Capsule Stage Reviews: Arms and the Man, How I Learned to Drive, The Light in the Piazza, The Sins of Sor Juana

Arms and the Man G.B. Shaw's sparkling romantic comedy from 1894 takes on manly soldiers who are praised for desertion, a middle class as snooty as the upper class, headstrong servants, blustery fools, romantic heroines who save the enemy because they've just seen an opera where such a thing happens, parents as clueless as their children, and Bulgarians. Only Shaw could manage it all with such buoyant, throwaway charm. Fleeing from the Bulgarian army, Swiss mercenary Bluntschli (Brian Heaton) escapes into the bedroom of Raina (Eva LaPorte), member of one of Bulgaria's richest and most respected families. They're so upper-crust, Mama Petkoff (Karla Brandau) keeps reminding everyone, they have a room devoted to nothing but books, and a bell to ring for the servants so Papa (Glenn Dobson) doesn't have to shout — so déclassé. Raina instantly falls for her "chocolate cream soldier" even though she's engaged to blowhard Sergius (Travis Klemm), a pompous ass who looks dashing in a uniform, but is all moustache and no brains and not above making a pass or two at the family's haughty maid Louka (Renata Santoro). There's lots of activity, but not much really happens, yet Shaw juggles his pet theories about heroism, the futility of war, and illusion vs. reality with masterful aplomb, never once dropping a theme. Making her Houston debut, LaPorte is a beaut as Raina, all fetching and bubbly. Watch as she flounces onto the hassock, next to her soldier who's found her out; she doesn't crumble at the news, she deflates gradually, with grace to spare. Houston's theater scene is richer for her arrival — and a little richer, too, for this confection of a production. Through February 14. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

How I Learned to Drive Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winner glides into Country Playhouse's black box theater as if on wings, not wheels. Slick, immensely effective and terribly moving, this dream play has all the allure of chrome plating and real leather seats. It's such a fine ride, you won't realize how smoothly you've been run over. But flattened you will be. Precocious Li'l Bit (Elizabeth Marshall) looks backward from her mature vantage point as she remembers being taught to drive by her Uncle Peck (Chuck Houston). Although he wants her to pass the driving test, he also wants something else from her and is prepared to wait a long time to get it, with a touch here, a cheesecake photo there, passing the time until it's his. The surprising thing is that Li'l Bit knows this almost from the beginning and welcomes the attention and the fatherly advice, along with the lewd advances. Vogel doesn't judge her sad, displaced characters; she sets them spinning with driving instructions read to us from a Greek chorus trio (John Dunn, Maria O. Sirgo, Monica Lynn Passley), who then play various roles, from Li'l Bit's horny grandpa to a horny high schooler, all while singing favorite hits from the '60s. Comic visual road signs like "Route 69" flash overhead while troubling monologues pass by from Li'L Bit's inebriated mother or Uncle Peck as he calmly lures his young nephew Bobby on a fishing trip. These quieter disturbances jar harder than potholes. Expertly steered by director Sheryl Stanley, Vogel's drama is not to be missed. Through January 31. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

The Light in the Piazza At the lovely heart of Main Street Theater's charming production of The Light in the Piazza is a pair of lovers who have genuine chemistry, a rare thing in live theater. Haley Dyes plays the simple and sweet Clara Johnson, a young American woman who is traveling Italy with her mother Margaret (Susan Shofner) in the 1950s. As the two women wander the enchanting streets of Florence, they run into Fabrizio Naccarelli (played by the gorgeously silver-voiced Ross A. Chitwood), who promptly falls hard for the golden-haired American. It is the sweet, sexy fireworks that happen every time Dyes's Clara looks at Chitwood's Fabrizio that makes this production such a treat. Based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer, the musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel tells an unlikely tale about a girl with some serious baggage who manages to find love in a foreign land despite her history. And though this production, directed with affection by Ron Jones, is marred by some weak singing by most every cast member except the central characters, there is something so genuinely moving in this love story and in the way Dyes and Chitwood gaze at each other that it's worth a tender evening of your time to see the Houston premiere of this new musical, which won a Tony in 2005. Through January 25. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — LW

The Sins of Sor Juana It seems fairly obvious that the smartest person in the New World during the entire 17th century was the nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. She was exceptional from the age of three, when she taught herself to read and write. Her brilliant poetry and plays were acclaimed in the court of Spain; she was a favorite of the Vicereine of New Spain — to whom some of her most erotic verses were addressed; she held fabled salons in her convent, where nobles were struck dumb with her encyclopedic knowledge. She dazzled with her probing intellect and rapier wit; she was light years ahead of anyone concerning women's rights and the importance of education; and her poetry is still read today as a bedrock of Hispanic pride. She fell afoul of the authorities with her headstrong, unwavering opinions and had to give up her writing or face the Inquisition. She died attending to plague victims in Mexico City, but her final defiant act was her last will, written using her fingernail as pen and her blood as ink. She was a remarkable figure for any age. Almost all of these facts are absent from Karen Zacarias's drab drama, which veers improbably into a chick romance without the slightest nod to either history or accuracy. Where there should be passion and fire, Zacarias offers yawning debate. Although some of the dialogue is based on Juana's poetry, most of the ripeness is pure Barbara Cartland. Chantal Gutierrez-Fischbach makes an inspired Juana, though, tough and resolute throughout, and Daniel Perezvertti, with his chiseled Mayan profile, as Padre Nuñez, is first sympathetic, then exasperated by Juana's profound intransigence. The audience, never roused by the limp dramaturgy, is just annoyed. Through February 1. ACE Theatre, 17011 Bamwood. 281-587-1020. — 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
Lee Williams