Capsule Reviews

The Hotel Play The collage of disturbing moments that make up The Hotel Play's script takes place over the course of one day in a hotel somewhere in the tropics. More than 50 characters meander through this world, but we learn almost nothing about most of them. One man complains that he's gotten a room with four bathrooms when he's staying at the hotel alone. Another is a doctor who's on vacation because he takes on his patients' symptoms when he examines them, even to the point of becoming impotent. We watch a wife made miserable by her wretched husband, who says to her as they sit in the cafe, "You have made yourself so hateful to me that I do not fear in the slightest the sight of your dead body." Few of these characters have names, and their anonymity is unsettling. At first these chaotic snatches of dialogue are interesting only in their strangeness. But after a while it begins to feel like playwright Wallace Shawn is up to something fairly heady. The audience members are put in the strange position of having to create connections between the moments on their own. Directed by Anthony Barilla, this play by Infernal Bridegroom Productions is perhaps not as tight as past shows have been. The set often feels cramped to the point of being awkward, and the hotel rooms are so small that the actors don't have any room to move about. But anyone interested in the avant-garde will find something worthwhile. Through May 22 at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

The Last of the Red Hot Lovers Pity poor schlub Barney Cashman (Bob Maddox), the protagonist of Country Playhouse's latest production, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Owner of a fish restaurant, he spends his days opening so many clams that he has to douse his fingers in breath spray to freshen them up. Barney's 47, has been married for 23 years and always wears a blue suit. Life, it seems, goes out of its way to ignore him, and all he wants is one day of pleasure -- just once to give in, indulge himself, do something that he can remember the rest of his life. So he decides to have an afternoon affair, and since the play's written by funnyman Neil Simon, it's an affair to remember, all right. As a matter of fact, there are three affairs -- three different acts and three different women, each of whom brings his desire to a screeching halt. The first one to deflate Barney is the purring, predatory Elaine (Lisa Schofield), in her flashy jewelry and leopard-print dress and pumps. She couldn't give a damn about getting to know Barney; she just wants to get laid or have a cigarette, and it doesn't really matter in what order. Next up is blissful Bobbi (Sonia Montoya), a whacked-out hippie chick he meets in the park. She's lived more lives than Shirley MacLaine, and if it weren';t for the pot she incessantly smokes, she'd probably remember a few more. Then Barney invites over his best friend's wife, Jeanette (Martha Schlott), who recently threw herself at him at a drunken dinner party. Prim and nervous, she arrives clutching her purse in gloved hands and never lets go. She's so depressed over the state of the world that she can't taste food, and according to her psychiatrist, she has a "percentage of happiness" quotient of 8.2. Her gloom and doom bring forth the goodness in Barney, and by play's end, it's his wife he wants to join him for an afternoon delight. Directed by Barbara Lasater, this smooth production brings out all the many laughs and the humanity in Simon's slick sitcom script. The four actors are picture-perfect and make these quirky people seem like friends we haven't yet met. Although only two actors appear on stage at the same time, this is ensemble work at the highest level. Through May 29. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Once Upon a Mattress Once Upon a Mattress is so inconsequential a musical that, 45 years after its premiere, there's not one song from the score that's become a standard. Nevertheless, this thoroughly silly and goofy sitcom is an amazingly entertaining crowd-pleaser. With music by Mary Rogers, the daughter of the dean of American musicals, Richard Rogers, the show about a princess who must pass a test to win her prince catapulted Carol Burnett into TV queen-of-comedy stardom. And Masquerade Theatre, where this multicolor romp is camping it up, has its own musical queen: Rebekah Dahl. She should be designated a national treasure. In past Masquerade shows, Dahl has been phenomenal as the sweet yet amoral Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and the perpetual fiancée Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. And now princess Winnifred the Woebegone should be added to her increasing list of definitive performances. Dahl can belt ("Shy"), croon ("The Swamps of Home") and mug with the best, drawing the audience to her without breaking a sweat. She's instantaneously likable, and that's one of those indefinable, invaluable theater traits that can't be learned. While everyone else is over the top, chewing scenery like it's Minute Maid Park popcorn, she plays it straight -- well, as straight as possible for someone who, in search of her man, enters the medieval court by swimming the moat. The proficient cast (Allison Sumrall, Kory Kilgore, Illich Guardiola, Josh Wright, Katherine Randolph) hams it up without apology, with great assist from Stephanie Bradow's wacky costumes and Laura Grey's lively choreography. The show is mindless fun with a happy ending and a great big living Dahl at center stage. Through May 22. 1537 N. Shepherd, 713-861-7045.

Patient A Although Lee Blessing's AIDS drama, Patient A, has been imaginatively produced on a shoestring by Fan Factory Theatre Company, it seems woefully out of date. In theme and style, it's from another time. As the defining pandemic of our age, AIDS has had a presence on stage almost from the time it was given a name by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1982. There have been so many AIDS plays that they're their own subgenre. The disease has been chronicled, railed against, sung about, even laughed at -- from the heartfelt diatribes of Larry Kramer to the audaciously windy plays of Tony Kushner. Blessing's play centers around Kimberly Bergalis (Elizabeth Seabolt), a young straight woman in Florida who became a media sensation in 1991 when she was infected during routine dental work. When, how and, even more important, why Dr. Acer passed on the virus to this "innocent victim" is still hotly debated today, but these great mysteries aren't delved into here. To add heat, the invisible gay face becomes the character of Matthew (Eric Doss), who speaks for all those countless dead men who became nameless statistics, with their stories left untold. Since Blessing was asked by the Bergalises to tell Kimberly's story, he puts himself smack in the middle of the play. Although his character is given gravity and a solid core by actor Allen Dorris, this device falls flat. The playwright keeps getting in the way: We don't need him to tell us how we feel. Patient A somehow ends up more about Blessing than either Kimberly or Matthew. Through June 5. 1423 Holman, 832-651-5287.

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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