Capsule Stage Reviews: Arsenic and Old Lace, Immediate Family, The Real Thing, You Can't Take It With You

Arsenic and Old Lace Arsenic and Old Lace was a huge Broadway hit, opening in 1941 for 1,444 performances, and is currently on three Houston stages — a tribute to the enduring appeal of farce. The members of the Brewster family are a few cards short of a full deck, as Teddy Brewster (Stephen Hurst) thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt, blowing a bugle as he charges up San Juan Hill. His aunts, Abby Brewster (Patty Tuel Bailey) and Martha Brewster (Stephanie Bradow), are sweet and adorable, and given to charitable deeds, such as poisoning elderly men with cyanide-laced elderberry wine to free them of loneliness. Also homicidal is Jonathan Brewster (Marty Blair), who returns to the large Brooklyn home after a decades-long absence, looking like Boris Karloff thanks to plastic surgery performed by his alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Marion Arthur Kirby), while he's under the influence. Theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Kevin Dean) proposes to Elaine Harper (Julie Fontenot) but has second thoughts about inherited madness after he realizes his aunts are murderesses. Dean provides a delightful characterization; his body language is superb and he has mastered the delayed double take. Fontenot has little to do except look slim and beautiful; she does that well. Bailey and Bradow as the aunts bubble with good will, and are endearing. Hurst brings unflagging energy to his role as "Teddy Roosevelt." Blair portrays Jonathan as a loudmouthed bully, a gruesome portrayal unsuited to the tone of the play, which is warm and sweet. Kirby as Dr. Einstein captures his villainy while also showing a crack in his criminal veneer. Playwright Joseph Kesselring's excellent plotting, deft characterizations and gift for inventive wit are outstanding, and director Joey Watkins most ably delivers the desired breakneck speed. Through October 6 from A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — JJT

Immediate Family The siblings of the Bryant family return to the South Chicago home they were raised in to attend the marriage of Tony (Kendrick "KayB" Brown), as another son, Jesse (Adrian Porter), gay and semi-closeted, arrives with his Swedish lover Kristian (Steve Bullitt). The older sister, Evy (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), has a maternal attitude toward her siblings. A biracial half-sister, Ronnie (An'tick Von Morphxing), an artist living in Europe, has returned for the wedding. Nina (Florence Garvey) is a close friend of the family and a very out lesbian. They are all good, but Garvey is wonderful, filling the stage with exuberant energy and rich humor. Brown as Tony matches Garvey in great body language, high energy and comic timing. Von Morphxing brings a larger-than-life persona to the role, playing with bravura style. The first act is largely a comedy, and the antics onstage are vivid and convincing, as we see a close-knit, loving family with problems but also a well-developed capacity to savor life. The second act explores the problems of gaydom and of being white in a black milieu, and gets heavier. Evy is convinced that being gay is a choice and that man and woman belong together, to make babies. Tony can accept that Jesse has a lover, but balks at him being white. The key confrontation between Kristian and Evy is the least satisfying, since playwright Paul Oakley Stovall tries to squeeze into a few minutes changes that might take months. Stovall is to be commended for his humor and for tackling a complex subject with interesting characters. The play is directed by Eileen J. Morris, who showcases the engaging joie de vivre of many of the characters. Through October 20. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

