Capsule Stage Reviews: Arms and the Man, The Man Who Saved New Orleans, The Odd Couple, Taking Flight

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

The Man Who Saved New Orleans Don't tell the Prejean family that old chestnut, "You can't go home again," because all of them want nothing else but to go back to New Orleans. Rescued from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, the Prejeans have been given shelter in Houston, but the psychological ravages of the storm follow them no matter where they go. Thomas Meloncon's world premiere drama at Ensemble Theatre wants to go home, too, back to the historic theatrical roots of Chekhov, but it keeps veering into TV Land. There's so much here that is good that when the uninspired sticks out, it brings unintended laughs from the audience. With great strokes of raw drama complemented by finely shaded monologues, Meloncon implies that without home and family, there's no peace, no fulfillment. It's not the newest theme ever played out onstage, but the playwright adds contemporary insights torn fresh from the headlines. And with that extra-fine cast, he can't really lose. Mom Willie Jean (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) enters bent and crooked, as if the storm has battered her down, but her essential goodness will triumph and her strength supports them all. Paw Paw (Wayne DeHart), blind and diabetic, sees more than anyone else and is the living link to the past. Son Johnny Boy (Joseph Palmore) was the most internally scarred and crippled by Katrina, and Palmore's electric performance grounds this production. He and DeHart play off each other like skilled musicians. Fortunately, Meloncon supplies more than enough music to get them through. Through February 22. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

The Odd Couple It's as old as the hills, but that didn't stop the Texas Repertory Theatre Company from mounting Neil Simon's circa-1960s comedy The Odd Couple. Featuring Steve Fenley as Oscar Madison, the biggest slob in New York City, and Craig A. Miller as the fastidious Felix Unger, this production, directed by Joshua Estrada, is amusing in an old-fashioned, jokey way, though it certainly doesn't offer anything fresh or new to say about Simon's script. It's 1968, and it's very hot in New York, where two grown men who've been dumped by their wives decide to bunk up together in an eight-room Manhattan apartment to save on the rent. Once Felix moves into Oscar's pad, he starts the obsessive cleaning that ended his marriage in the first place. Add in the copious and whiny tears about his ex-wife, and it take just a few weeks before Oscar's being driven out of his mind by his neurotic roommate. Felix is a real buzz-kill, both at the weekly poker party and during a double date with the two English hotties Oscar meets in the building they live in. The jokes about wives, alimony and the stupidity of men in the kitchen are all pretty tired. Most humor can't sit on the shelf for 40 years without getting a bit stale, and Simon's comedy feels very much a product of its era — a time when working girls were secretaries, most men never set foot in a kitchen and middle-class folks could actually afford to live in Manhattan. The Odd Couple runs through February 22. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — LW

Taking Flight Best friends do a lot for each other, but few go as far as Adriana Sevan did for her best bud Rhonda after the terrible events of 9/11. Rhonda, who was at Ground Zero, was horribly injured in the fiery blast. In fact, her injuries were so severe, she spent a year recovering in a hospital. During that time, Sevan stayed by her beautiful friend's side, giving up auditions (she's an actor), and time with her boyfriend, to help Rhonda recover. Sevan's one-woman show Taking Flight charts that moving 12-month journey, showing us all how extraordinary and unexpected healing can be. The Houston premiere stars Annie Henk in the role Sevan wrote for herself. But Houstonians shouldn't fret over the fact that Sevan isn't in the production at Stages Repertory Theatre — Henk, under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, really does take flight and soar in this complex and often very funny story. Playing multiple roles, including the Long Island princess Rhonda and the more sedate Sevan, Henk takes complete command of the theater — no small feat, as the show lasts close to two hours without an intermission. The story weaves back and forth from the past to the present, from good times to bad, exploring all the depth, joy and heartbreak of friendship. Henk even does her version of a Latina goddess who appears to help Rhonda heal. All three of these characters are carefully drawn by Henk, and the result is a seductive and powerful performance. Henk is absolutely magical. Through February 15. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

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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