Capsule Stage Reviews: Bright Lights, Big City, Present Laughter, Time of My Life, The Splasher, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Bright Lights, Big City In 1984, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, a narrative about the bacchanalian, cocaine-snorting world of New York City in the early '80s, became a New York Times notable book. Told in the second person, the iconoclastic novel runs through a week in the life of an aspiring novelist who spins out of control while cruising the bar scene. Full of wickedness and humor, the book propelled the not-yet 30-year-old McInerney to literary success. Fast-forward to 1999, when Paul Scott Goodman turned the youthful tale into a musical misstep if ever there was one. The mishmash of rock-inspired tunes crushes the ironic soul of McInerney's energetic book and turns the hedonistic, drug-soaked world of the novel into a ridiculously silly songfest – imagine a stage full of fresh-faced singers belting out "I wanna have sex tonight!" in perfect harmony, without irony, and you start to get the picture. None of Goodman's failings stop the young, talented cast from trying to breathe some sort of life into this dreadful musical, which is making its regional premiere at Theater LaB Houston. They sing through the central character's bad week as they attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the era. If talent were all that was needed here, director Jimmy Phillips would have it made — his cast has buckets of it. But bad as the early '80s were, they hardly deserve the beating this musical gives them. Through June 14. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — LW

Present Laughter "I'm always acting, watching myself go by," emotes protagonist Garry Essendine, played by the incomparable Joel Sandel in this semiautographical play by Noël Coward, to anyone who crosses his path. Today, that would include his dewy morning-after lover, whose name he can't remember (Morgan McCarthy), his blasé maid (Sheryl Croix), his astringent secretary (Terri Branda Carter), his sensible former wife (Kara Greenberg), his harried business associates (David Harlan and David Wald), his worldly butler (Harlan again), the panther-like, seductive Joanna (Sara Gaston) and a mad playwright wannabe who lives to worship him (Nicholas Collins). And that's just during the morning. Staring into a mirror and watching his hair recede, Garry wails dramatically that he's not experiencing life and is weary of being adored. But we wouldn't have him any other way. In satin dressing gown with cocktail cemented firmly in hand, he spouts Coward's archly artificial, yet highly musical, dialogue. Garry doesn't want to be free of fame's trappings — it's mother's milk to him, if poured in a highball. Though not as well-known as Coward classics Design for Living and Private Lives, this immensely droll comedy is equally witty, well crafted and entertaining. This stylish Art Deco piece is caviar for the well-heeled cast at Main Street Theater. From top down — including costumes, lighting, set and crisp direction by Claire Hart-Palumbo — everything is pitch-perfect, led by the outstanding Sandel, who lounges, pouts and poses while he laps up his fawning press and basks gloriously in his own klieg light. Through June 22. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

Time of My Life English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn is not only one of theater's most prolific writers (some 50-plus works since 1959) but also one of its most experimental and innovative. His work is complex, captivating, a little crazy, revelatory and achingly funny, as the middle class gets its nose tweaked. Don't ever pass up an Ayckbourn. In this little jewel from Company OnStage, love and marriage get dissected, but so does time. After we meet the family of six boisterously gathered to celebrate Mom's birthday at their favorite restaurant, the scenes fragment into a series of intensifying duets — and duels. The parents (Carl Masterson and Cheryl Tanner) stay in the present, full of regret and incriminations; philandering oldest son and mousey wife (Brian Heaton and Kristi Jones Pewthers) move into the future; and spoiled youngest son and girlfriend (Norm Dillon and Renata Santoro) move backward through time, until their last scene is their first meeting. Various waiters at the restaurant pop in and out, too, all lovingly played by John Patterson. The nonchronological order of the scenes lifts what appears to be mundane and ordinary into a realm of heightened sympathy and understanding. It's quite a beautiful effect, pushed even higher by the superlative Masterson and Tanner. The exquisitely shaded performances of these two pros have it all — the faded passion, nitpicking and thousand little cuts that happen as a marriage slowly bleeds to death. If you want to experience unobtrusive acting at its finest and truest, watch these two. The same could be said of Ayckbourn's intimate, yet universal, play. Through June 7. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG


Bright Lights, Big City

The Splasher In May of 2007, New York magazine reported that, "In the fall, some anonymous figure started vandalizing the city's most celebrated vandalism." The culprit was throwing house paint on some pretty fancy street art that would have gone for thousands had it hung in a gallery instead of being wheat-pasted onto a building. As it was, this "Splasher" was committing the crime of graffiti on what was, in actuality, graffiti. Troy Schulze's brand-new work The Splasher from The Catastrophic Theatre explores the strange and layered rhetoric of the arguments on both sides of The Splasher situation. The Marxist arguments of the Splasher, who pasted his manifestos against street art with a glue containing "shards of glass," considered his acts Marxist statements against a bourgeois elite — he argued that the street art was nothing more than free advertising for commodified art. Even worse, it signaled the impending gentrification of a neighborhood. The artists who get graffittied, including Shepard Fairey (played with gleeful haughtiness by Walt Zipprian), argue that they are just looking for the 21st-century patron. They don't get supported by kings or the church; instead, it's the bourgeois elite who feed today's artists. Both sides are presented with humor and intelligence. Schulze sculpted his play from dialogue he wrote, layered with bits lifted from interviews and The Splasher's "Manifesto." Woven into all these fractured ideas is funky '70s-TV-like video. Schulze himself is a bit like the Splasher – he corrupts the original to make a powerful, must-see, brand-new statement. Through June 14. DiverseWorks, 1117 E. Fwy., 713-223-8346. — LW

Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens The air conditioning was broken, the sound system twanged like cheap karaoke and the stage was so poorly lit that it was often hard to see – all of that and more turned Unhinged Productions' Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens into a pretty sorry night of theater. The kitschy musical about a cabaret in a far-off galaxy, its oddball denizens and a serial killer who uses a glittery sling-back as a weapon has fun potential. Still, two hours is way too long to linger on this cellophane-thin story that celebrates sexual diversity and features characters with punny names like Anna Labia (Jenna Wallis), Bunny Lingus (Elizabeth Bannor) and Jack De'ath (Chris Patton). And though the cast is peppered with some very appealing performers, including Patton as the evil Jack and Candyce Prince as Jubilee Climax, the space vixen who wants to save the world, they aren't enough to shape this show into a finished production. Craig Bushey's direction is flat, the singing is often far off key and the dancing is...well...let's not go there. Not to mention, this sweaty production can't overcome all the technical difficulties of its venue. Through June 21. Silver House Theatre, 1107 Chartres, 713-547-0126. — LW

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