The Real Thing Tom Stoppard's 1982 play The Real Thing has won two Tony Awards (1984 Best Play, 2000 Best Revival). The central question posed by the playwright is the relevance of monogamy — is the demand for exclusivity of love a tenable position in the contemporary world? Stoppard is noted for his wit and wordplay — the script sparkles with examples — but this is about a warrior playwright, Henry (Joe Kirkendall), who battles for literacy in theater. Henry must choose between pragmatic compromise in a relationship or emotional loss. Kirkendall gives a remarkable, nuanced performance, captivating in its authenticity and refreshing in its vigor. Henry is married to Charlotte (Sara Gaston), as strong-willed as he, beautiful and an actress starring in one of Henry's plays. They are friends with Max (Justin Doran), an actor also in the play, and his wife, Annie (Shannon Emerick). We see the extraordinary acting range of Doran as he performs a scene from Max's play. Gaston as Charlotte has a rapier way with deadpan wit. Emerick as Annie sails through a complex role with brisk aplomb. The play is directed by Main Street Theater's artistic director, Rebecca Greene Udden, and she has forged a winning ensemble. There are three other characters: Debbie (Shannon Nicole Hill), the late-teens daughter of Max and Charlotte; Brodie (David Clayborn), a jailed activist; and Billy (Scott Gibbs), an actor, and all are good. The Real Thing is about infidelity, not physical passion or even love, but about relationships, how much to give in exchange for companionship and a bedmate. Humor is abundant as a brilliant cast adds polish and exuberant, exciting life to a battle of wits and of conflicting beliefs. Through October 6. Main Street Theater — Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JJT

You Can't Take It With You For the title of their latest collaboration, a whirligig comedy set in a house full of fun-loving eccentrics, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman decided on Grandpa's Other Snake. Having discarded Money in the Bank, They Loved Each Other and Foxy Grand­pa as nondescript and a bit too pastel, Snake had just the right touch of naugh­ty anarchy that appealed to the collaborators, but when the title was run by Mrs. Kaufman, George's formidable and most trusted adviser, she promptly squash­ed that idea. (She was still somewhat miffed that her husband's sexual escapades with Hollywood actress Mary Astor had become tabloid fodder only mont­hs before.) When Snake went in the tras­h, they wisely appropriated one of Grandpa's lines that summ­ed up his commonsense philosophy, and today we know this immortal American theater comedy as You Can't Take It With You. They couldn't have pick­ed a better title. In most comedies there's one crazy among the sane, but Broadway's royal couple of screwball comedy give us an entire brownstone full of them. In this most American of plays, winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it's the loonies who are normal — sweet, innocent, decent and upright. They have their act together; it's the outside world that's nuts. The household of Grandpa Vanderhof (James Black) overflows with goofballs and hangers-on who have come for dinner and stayed for years. This close-knit family knows how to live and how to have fun. The witty farce is so infectious, we want to move in, too. The Alley Theatre polishes this classic with its patented gloss right from the get-go with a deliciously scrabbled set by Hugh Landwehr. Everything but the kitchen sink is on view: Grandpa's snake tank, Ed's clunky printing press, the skull that dispenses candy, rubber masks, dartboard, Penny's typewriter and easel, paper streamers, potted cacti and that giant musk ox grinning down from the wall. The pineapple wallpaper is a touch of genius. The set's a comedy character all by itself — messy, lived-in, warm and inviting: home. Constructed like a Swiss watch, the play is a marvel of timing. Characters rush about, doors slam, fireworks erupt in the basement, gags are set up pages before they're needed and the confusion is comforting. The piece whirls along, dropping political comments and social satire like they were Ed's little printed sayings that he plants in Essie's candy boxes. The play never slows down, never runs out of breath, never stops being warm and fuzzy and terribly funny. If the plot is slight, nobody cares — will "normal" daughter Alice (Emily Neves), the only one in the family with a job, marry the boss's son, Tony (a dashing Jay Sullivan), after the snooty Kirbys (Paul Hope and Anne Quackenbush with noses permanently poised in the air) meet her extended family? It's the characters who drive this play and make it live and laugh. This is a play for actors, and Hart and Kaufman supply a fabulous who's who of nonconformists for the Alley regulars to sink their teeth into and gobble up. With electrified hair curled like Elsa Lanchester's in Bride of Frankenstein and overwhelmed in a baggy stuffed suit, John Tyson stops the show as Russian emigré Kolenkhov, Essie's ballet teacher who's as mad as Rasputin, only a whole lot sweeter. The large company, on the same wavelength thanks to director Sanford Robbins with his whiplash pacing, has a high-ho time. We do, too. This rollicking comedy, beautifully mounted by the Alley, is America at her best. Free and liberated, the Vanderhof world is where we'd all like to reside. You Can't Take It With You hasn't dated one comma since 1936. Through October 20. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — 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