Capsule Stage Reviews: clean/through, The Columnist, Freud's Last Session, Our Country's Good

clean/through The new play from Houston playwright/actor Miki Johnson, a world premiere, illuminates the power of addiction, both to drugs and to relationships, as Johnson focuses on the sobering effects on participants, on companions and on family. The depiction of drug addiction here is ruthless and unblinking, without the pretense that there are compensating benefits for the ravages the addict inflicts upon himself. The addict is Nick (John DeLoach), a rock performer whom we meet just after a disappointing concert, performed under the influence of drugs, as he is criticized by his lover, Rachel (Jessica Janes), and his sister, Annie (Elissa Levitt). The production is brief — 60 minutes — but covers a huge amount of ground. We witness Nick's abandonment of Rachel for a sojourn with the young heroin addict Vee (Candice D'Meza) in a tenement hovel. There is a moment of high melodrama as Rachel's dependence on Nick, now severed, drives her to extremes. And, contrasting the seedy hovel shared by Nick and Vee, we see the domestic happiness of Annie and her two children, a welcome assurance that there is a world beyond drugs. The acting is gripping, and we come to care about the inhabitants of this world, self-destructive though they are. DeLoach is appropriately rail-thin, and his eloquent body language more than compensates for his scripted inarticulateness. Janes as Rachel finds and defines the tortured conflict between love and enabling, and Levitt as Annie opens a window into the world of sanity. D'Meza as Vee is awesome, and the children (Electra Yanik and Ginger Nunnally) are admirable in cameo roles. Jason Nodler directed flawlessly, and the entire production, which contains smoking and fleeting nudity, is masterfully professional. Strong acting and a powerful script create an authentic drama, presented unflinchingly in all its measured detail. Through March 1. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway, 713-522-2723. — JJT

The Columnist David Auburn received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his play Proof, and now turns his attention to the widely read Joseph Alsop, whose influential column until the mid-'70s made him one of the power brokers of Washington, D.C. Joe Alsop was a closeted homosexual when homosexuality was still deeply underground, making this new play already a period piece. It begins promisingly in a hotel room in Moscow in 1954, with Joe attempting to persuade a young male Russian, Andrei, to repeat their sexual encounter. John Kaiser portrays Joe, in owlish black horn-rimmed glasses, and brings a courtly charm to the role. Adam Richardson plays Andrei and creates an air of credible integrity. Their chemistry is intriguing, though irrelevant to the plot, but then there is no plot, just sketched scenes at Joe's home that are static and lifeless. We meet his younger brother and one-time collaborator, Stewart Alsop (Reid Self); Joe's fiancée and later wife, Susan Mary (Mykle McCoslin); and her teenage daughter, Abigail (Emma Yarrow), and we learn that Joe, a trusted adviser to JFK, is vain, name-dropping, self-centered, waspish and petty. Kaiser delivers his lines in a sing-song rhythm lacking variety, and fails to find the requisite authority. Self's portrayal of Stewart seems tentative, as though such a successful journalist had no self-confidence. McCoslin brings a slender, elegant beauty to the role of Joe's wife, but fails to project her voice. Yarrow creates Abigail as an interesting and credible teenager, no small feat. And in a minor role, Scott McWhirter, as the journalist David Halberstam, anchors the play with vigor and strength. Director Malinda L. Beckham delivers what she can from a lean larder of writing, and is also responsible for the often excellent costuming and, with Trevor Cone, the stylish set. Through March 15. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Freud's Last Session In London on the day when Germany invades Poland in 1939, superstar father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, an unrepentant atheist, invites the brilliant young university professor C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian, to his home for a chat. In Mark St. Germain's bumpy yet intriguing two-character conversation, Freud's Last Session, feisty, hard-edged Freud (James Black) engages upright, morally unshakable Lewis (Jay Sullivan) in an 80-minute round of intellectual tennis. Their exegeses on Jesus, man's suffering, a bit of sex talk and lots of daddy issues ends up in a tie, while the drama takes a snooze. The debates are smart as the guys serve and volley with professional precision, batting back and forth such capital-letter subjects as emotion vs. intellect, faith vs. the scientific method, even fathers vs. sons. They are both expert at the game. "An insidious lie" is what Freud calls religion; "There is a God," counters Lewis. Curmudgeon Freud, dying from jaw cancer, usually gets the best lines, but Lewis parries with the finesse of youth and the implacable rightness in his Christian faith. Just as the game gets heated, it's invariably cut short by phone calls from the outside world to remind old Sigmund to turn on the radio to hear the latest bad news, or by the screech of air-raid sirens that sends both men scrambling for gas masks. The specter of death is close, adding a poignant, human touch to Freud's stoney pronouncements and Lewis's prim priggishness. The pain and grisly details of his cancerous disease soften Freud, as do Lewis's still-fresh memories of the horrors of trench warfare during WW I. While trying to present both sides without judgment, St. Germain drains the life out of the play, not that there aren't moments of levity during the dry debates about free will, moral conscience and obsessional neuroses. Both men get their share of audience sympathy. Although he appears as rumpled as his black suit, Black makes shuffling old Freud a still-smoldering volcano, bellowing smoke and fire when appropriate. The explosions sap him, leaving him more pained and therefore more resolute for his suicide to be. He's still a mighty lion and knows his place in history, but his body is broken, even if his ego is secure. As a young C.S. Lewis, before he became internationally famous as an unrepentant Christian from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, Sullivan is as clean and bright as Freud is sooty. He's had his revelatory road-to-Damascus moment, and his conversion makes him shine. He radiates goodness and morality, with a whiff of insufferable rightness. If you're going to war with unbelievers, he could lead the troops into battle with unconquerable cheer. His jousts with Black sparkle. Directed with unmatched fluidity by Tyler Marchant, Freud moves swiftly. No one stays in one place very long, not even on that famous couch. Designed by Brian Prather, Freud's examining room is a hothouse beauty, draped in oriental rugs and cozy as a dream, with every nook holding leather-bound tomes or a phalanx of ancient statuary, guardian angels and totems that spur the mind. The set is the most well-appointed arena in town. Although Freud's Last Session resembles SparkNotes more than Tom Stoppard, St. Germain's game of advocates and adversaries is literate and adult and hinges on the mysteries of life. There's plenty to think about. We're grateful for that. Extended through March 2. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

