Capsule Stage Reviews: 2nd Annual Festival of Comedy, American Buffalo, Who Was That Masked Man?, Sylvia

2nd Annual Festival of Comedy UpStage Theatre's 2nd Annual Festival of Comedy allows local playwrights to strut their stuff in one-act plays that are comic yet stay safely within the boundaries of "family-oriented" appeal. The writing shows imagination and comedic verve, suggesting good things to come from these four talented playwrights. The acting that brings these plays to life ranges from sophisticated, nuanced and thoroughly professional, to amateurish and embarrassingly inept. The good news is that much of the writing is so very good that it survives even this handicap. The Parking Lot by Alan Johnson is well-directed by Ann Richie, and it wittily and subtly reimagines some fairy tales, one in particular, in a good cop/bad cop vernacular. An excellent cast does it justice. The Bright Side of Being Blue by Carl Williams poses the dilemma a manager faces when his once-hot country-and-western singer is too happy to sing the blues — the concept is amusing enough for Williams to develop this into a full-length play. Sean K. Thompson both directed and played the manager — his acting is inventive and skilled, but as a director he failed to solve a casting problem; he should have gotten better performances out of some of the cast. The Idiot's Guide to Dummies by George Rapier presents a daughter and her date coping with her amusingly offbeat and highly dysfunctional parents. The writing is fresh and comically insightful, and it is well-directed by Jennifer Wood. Family Matters by Jeffrey Strausser is a bit of a muddle, as four adult daughters arrive to take their parents out to dinner. They are a bit apprehensive, as Mother is determined to start traveling the world and Father is determined to reinvent Jackie Gleason and become a stand-up comic. His jokes are as corny as a corn-dog, and I loved all of them. The parents are wonderful characters, and I want to meet them again, but the play might do with fewer daughters, and its "message" might be delivered with subtlety instead of a sledgehammer. It's well-directed by Arnold Richie, artistic director of UpStage Theatre. Chief among the more inspired and highly talented actors were Norris Thompson, Joseph Moore, 14-year-old Xavier Lehew, Sonia Kronberg, Cristina Gibson, Arnold Richie and Anne Richie, who is artistic director of UpStage's Children's Theatre. Despite some flawed performances, the four plays provide an evening of irreverent humor, inventive ideas, psychological insights and generational conflicts. They are a most welcome escape from the summer heat – and the air-conditioning works beautifully. Through August 27. UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

American Buffalo American Buffalo is an early David Mamet play, so you know that it's going to feature tough talk from unsavory, pathetic people. Men, to be precise. This 1976 play is set in a basement junk shop in an unspecified city. Don (Steve Irish), the proprietor, is a low-key, shadowy hustler with an outsized sense of dignity. After a wealthy customer buys a rare, American Buffalo nickel from him, Don doesn't celebrate the nice markup he got on the coin. Instead, he's offended by the customer's lordliness, and intends to break into said customer's house to burgle what Don assumes is a pricey rare-coin collection. He seems to think he has as much right to the coins as the unnamed customer does. From his basement shop, Don puts together a small team for the heist. Young Bobby (Matt Hune) is supposed to be casing the customer's house and helping with the break-in. Teach (Drake Simpson) is a more experienced criminal who thinks he should replace the green, and — as he sees it — unreliable Bobby on the job. Much of the first-act talk revolves around Teach trying to persuade the fatherly but slightly slow Don to let him, Teach, do the job. The talk in the second half revolves around an unseen member of the team, Fletcher, who keeps Don and Teach waiting long after the job is supposed to have begun. Where is Fletcher? Has he betrayed them? Has baby-faced Bobby betrayed them, for that matter, out of revenge because they cut him out of the action? Mamet shows his chops here; tension mounts as nothing happens. And he's got a very strong cast here to make that tension mount. Irish doesn't make a strong impression at first, but that's because his Don is something of a slowly awakening bear. As Teach, Simpson enters with a burst of energy and believability. And you just know that Hune, as sweet young Bobby, is simply going to break your heart. The frustrations hard-wired into these small-time losers' lives mount until they explode. And the explosion, with Don and Teach going at each other, is convincing and scary. That goes for this entire production by the Landing Theater Company, subtly but powerfully staged by director Kevin Holden, and convincingly designed by Frank Vela. Through August 28. O'Kane Theater, University of Houston-Downtown, 1 Main, 713-487-5634. — DT

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis