Capsule Reviews

The Calling of Jericho Jones Some questions for playwright C. Jean Montgomery and her "Texas tragic-comedy": Why does it take seven years for this Irish family living in Clute to hold a séance (a "calling") that will bring back wastrel eldest son Jericho (Jay Menchaca) to explain his mysterious disappearance? Why hasn't Mother Mac (Rebecca Pipas Seabrook) passed down her thick brogue to the rest of the family? Why did the charming, black-sheep Jericho, who was hardly evil or mean, rape sister-in-law Leslie (Karen Heimbaugh)? Why has it taken neighbor Mattie (Jeanette Sebesta) almost a decade to declare that she "has the power" to summon spirits? Why has Jericho been reincarnated as a rooster, except to make a lame joke about being "cock of the walk"? When murder is revealed, why does the motive make no sense? And why are the play's dramatic monologues intercut with scenes that have no relation to one another? If you can make it past these nagging questions, there are some pleasures to be found in Jericho Jones. Seabrook, Sebesta and Menchaca give their characters abundant life and spontaneity, and Montgomery has inserted some nifty little script reversals along the way to surprise us. And Jericho's monologues, if stitched back together, are powerfully evocative, though ultimately superfluous to the drama at hand. Through October 10. Theatre Suburbia, 1410 West 43rd, 713-682-3525.

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.

The Rice Lureen Boudreaux (Sara Gaston) eagerly awaits her married lover in room 1760 of the Rice Hotel the week before Christmas, 1957. She is one tough cookie. Besides being a lousy mother, she cusses like a field hand, and she's lost her job at Galveston's swank gambling joint the Turf Club. Yet somehow, Lureen charms with sweet grit and steel-magnolia determination. She's stayed at the Rice several times before with playboy Ike West Jr., heir to an oil fortune. But this time it's going to be different. Ike's leaving his wife, you see, to marry Lureen. She's put her full faith into it -- but something tells us it's not going to happen. This world premiere by Jeff Millar, former Houston Chronicle film critic and now writer of syndicated comic strip Tank McNamara, lovingly evokes the era with details such as a princess phone (in turquoise) and Houston radio station KTRH. It's that damn phone that's the problem. Lureen is constantly center-stage -- and constantly talking on the phone, which only reminds us how much we crave real dialogue. No matter how brilliantly Gaston carries these one-sided conversations (and she's a font of nuance and shifting rhythm), they overburden the play and drag it down. Fortunately, there are some 3-D characters to pep up the narrative: a naively sweet bellboy she befriends (Nick Collins), the officious hotel manager Mr. Peck (Joel Sandel), who's well aware of her prior history of not paying bills, and her old flame Johnny (Jason Douglas), whom she asks up to her room for a last fling before the wedding. But it's Lureen's show from the get-go. Gaston rescues Millar's static play with a performance that has her swigging Pepto from the bottle, lashing out at cowardly, dumb-as-a-post Ike and lounging in a red satin cocktail dress to entice Johnny. She gives an impressive, full-blooded performance. As morally strong Johnny, Douglas does too, in an appealing, understated way. It's the play that needs a transfusion. Through October 10 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

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
Lee Williams