Capsule Stage Reviews: 4000 Miles, The Diary of Anne Frank, Fool, Peter Pan, Ruined

4000 Miles Amy Herzog's play 4000 Miles, which won the 2012 Obie Award for Best New American Play, chronicles a visit by a young man of 21, who has just biked across the country, with his grandmother of 91, living in Greenwich Village. Biker Leo is portrayed by Jordan Jaffe, who brings a tall ranginess to the role and captures the sense of a youth who has yet to find his moorings in life. Waltrudis Buck as the grandmother, Vera, creates an endearing portrait of an elderly survivor. Though Vera may have to search for a word, she is self-sufficient, doing the laundry and shopping, and caring for herself. Leo's stay extends into several weeks, and we meet Leo's former NYC girlfriend, Bec, played by Shannon Nicole Hill. Andrea Huang plays Amanda, a girl Leo has picked up. The play has no intermission and lasts 105 minutes, but these women are largely irrelevant to it. Vera has led an interesting life, with philandering husbands and a Marxist background, has earned the right to speak her mind and does. Leo is a bit of a boor — self-centered, won't take his pickup's phone number, borrows Vera's money, etc. The relationship with Vera never catches fire — a missed connection, which is the real theme of the play. Bec is also a drifter, needing some time alone, unconnected. Amanda is Chinese, hates communism and is promiscuous; Leo is just one more missed connection. It's clear that 4000 Miles, inspired by Herzog's grandmother, has a special resonance for the playwright, but the fascination hasn't been transferred to the stage. Even the talents of the gifted director, Justin Doran, can't paper over a sensitive but largely flavorless work. Through March 16. Black Lab Theatre at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation, 713-515-4028. — JJT

The Diary of Anne Frank For more than two years, eight Jews in Amsterdam hid from the Nazis in the upper back rooms of Otto Frank's spice and pectin factory/warehouse on the busiest canal in the city. Sensing disasters yet to come after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Frank had bundled up his family (wife Edith and teenage daughters Margot and Anne) and slipped into the "secret annex" wearing as many layers of clothes as they could manage. A week later, Mr. and Mrs. van Pels and son Peter joined them. Four months later, dentist Pfeffer, a friend of the van Pels, pleaded to be hidden with them. Although the eight were aided by four of Frank's most trusted co-workers, who brought them food, books, a forbidden radio and Anne's favorite movie magazines, the group was betrayed by an anonymous tip to the SS. They were arrested and later sent to hellish Auschwitz, with only Otto Frank returning alive. We wouldn't know anything at all about this if young daughter Anne's diaries and notebooks hadn't been salvaged from the annex. Yearning to be a writer, she never could have foreseen that her work would become a classic of the human spirit and the indomitable will to survive, nor that her face would become the everlasting image of the Holocaust. Miraculously, Anne's voice had survived the horrors. In tribute and remembrance, Mr. Frank edited the voluminous material and oversaw publication. The book came out in 1947 and swept the world. A Broadway dramatization by Hollywood husband-and-wife A-listers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (The Thin Man, Naughty Marietta, It's a Wonderful Life) followed in 1955 and earned the team a Pulitzer Prize. The play is a crafty distillation of young Anne's dramatic life in the annex as it plays up the humor of the irrepressible, youthful girl (Jennifer Gilbert in a marvelously radiant performance) paired against sour dentist Dussel, a.k.a. Pfeffer (Stephen Hurst), or as it ratchets up the romance with shy Peter (Braden Hunt), while she watches seagulls soar past the skylight in the blue sky and dreams of her first kiss. Family tensions are brightly delineated as Anne sets off sparks with her mother (Jennifer Dean); confronts the egotistical, conceited Mrs. Van Dann (Christy Watkins); spars with blustering, dishonest Mr. Van Dann (Craig Griffin); yet is always comforted by her rational, calm father (Ric Hodgin). The daily trials of living together in claustrophobic quarters, never at rest in finding a private moment, are beautifully rendered. Quotations from the diary bridge scene changes while they inform us of time passing. The constant bickering, the give-and-take of petty everyday life, is conveyed with modest strokes and then, wham, an outburst of uncontrolled anger and panic. The drama has real ebb and flow. The tension mounts inexorably as the eight tiptoe through the set, always on slow boil and never giving full vent to their feelings for fear of being overheard — although their clumping about and slamming of doors during the play's first moments are glaring errors from director Tawny Stephens. When a thief breaks into the downstairs factory, Peter accidentally falls off a chair and thuds to the floor as he tries to dim the lights. The audience collectively holds its breath in suspended animation. The entire play is suspended. We're caught up in their plight even though we know the ultimate outcome, but, like young Anne, we wish for some other, better end. The A.D. Players ensemble is first-rate, full of nuance and detail, as is the production design. Robin Gillock's multilevel set seems to get more confined as personal conflicts overpower the trapped occupants. Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are faithfully period and look lived-in; Mark A. Lewis's sound design is rich with external ambience; and Andrew Vance's lighting is appropriately moody. A.D. Players gives us one of their most satisfying productions — powerful, sad and wrenching. The human spirit soars. Through March 9. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

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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