Capsule Stage Reviews: Driving Miss Daisy, Romeo and Julian, Among the Thugs, Auntie Mame

Driving Miss Daisy There are only three characters in Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1988: Southern Jewish widow Miss Daisy, her businessman son Boolie, and her black chauffeur Hoke, but they encompass the world. Miss Daisy, who keeps saying she isn't prejudiced in the least, doesn't want to hire a driver, especially a black man, even though she can no longer manage her car, having plowed into the garage during the prologue. Boolie forces her into hiring Hoke, and this odd couple start off frosty, to say the least. But throughout the next 25 years, their relationship blossoms. Without intermission, the play, beginning in 1948 and set in Atlanta, is mostly seen from the perspective of front and rear seats as Miss Daisy and Hoke forge their unbreakable bond. Uhry's style is simple and direct; the episodic scenes are impressionistic, but the force of their impact is mighty powerful. Years pass between scenes, but Uhry's approach to character is so alive and honest that what's left unsaid between the gaps is just as important as what we're watching. Each scene has a kicker to it — maybe pig wrestling, a missing can of salmon, the spelling of a name on a gravestone, the firebombing of a synagogue, Hoke's boyhood memory of a lynching — but each pays off in ways that will leave you wrung out by play's end, in a good way. With plenty of comedy, this finely etched character study needs finely etched actors to do it justice, and A.D. Players has a dream team in Jeannette Clift George, Lee Walker and Wayne DeHart, whose regular home is The Ensemble Theatre. All three are wily veterans of the stage, and we know right away we're in the presence of pros. Aided by the direction of Sissy Pulley, they are an utter joy to watch. These are three of the best actors in Houston, and it would be a shame if you miss their revelatory work. And as for Uhry, his play is burnished, subtly wrought and immensely powerful. Don't miss this. Through October 17.  2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG 

Romeo and Julian Phoenix Inc. Theatre Company presents a gay take on the classic Shakespearean tragedy, subtitled the "alternative version." This isn't as silly as it sounds, for what other work of the Bard's so easily lends itself to such deconstruction? Switch a few pronouns, change Juliet to Julian, and, voilà, why not? I'll tell you why: They've made a mess of it, especially at the beginning. Sure, the pronouns are switched, and Juliet becomes Julian, but the other choices made by director Trish Rigdon are downright muddled. If you're going the gay route, why have Julian dress in drag for the ball and hide from his mother? (And very unconvincing drag, to be charitable. In lumpy dress and limp wig, she's awfully plain. Snappy Romeo would never fall for this.) As it now stands, Julian comes to the party dressed as a girl and nobody in Verona notices. Or does Julian always attend parties in drag? It makes little sense (very un-Shakespearean in itself) and throws us right out of the gay fantasy. Then of course, because of Julian's charade, Romeo thinks he's falling for a girl instead of a boy. But as soon as Julian drops the disguise, Romeo remains head over heels anyway. Whether Julian's a guy or not doesn't seem to bother Romeo. Hey, this is supposed to be a gay reading of R&J, not a pansexual reading. Once all this confusion is out of the way, somewhere by the time of the balcony scene, things settle down and we can enjoy the play for what it is. Even the actors, some of whom struggle through the Elizabethan delivery, calm down by the tragic end and invest it with genuine power. Chris Rivera (Romeo) and Joey Hancock (Julian) acquit themselves handily as punky lovers on the outs of society, and they even make us root for the romance to succeed. Bobby Haworth (Benvolio), Josh Taylor (Tybalt) and Chris Tennison (Prince of Verona) are best in show and so natural that we forget they're spouting Shakespeare. Close on their heels are Elissa Levitt (Lady Capulet) and Greg Hall (Lord Capulet), who bring grief and torment to the roles of the world's most unforgiving parents. Through October 3. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation, 281-221-1873. –DLG   

Among the Thugs Boys will be ...well...monsters, according to Tom Szentgyorgyi's Among the Thugs, a theatrical adaptation of Bill Buford's memoir of the same name. The angry play, produced by Horse Head Theatre Co. at skeezy underground club Kryptonite, tells the story of a "firm" of "hooligan" British football fans who follow their Manchester United team around Europe, wreacking havoc wherever they go. Set in the 1980s, when Buford (played here by Drake Simpson) spent years as a "journalist" traveling with and eventually becoming just like the animals he wants to understand, the book and the play present a very ugly side of the human condition — the characters revel in alcoholic debauchery, racist idiocy and disturbing violence all in the name of jolly-good fun. Along the journey, Buford drinks buckets of beer, discovers the fine joys of mob violence and spends some time with white supremacists. And after his years of "research," he has no idea why these hooligans beat up innocent bystanders and enjoy the "satanic Mardi Gras" fun of mob violence.  This production is yet another all-male show from Horse Head Theatre Co., and as in past productions, all the characters are doing bad things. Simpson is again at center stage, and this character is not much different from all the other badly behaving boys he's rendered at Horse Head. They all have itchy noses, can't seem to keep their shirts tucked in and do a lot of spitting when they speak. There was a charming, gross reality to this the first time around – not so much now. The production itself seems to have embraced the idea of debauchery. The venue stinks, and it feels like an underground fire trap. At the show I went to, the audience often yelled at the actors. At one point, "Fuck soccer!" came hurtling from somewhere in the back. And the program incoherently encourages the audience to "chant and shout with the thugs. .  . . Do what you feel! Brilliant! And FUCK YES!!!!" The producers seem to have drunk from the same cup of spiked Kool-aid as the soccer fans in the show.  Through October 2. Kryptonite, 709 Franklin, 713-364-4482. – LW

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 is 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

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