Capsule Reviews

Last Night at Orabella's The wizards responsible for the nonstop hilarity at Radio Music Theatre are Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills, abetted behind the curtain by Mark Cain on lights and Pat Southard on sound effects and keyboard. Last Night at Orabella's is the first in a 14-play series about Houston's most beloved dysfunctional family, the fictional Fertles of Dumpster, Texas. The lunacy begins -- as any fine comedy should -- right smack in the middle of things. We're at Orabella's, Dumpster's only bar/dance hall, and, as the title says, tonight's the last night. Proprietor Uncle Al Peeler (Rich Mills, with great gray eyebrows glued on the rims of his glasses, munching a stogie) is selling the place. Since he's 22 months behind on his rent on a 24-month lease, it's time to give it up. So the town's loony inhabitants converge there for its last night. Dumpster is the kind of place where something ominous is swimming in Luminetta's gravy; where Dolly keeps talking about getting breast implants; and where the town's doctor -- squint-eyed, porkpie-wearing Doc Moore (in a brilliant turn by Steve Farrell) -- talks gibberish. Only in Dumpster would the local Chinese take-out joint serve fortune cookies that read, "You will be decapitated in a boating accident." Steve and Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills nail their characterizations using nothing more than a change of a hat or a ratty wig. You won't find any better performing on a Houston stage than what these three ultra-talented actors accomplish through body language and voice. It's a primer on acting. And it's prime. Through November 20. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Little Fascist Panties No, this world premiere is not an exposé of Eva Braun's kinky sex life, although playwright Bob Morgan might have been on firmer ground had he taken on the Third Reich. Instead, this grubby little shocker from dos chicas theater commune is a primer on their grunge, existential aesthetic. It starts out as an S&M Pygmalion, with serial killer and utter whack-job Mia (Anne Zimmerman) and her terribly gender-confused roommate, Lisle (played by Morgan), adopting young but accomplished streetwalker Jenna (Tanya Fazal). Oozing parental concern, they bring her into their low-rent family, but we know their smarmy attention is only pretext and that something really bad is going to happen. Perhaps that's because Mia is constantly shooting men dead on the street and stealing their money to pay bills. Maybe it's because Lisle, a rent boy for old married men from the suburbs, equally loves wearing women's lingerie and being whipped and humiliated by Mia. This happy little perverted home spins out of control -- and out of the playwright's hands -- when Mia's psychotic urgings go into overdrive after Lisle is beaten into a coma by one of his johns. Down one breadwinner, Mia knows just what to do: have Jenna hustle back onto the streets. The kid's transformed her life by now, so naturally she balks, and then all hell breaks loose -- labial rings, dark closets and a policeman's billy club called Tim take the stage. Morgan makes a splendidly conflicted Lisle -- naughty and childlike, and later, utterly fragile and heartbreaking. Anne Zimmerman, with her Susan Hayward features and whiskey contralto, relishes playing sadistic Mia. And as her torments increase, Tanya Fazal comes into her own as hapless Jenna, victim of these vipers from hell. As playwright, Morgan rushes full steam into the hopelessness of street life, using deeply scarred characters who can't escape their past to illuminate his thesis that "choices have consequences," but the X-rated melodramatic situations he concocts are more fraught with peril than a dozen installments by Charles Dickens, via Hustler. Moral: Don't make the choices these characters have. Through October 30 at Helios, 411 Westheimer, 832-283-0858.

Mrs. Farnsworth In a scheduling coup, Theater LaB presents A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth, still playing to sold-out houses off-Broadway. With its sly title evocative of the English Restoration, Gurney's comedy takes down George W., but with a velvet touch. What sets this work above others in the "shrub-whacking" genre is that Gurney knows how to write a well-made play, loaded with characters who grab us from their first entrance and make us care what happens to them. Gurney is much too tasteful a playwright to go over the top with this play. Granted, he loads the deck with the usual, weary arguments -- Bush is a clod; a coke-snorting, drunken party boy; a gun-wielding pseudo-cowboy who craves to be master of the universe -- but he dilutes his vitriol by turning our gaze to Mrs. Farnsworth and the story of her life. And then he turns the plot upside down by making us doubt her veracity, if not her sanity. Marjorie Farnsworth (Carolyn Johnson), a "rich Democrat" from New Canaan, Connecticut, has enrolled in a night-school writing class. She's writing an incendiary, libelous page-turner about a college affair with Bush. But when Mr. Farnsworth (Terry Jones) informs his wife that if she writes this scandalous book, she will betray her class, cheapen herself, and embarrass her family and friends, she sets her sights elsewhere. She turns to write her memoirs about...John F. Kerry. "He called me sweetheart," she twinkles in remembrance. Hmm. As Mrs. Farnsworth, Johnson is the picture-perfect matron from Connecticut; as her husband, Jones brings a world-weary patrician smirk to his authoritarian blueblood; and as the class teaching assistant, Travis Ammons excels. Through October 24. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

That Serious He-Man Ball The "ball" in the title of Alonzo D. LaMont Jr.'s serio-comic drama isn't the dancing kind, although there's plenty high-stepping and neat little turns in the show. No, we're talking about shooting hoops. The plot centers around three black friends meeting for some friendly competition on the neighborhood court, evocatively conjured by James Thomas's sets and the autumnal light of David Gipson. They've known each other since childhood and have a deep bond that's weathered many a storm, but their lives have taken completely different paths. Twin (Davi Jay) is the buttoned-down success story, an investment banker with a Beemer and a white wife in the suburbs. Unmarried Sky (Broderick Jones), an employment counselor, longs for something better but doesn't know what that might be. And unemployed Jello (Steven J. Scott) still lives with his parents and won't give up his writing ambitions. The trio spars and sparks off one another, dishing and bitching about sex, lost dreams, the state of the world and their place in it as black men. Punches are thrown when the darts the men fling at each other -- born of frustration, envy or wounded pride -- find their targets, but as in life, nothing much gets resolved. Still, the three seem stronger than ever at play's end. We know full well they'll show up next week to shoot more hoops, and the whole rivalry/friendship will start up once more. The ties that bind these three strong men are more resilient than any outside force -- or even their own inner demons -- can rend asunder. Under Marsha Jackson-Randolph's spirited direction, Jay, Jones and Scott play a great game and capture their characters' special gusto with an intense warmth that's most appealing. Through October 17 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

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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