Our Country's Good This play opened in London in 1988 and ran briefly on Broadway in 1991. It is set in the 1780s, and is about a rehearsal for a play, but this is not the usual backstage romp, since it portrays convicts in Australia's first penal colony as the actors. A ship's mast serves for flogging a convict in the opening scene; there is considerable brutality in the drama, which has elements of humor, and questions whether the arts can humanize corrupt human nature. Its varied cast provides useful training for actors, and 13 of them portray more than 20 characters. There are some delightful performances — Billy Reed plays the convict Robert Sideway, flamboyant and vastly amusing. Michael Thatcher as Captain Phillip, leader of the colony, brings wisdom, humor, courage and charm, conveyed with subtlety and authority. David Huynh plays John Wisehammer, convict and would-be playwright, finding inner strength and intellectual confidence. Tom Conry plays 2nd Lieutenant Clark, the long-suffering director of the play-within-a-play, and brings nuance and sensitivity to anchor the play. The roles of female convicts provide less scope, though they are well-acted. Sara Ornelas makes Dabby Bryant interesting through her vivacity. Kiara Feliciano plays the usually angry Liz Morden, and Susie Parr as Mary Brenham captures a desired tarnished innocence. Suzelle Palacios plays the usually sullen Duckling Smith. Crash Buist is good as Major Ross, but also plays Ketch Freeman, the hangman, and fails to find a consistent humanity in a difficult role. Andrew Garrett portrays the unbalanced midshipman Harry Brewer, who sees apparitions, but his interpretation is seriously overwrought. The extensive period costumes by Jodie Daniels are detailed and excellent. Jack Young directed, and has found the inherent strengths in the resentments and moral code of the underclass. Through March 2. University of Houston, Quintero Theater, 133 Wortham, 713-743-2929. — JJT

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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