Capsule Stage Reviews: Art, Fear of Ducks, Leaving Iowa

Art Despite its title, Yasmina Reza's hugely successful Art, which opened in Paris in 1995, isn't really about the expensive painting that causes conflict between the three characters who populate this compact little play. It's true that the stark white canvas that one character pays 200,000 euros for is the catalyst for a lot of rage and chest thumping between the three men in Reza's upper-middle-class world. But the playwright's real focus is on the elusive nature of friendship. In her evocative script, she asks what binds us together — is it shared ideas, years together, or simply the rituals of dinner and a glass of wine? The conflict starts when Serge (Brian Heaton) shows off his extravagant purchase to his buddy Marc (Patrick Jennings), who looks at the work of modern art, then laughs, dismissing it as "white shit." Serge is understandably furious. But Marc is also angry, mostly because his friend has done something he considers to be utterly foolish. How can they be true friends if their ideas about art and what is worth pursuing (modernism and postmodernism take hits here) are so out of whack? They turn to a third friend, Yvan (Bob Mattox), to mediate, but Yvan has his own troubles. He's marrying a woman he's not even sure he loves. And he can't get any support from his buddies because they are so worried about each other. All this tension comes alive in the intimate setting of the Black Box Theater at Country Playhouse. The venue works well for this script. It's small, and the struggle for intimacy between the characters is especially visceral when the actors are standing less than five feet from the audience. Jim Salners's direction is lively, and his cast grips hold of this material with energy, pushing the conflict forward with force, wit and intelligence. Through August 21. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — LW

Fear of Ducks Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the theater, along comes the inspired lunacy of Radio Music Theatre. You're never safe around these three (Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell, Rich Mills), for you could die laughing, or at the very least spray your drink out of your nose as you gasp for breath. We wouldn't want it any other way. This scrumptious little tour de farce is one of the group's "unfertle" comedies, which means it doesn't feature those lovable Fertles from Dumpster, Texas. But never fear; author Steve Farrell has populated this juicy fable with new creations that could each have an entire series written about them, too. Revealing too much of the plot would be sacrilege — and nearly impossible — for the show doesn't move as much as it's propelled, by entrances and exits, one-liners, non sequiturs and our continuing laughter. Suffice it to say, there's a whacked-out, curly-headed televangelist, Jimmy Dillard, who's in a hissy fit over the fact that rocker du jour A.C. Adapter is to appear at the Margaret Mueller Mitchell Miller Pavilion at Precious Pines, Houston's most-planned planned community. Dillard's ready to do his "instant damnation" on this horn-headed smut rapper, especially for his hit tunes "Bra Full of Love" and "Set Your Parents' Pants on Fire." Adapter is not suitable for children, being one himself. That he also has two gigantic electrical prongs imbedded in the top of his head should say something about his state of mind, or lack thereof. Everything goes blissfully out of control, and there's even a delightfully affecting, albeit brief, scene between the fried rocker and the oblivious Mrs. Peeples, whose son has won a day with A.C., that's surprisingly lovely. Situated among the verbal mayhem, it's a little gem. Through August 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Leaving Iowa There's family entertainment playing at A.D. Players that's just about the best thing going. Written by Chicago standup comedians Tim Clue and Spike Manton, this warmhearted comedy about family — the American family, to be precise — pulses with nostalgia, radiates soft charm and stays entertaining without running out of gas. Although it focuses on the classic summer road trip, where the kids whine nonstop in the backseat while Dad and Mom try to keep peace from the front, it's really about the undertow influence dads wield over their sons. While driving his father's ashes back to his family home, Don (Chip Simmons) conjures up a family "adventure" one summer long ago. The family dynamics are there in the details and the finely wrought performances. You know almost everything about Dad (Ric Hodgin) just by the way he sits in the driver's seat, satisfied and sure, knowing and protective. With immense patience, Mom (Patty Tuel Bailey) keeps a loving vigil over her brood, finally erupting with justified rage when the kids really get on her nerves. Sis (Katherine Weatherly) is a princess and already knows just how to play her father. Nothing momentous happens on the trip — or on Don's — but as in a miniature version of Thornton Wilder, it's the little things that'll be remembered later with such force. Along the way, the family encounters a host of characters straight out of American Gothic via '30s Hollywood screwball comedy — Civil War re-enactors, an Amish couple who are the ultimate capitalists, the odd, taciturn waiter and the equally garrulous one — all played by the wondrously inventive Lee Walker and Sarah Cooksey. Each manifestation gets funnier as the play goes on, and they get laughs just by appearing. The two give the play a lively framework upon which the family, and the grownup Don, interact. Simmons, an A.D. regular, outdoes himself. No one seems so natural when acting — it's a rare gift. He is transcendent as the wayward son making amends with the father he once undervalued. And all of them, under Jennifer Dean's whispery direction, create that rare time in the theater: You watch transfixed and wonder what's going to happen next. And you aren't disappointed in the slightest. Through August 29. 2710 W. 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
Lee Williams