Capsule Stage Reviews: Auntie Mame, The Doctor's Dilemma, Laura, The Philadelphia Story

Auntie Mame Sad to say, the champagne's gone flat at Stages Repertory Theatre. The irrepressible Mame (Sally Edmundson) still raises her glass high in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's classic tale adapted from Patrick Dennis's 1955 bestseller, but the party's  surprisingly dull. With her incomparable presence and sea-deep voice, Edmundson, one of Houston's stellar talents, is a natural for the role of madcap Mame, who flouts convention, battles hypocrisy and fights for the little guy. But Stages' "reimagined" production makes her seem little, if not swallowed up, even on its intimate stage. Things are awry from the first glimpse: a guitar on a stand, black drapes and background, and three bare bulbs hanging down from the flies. Whose funeral is this? Where's the fun? And what's with the guitar? We soon find out — the instrument belongs to street musician Martin Saville, whose monotonic renditions of such classics as "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "I Want to Be Happy" illuminate each scene. The idea and execution are dreadful. So, too, the colossal drawbridge that's slowly wrenched into place (with portentous, medieval clanking) to reveal...surprise!...the front wall of the set. This whole "deconstruction" is terribly clunky, especially for a classic comedy that's already filled with bitchy wit, outlandish characters and a great, big gooey heart. Mame doesn't need context; she needs glamour and excitement — and better-looking wigs. While the cast (each one plays numerous roles in this multi-character saga) tries its best to enliven the loopy proceedings, there's not much playfulness. The rhythms are wrong, some scenes fall flat and Eva Laporte is light years too pretty to play unwed mother/wiz stenographer Agnes Gooch. She's not supposed to be a knockout until transformed by Mame. David Matranga makes for a jaunty Irish horndog O'Bannion, and Josh Morrison a stalwart Beau Burnside, but it's Kate Revnell-Smith who steals the show as perpetually hungover, hammy actress Vera Charles. She enlivens the play with just the right touch of wicked charm. It's the only real taste of Patrick Dennis we get to savor. We're starved for it. Through October 10. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

The Doctor's Dilemma George Bernard Shaw's 1906 comedy about the horrors of the British medical practice, now running at Main Street Theater, focuses on a newly knighted doctor named Colenso Ridgeon (Joel Sandel) and his medical cohorts. Almost all practice for money rather than for the common good, and their greed feeds their collective stupidity. Mr. Cutler Walpole (Seán Patrick Judge) is a surgeon who believes "95 percent of the human race suffer from chronic blood-poisoning, and die of it." Another finely dressed fool is Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Alan Hall), a doctor who's handed out medicines "ever since they first came out," even though he doesn't have time to learn about them. Only Ridgeon himself has true scientific knowledge — he's come up with what appears to be an actual cure for TB. Into Ridgeon's life comes a lovely young woman named Jennifer Dubedat (Beth Hopp), who's looking for a doctor to cure her husband's consumption. Ridgeon doesn't have room for more patients — this problem has a familiar ring — but the young woman is charming and her husband is a talented artist. She argues that a man of such talent shouldn't be allowed to die, and Ridgeon wonders if she might be right; later he finds out that the artist is also an unrepentant liar and a cheat. Furthering the difficulties is the fact that another old friend, Dr. Blenkinsop (David Wald), is also sick with TB. Blenkinsop is the only doctor who doesn't practice for money, since he works among the poor. Without money, Blenkinsop hasn't been able to afford the scientific training that has taught Ridgeon how to cure TB. Thus Ridgeon must choose between treating his doctor friend, an "honest, decent man," and the talented artist who is also a "rotten blackguard" — between good people and agreeable pictures. The politics of the play make Main Street's production feel weirdly contemporary, even with Rebecca Greene Udden's lovely period costumes. Under Mark Adams's lively direction, Shaw's storyline comes together and the actors embrace their characters' arrogant foolishness with great gusto. Through October 3. 2540 Times, 713-524-6706. — LW

Laura If any production in town is going to revive checkerboard flooring, orchids by the telephone, portraits in oil, opera gloves, and slugs of scotch, then it's Theatre Southwest, with its sophisticated take on Vera Caspary's iconic detective story. Laura (Courtney McManus), a chic and bright young career woman, has been murdered in her apartment, shot in the face. There are at least two probable suspects: Laura's fiery fiancé Shelby (Lance Marshall) and her former lover, acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker (John Kaiser). Drawn into the life of this beautiful, mysterious girl, hard-boiled police detective Mark McPherson (Trevor Cone) begins to fall in love with her. At that moment, Laura appears, very much alive. Suddenly, there's a new mystery: Who killed the girl in the apartment? Now Laura is a suspect. There are other twists which shouldn't be revealed if you're unfamiliar with the story, but it's mighty clever in its spinning, and ultimately satisfying. Director Malinda Beckham keeps the pace taut and the lights low, and the cast is aptly filled out by Joel Frapart, as a young innocent in thrall to Laura, and Kathy Drum, as her intrepid cook Bessie. Although Cone is a bit soft for such a tough guy, his ordinariness works in his favor, and we're caught up in the story even if we never quite believe in him. As Waldo Lydecker, one of the most memorably immoral creations since Iago, Kaiser drips with sarcasm and smugness. Both precious and frightening, he's a writer who wounds with words, then keeps talking. Style is his armor, and Kaiser suits up as if going into battle. As Laura's misbehaving boyfriend, Marshall is all sexy sputter when reproached, and animal instinct when cornered. And as the "enigma of the modern woman," McManus — a face new to us — is as haunting as her portrait, thoroughly at ease within Waldo's society universe, yet utterly believable as innocent victim. Her actor's bio states that "she doesn't stay in one place for long," but we hope future roles will tempt her to linger upon Houston stages. She's one to watch. Through September 25. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Philadelphia Story This Philip Barry high comedy from 1939 is so deeply associated with Katherine Hepburn that it's almost impossible to do it justice with anyone else in the role of Main Line socialite Tracy Lord. Hepburn owned the play — she literally bought it from Barry and sold the rights to MGM, thanks to lover Howard Hughes — and turned the smash Broadway hit into an equally phenomenal movie success that resuscitated her film career the following year. Barry wrote the play for her, and stardust still clings to it. Every now and then, Theatre Suburbia's production sparkles and defies gravity, but more often it remains defiantly earthbound. Barry is difficult to play these days (he was difficult to play in 1939, too). He needs speedy delivery, a light-as-air approach and a quality of noblesse oblige that is convincing yet gentle. You can't think while performing this bubbly confection, you just have to get on with it. With conviction. His beautiful play needs buoyancy and quicksilver. Too much heaviness, and Barry's soufflé falls flat. The very rich Tracy Lord (Amesti Reioux), goddess deluxe, is to marry the very rich George Kittredge (Sergio Flores). Two magazine reporters (David Barron and Courtney Furgason), writing an exposé of Philadelphia's upper crust, wheedle themselves into the affair, while Tracy's former husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Brett Cullum), still in love with her, butts in to sabotage the proceedings. It's all tony fun and games as the privileged class gets its comeuppance, sort of. In the end, Barry neatly turns the tables: The upper class is different from you or me, and they get away with all their privileges. Brett Cullum, as C.K., knows just what he's doing and plays Barry for all he's worth with a marvelous, knowing air. Barron and Furgason, as the normal, everyday folk, wisely plant their characters in the proletariat; while young Adelaide Daniel, as Tracy's sister Dinah, has command of the stage, firing off Barry's wisecracks with a pro's aim. Through October 16. 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — DLG

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