the story of Gordon Michael Schwinn (Luther Chakurian), a songwriter who is hospitalized early in the story because of a brain illness or, as the song says, "Trouble in His Brain." One of the best things about A New Brain is the story's quirky humor. Gordon has a "nice nurse" (Kory Kilgore) and a "thin nurse" (Laura Gray), who treat him as their names imply. He's also got a recurring nightmare in the form of a giant frog named Mr. Bungee (Russell Freeman). A strong cast has been directed with care by Phillip Duggins, who is helped by the talents of choreographer Laura Gray. Both direction and choreography have been toned down to fit the small theater with this production, making it one of the most successful the company has staged since its formation. Through March 13. 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045. $21--$26.
Parallel Lives: The Kathy & Mo Show Actors/friends Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney had no idea that their 1989 two-woman feminist romp would become a staple of regional theater. In the Bayou City alone, there have been three different productions in as many years, but the current incarnation at Theatre New West, presented by Theatre con Queso Productions, brushes the dust off this faded valentine to the female gender and adds spirited new lace to its frayed edges. In 12 sketches, the women play a host of characters, male and female. When the material is good, it's very good. Leigh Anne Patterson and Shannon Woelk bring several fully rounded characters to vibrant life: not-so-grieving sister Karen gulping ice cream right from the container, Jewish matron Madeline explaining her gay nephew, single mom Karen Sue straightening out her fringe jacket while her country/western song-like life unravels. The show's success lies in the winning combo of actors Patterson and Woelk, who burst onto the stage with bubbly enthusiasm and make us feel right at home, even when some of the material in these sketches is subpar. Their camaraderie is infectious, and we get as much pleasure from their playing together as they do. Through March 13. 1415 California, 281-224-3170. $20.
Symphony of Rats Stepping into the theater at the Axiom, where Infernal Bridegroom Productions has opened Richard Foreman's Symphony of Rats, is a bit like walking into some strange, wonder-filled attic. Splattered across the cinder-block walls of the theater is a crazy quilt of cartoon images -- TVs, spaceships, skeletons. Gaze at this psychedelic landscape long enough, and it begins to take on its own weird logic, especially given the acid trip of a show that Symphony of Rats soon becomes. The hour-and-a-half-long ride through Foreman's formidable imagination takes us deep into the land of the avant-garde, where presidents can receive messages from space-alien robots who make bubbles and smoke cigarettes as they delve into philosophical discussions about knowledge and the constructs by which we live. While it's a bit unclear exactly where our man of the hour, the president (played with impish innocence by Paul Locklear), ends up, we can say for sure that aliens, sex, music and a delightful bit of dancing are all involved in his quest. Of course, he can't just up and go off to places like "Tornadoland" without making a few folks mad. His odd staff, consisting of two men (Noel Bowers and Walt Zipprian) and two women (Tamarie Cooper and Charlesanne Rabensburg), does everything it can to get in his way. There's no story here, only surreal moments filled with the strange sort of light produced by art that can shatter your world -- if you let it. Through March 13. 2425 McKinney, 713-522-8443. $10--$15.
Tributaries Ed Vela's homage to fathers and sons, which is premiering in Houston at Theatre Southwest, would be a lot less creaky with a judicious application of basic stage craft. The 12 scenes that make up this play are wildly uneven in tone. The dramatic "Perspectives" depicts a professional father who's never home for his son; the raunchy "Long Ride Home" explores farting as bonding; the solo monologue "Step-Hell" details a geek's quest for acceptance from his new stepfather; the improbable "Wine and Wafers" recounts a gay son coming out to Dad during communion. None of these playlets is, in and of itself, poorly conceived or weakly structured, but none of them feels quite right, either. The dialogue doesn't ring true -- you hear the playwright, not the people. Some of the acting is stiff, which impedes the flow, and there are enough lines blown to bring a smile to any cokehead. Also, those interminable waits between scenes while the stage crew rearranges the meager set dressing only drags out the proceedings. This is not a good thing. Just how long does it take to move five boxes? What is a good thing, though, is the acting from Evin Grabenstein and Jesse Lozano, who bring a smooth naturalness to their overwrought roles and help us forget we're watching a play. They would make any father proud. Through March 13. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. $14.