Capsule Stage Reviews: clean/through, The Diary of Anne Frank, Freud's Last Session, Sexy Laundry

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 Diary of Anne Frank For more than two years, eight Jews in Amsterdam hid from the Nazis in the upper back rooms of Otto Frank's spice and pectin factory/warehouse on the busiest canal in the city. Sensing disasters yet to come after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Frank had bundled up his family (wife Edith and teenage daughters Margot and Anne) and slipped into the "secret annex" wearing as many layers of clothes as they could manage. A week later, Mr. and Mrs. van Pels and son Peter joined them. Four months later, dentist Pfeffer, a friend of the van Pels, pleaded to be hidden with them. Although the eight were aided by four of Frank's most trusted co-workers, who brought them food, books, a forbidden radio and Anne's favorite movie magazines, the group was betrayed by an anonymous tip to the SS. They were arrested and later sent to hellish Auschwitz, with only Otto Frank returning alive. We wouldn't know anything at all about this if young daughter Anne's diaries and notebooks hadn't been salvaged from the annex. Yearning to be a writer, she never could have foreseen that her work would become a classic of the human spirit and the indomitable will to survive, nor that her face would become the everlasting image of the Holocaust. Miraculously, Anne's voice had survived the horrors. In tribute and remembrance, Mr. Frank edited the voluminous material and oversaw publication. The book came out in 1947 and swept the world. A Broadway dramatization by Hollywood husband-and-wife A-listers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (The Thin Man, Naughty Marietta, It's a Wonderful Life) followed in 1955 and earned the team a Pulitzer Prize. The play is a crafty distillation of young Anne's dramatic life in the annex as it plays up the humor of the irrepressible, youthful girl (Jennifer Gilbert in a marvelously radiant performance) paired against sour dentist Dussel, a.k.a. Pfeffer (Stephen Hurst), or as it ratchets up the romance with shy Peter (Braden Hunt), while she watches seagulls soar past the skylight in the blue sky and dreams of her first kiss. Family tensions are brightly delineated as Anne sets off sparks with her mother (Jennifer Dean); confronts the egotistical, conceited Mrs. Van Dann (Christy Watkins); spars with blustering, dishonest Mr. Van Dann (Craig Griffin); yet is always comforted by her rational, calm father (Ric Hodgin). The daily trials of living together in claustrophobic quarters, never at rest in finding a private moment, are beautifully rendered. Quotations from the diary bridge scene changes while they inform us of time passing. The constant bickering, the give-and-take of petty everyday life, is conveyed with modest strokes and then, wham, an outburst of uncontrolled anger and panic. The drama has real ebb and flow. The tension mounts inexorably as the eight tiptoe through the set, always on slow boil and never giving full vent to their feelings for fear of being overheard — although their clumping about and slamming of doors during the play's first moments are glaring errors from director Tawny Stephens. When a thief breaks into the downstairs factory, Peter accidentally falls off a chair and thuds to the floor as he tries to dim the lights. The audience collectively holds its breath in suspended animation. The entire play is suspended. We're caught up in their plight even though we know the ultimate outcome, but, like young Anne, we wish for some other, better end. The A.D. Players ensemble is first-rate, full of nuance and detail, as is the production design. Robin Gillock's multilevel set seems to get more confined as personal conflicts overpower the trapped occupants. Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are faithfully period and look lived-in; Mark A. Lewis's sound design is rich with external ambience; and Andrew Vance's lighting is appropriately moody. A.D. Players gives us one of their most satisfying productions — powerful, sad and wrenching. The human spirit soars. Through March 9. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

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

Sexy Laundry The great staple of comedy is the midlife marital crisis, and Canadian playwright Michele Riml has added to the genre with a two-character play about a wife seeking to rejuvenate sexuality by booking a room in an upscale hotel tor her husband and herself — and bringing along a "how-to" book. Alice is elegant, slender and highly articulate, and Henry is sincere and agreeable, though so unenthused about the "rejuvenation" project that it's hard to imagine why he agreed to it. The very good news is that the actors playing them both have warmth and charm, and can turn what might be bickering in other hands into comfortably light banter. Susan Koozin plays Alice and is wonderful as a controlling woman, still quite beautiful, though with doubts about her looks. Josh Morrison plays Henry as a less complicated human being, a husband and father of three whose idea of a good time is to watch the news after work. They are celebrating 25 years of marriage. The play begins as a romantic comedy, but about halfway through its 85-minute journey, more serious matters emerge, and it appears that reality might intrude, and then it veers into farce as Alice engages in behavior that is comical though out of character with her dignity. The set by Kristina Miller is very attractive, and lighting design by Bryan Ealey, an important part, is excellent. The direction by Kenn McLaughlin is impeccable, and he has evoked the charm from the actors that makes this endeavor worthwhile. I would hate to see this comedy with less-gifted actors, but with Koozin and Morrison, it pays off handsomely as they find the humor and rich comedy in a midlife marital crisis and carry us along with them on a most pleasant theatrical journey. Through March 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

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