Capsule Stage Reviews: How the Other Half Loves, Under a Cowboy Moon

How the Other Half Loves Bob Phillips's shoe is in the wastebasket. Taken for granted, his wife, Theresa, is slovenly and edgy. Their baby is covered with prunes and honey. Frank Foster, Bob's boss, has settled into a predictable married routine. Frank's neglected wife, Fiona, finds excitement by having an affair with Bob. To deflect suspicion, Fiona creates a tale that draws in Frank and Bob's dull co-worker, William Detweiler, and his mousy wife, Mary. These three couples collide in wonderfully theatrical ways because their farce is played out on one set that depicts the Phillips and Foster homes. Divided right down the middle, we watch simultaneous action in each place. In one of the great scenes in all English comedy, two disastrous dinner parties — the Detweilers at the Phillipses, and the Detweilers at the Fosters — take place on two different nights but occur at the same time. This masterful playing with stage time and space is the hallmark of prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, Communicating Doors, House & Garden, My Wonderful Day, among the 78 he's written so far). This farce from 1969, with its dizzying sleight-of-hand stagecraft, spins with glee yet throws off dark sparks amid the laughs. Theatre Southwest's sterling production sets off its own sparks, thanks to a splendid ensemble cast whirling under David Hymel's spirited direction. The characters aren't deep or drawn with any sort of insight — this is classic farce, after all, and unbridled, preposterous situations rule — but the cast takes these one-note caricatures and gives them a real semblance of life. Scott Holmes, as clueless Frank — "there isn't much that escapes me," he says as evidence of Fiona's infidelity sails completely over his head — sputters with pompous import. Holmes turns obtuseness into fine art. Crys Hymel, as philandering Fiona, has a lovely way of arching her eyebrows just so, as if she can twist the truth with a glance whenever Frank's prying questions get too close. Brian Heaton, as Fiona's boy toy, plays him both dangerous and foolish. Spoiled and conceited, he tries to rule his little kingdom with macho bluster and charm and almost gets away with it. He butts heads with a matchless Autumn Woods, as Theresa, who's unfulfilled and swamped by the lack of domestic bliss. She shows us the stirrings beneath Theresa's strident outbursts, guessing almost from the start that Bob is up to no good. As with Stanley and Stella, their fights are forgiven, if not forgotten, in the bedroom. As the boring Detweilers, Scott McWhirter and Michelle Drake Wilson bring a spry touch to their comic timing. The double dinner party is the highpoint, as they pingpong between the out-of-control tag team of the Phillipses and the infuriatingly polite Fosters. Controlling and inflexible, William gets his deserved comeuppance when doormat Mary finally has had enough of his bullying. A little slap to his hand instantly deflates him. It's a lovely moment, and we laugh at how easy, and how satisfying, it is for Mary to finally take the reins. All three couples are a bit different by the end of the play. Whether it's for the best is something Ayckbourn teasingly leaves up in the air. Ayckbourn is master enough to know when to tickle and when to prick. Theatre Southwest's fine production knows how to do both also. Through January 18. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

Under a Cowboy Moon Houston playwright Carl Williams has turned his attention to cowboy poetry, and the result is a comedy set in Spitwhistle, Texas, on the occasion of its annual poetry contest. Ten characters grace the stage, though one is so despicable that "grace" is a misnomer. The Saddle Horn Bar is run by PA Carswell (Megan Nix), for whom Deuce Whatley (David James Barron) carries a torch for their former intimate relationship. Henry Burke (Taylor Wildman), a young neophyte poet, is composing his entry when Rafe Cainfield (Christopher G. Keller) enters, accompanied by his girlfriend, Teri Blair (Helen Hurn). Rafe has the swagger of overconfidence, and Teri has the looks of a screen goddess. Things pick up when a PBS TV crew enters to film the upcoming contest; Rebecca Proctor (Amanda Garcia) is in charge, while Simon Dawes (Bob Galley) handles the camera work. Jill Milligan (Rebeca Stevens) is a former waitress at the Saddle Horn, and there are two other contestants, out-of-towner Michael Tibbets (Jeff Henninger) and three-time contest winner Boon Hawkins (Adrian Collinson).There is a young lion/old lion theme, as Rafe seeks to take down Boon in the competition, as well as some nostalgia for the Old West, and a pastoral acceptance of change. The poetry itself is eminently forgettable, still at the rhyming stage. The set is spare but authentic, and is by Elvin Moriarty, who directed and marshaled his ten actors into performances that varied considerably in professional polish. Best were Barron as the lovelorn but philosophical Deuce; Collinson as old lion Boon; and Garcia as the PBS producer, who was authoritative and amiable. A low-key, gentle comedy explores cowboy poetry without aiming too high, and provides the quiet entertainment it intended. Through February 1. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. — 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