Capsule Stage Reviews: Jitney, This, Breaking the Code

Jitney The big dramatic confrontation in August Wilson's thrilling Jitney happens at the end of Act I, between father and son. Becker (an incandescent Wayne DeHart) and his son Booster (Timothy Eric in full boil) meet for the first time in 20 years inside the car-service company owned by Becker in the hardscrabble Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where all ten plays of Wilson's great Pittsburgh Cycle take place. Booster's been in prison for murdering his white girlfriend. In 20 years, his father has never visited him, blaming his son for the death of his wife. Accusations fly and cut each man. The deeper they slash, the more they reveal. Each is unwilling to yield and full of needless pride. The fight elicits tears and gasps — from us. In one of Booster's kinder reminiscences, he invokes his father from his childhood: "You were a big man; you'd fill up the whole place." That is perhaps the truest statement about actor DeHart you're ever going to hear. A peerless veteran of the Ensemble Theatre, he is one of Houston's finest actors, a superlative talent. He does indeed fill up the theater; his Becker anchors this production, although the cast is another one in a long list of the Ensemble's priceless ensembles. Under powerhouse directing by Eileen Morris, all shine, but Byron Jacquet as busybody Turnbo and Joseph Palmore as struggling Youngblood are particularly memorable. One of playwright Wilson's strengths is that even his good men exhibit flaws, while the most vile of antagonists has something of worth inside him. It's a wide swath of humanism that guides him, and his plays are grand rivers that run wild for a stretch, open out into calm waters, then hit the rapids again. His works never fail to catch you up and leave you breathless. Every man has a story, Wilson says, and he chronicles this diverse group who work at Becker's taxi service with glory, heartache and uplifting spirit. Set in the '70s, Jitney explores — among so many things — the incipient flexing of power among blacks themselves. The future is theirs to command or make a mess out of. With rich and complex music, Wilson writes symphonies. Through April 24. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

This The comedic drama simply titled This — it is funny, very funny — brings together four close friends, each with their own sexual hunger, and one outsider — younger, handsome and with Gallic charm — and sensual fireworks might be expected. Playwright Melissa James Gibson, however, has other fish to fry, and gives us humor instead of romance, and drama instead of lust. In a number of episodic scenes, some brief, some not, we witness the unraveling of a marriage (or do we?), a gay pass rejected, a seduction without joy, a parlor game verging on cruelty, proof of a photographic memory, and confrontations that arise from impulse and meander without resolution. The four friends are clever without being intelligent, but their sparring is filled with verbal wit and unexpected surprise twists, so that, while we may not like them, we are entertained by them. Gibson has an admirable way with a line, and a gift for creating situations, some more plausible than others. Sean Patrick Judge plays Alan, vain, self-centered, with a craving for alcohol, and captures him perfectly. I especially loved his incisive comments, as a warm, million-dollar smile is attempted by Carolyn Johnson, who plays Jane, a widowed poet with a child. Is there a law that female poets must be morose? (If so, I'm voting for repeal.) She has the figure of a fitness model, but looks consistently unhappy, which I gather is the playwright's intention, but this doesn't give the actor much of a range. Happier is Daria James as Marrell, a new mother, who has more of the spark of life and is an accomplished cabaret singer to boot. Mark Roberts plays Tom, Marrell's blue-collar husband, and fails to overcome the problem of an underwritten part. The role of the outsider is Jean-Pierre, a doctor without borders, played by Justin Doran, and when he enters it's as though a window has been opened on a musty attic, and we suddenly sense that life need not be shriveled with unmet needs and petty complaints. He alone is other-directed, not self-centered, and the wily playwright uses this to shape a most satisfactory ending. Doran is a brilliant actor who inhabits the part and enhances every scene he's in. Numerous set changes are handled briskly, and the direction by Steve Garfinkel keeps things moving apace. Main Street Theatre has done well to present this highly original work by an award-winning playwright, and the verbal humor alone is well worth a visit. Through April 24. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JT

Breaking the Code He and his top-secret team broke the German Enigma code, deciphering Nazi dispatches and foiling war plans. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and elected fellow of the Royal Society, for this work and for his subsequent inventions that led directly to our modern computers. For all his expansive intellect, though, he couldn't handle everyday life. Without thinking, he reported a burglary at his home and offhandedly confessed to the police that he was having an affair with a man. Like Oscar Wilde, 50 years earlier, he was arrested for "gross indecency," but unlike Wilde, he was granted probation if he agreed to chemical castration. Turing agreed, and tragedy followed. Playwright Hugh Whitemore (All Creatures Great and Small, 84 Charing Cross Road) adapted Andrew Hodges's biography of Turing into a quietly powerful series of impressions that show the man — at work, in love, at odds with his mother ­— yet never overtly explain him. With its short scenes, the play sneaks up and explodes in tiny bursts, leaving you terribly affected when it's all over. Overseen by Theatre Southwest director Mimi Holloway, Whitemore is helped along enormously by three superlative performances. Kevin Daugherty, artistic director of Island ETC in Galveston, is revelatory as Turing, turning his stammer and his childlike inquisitiveness into a magnificent suit of armor. Elizabeth Marshall, as Turing's confrere who's deeply in love with him, breaks your heart with truthfulness and felicity of character. And Zona Jane Meyer plays Turing's mother with noble resolve after a fleeting outburst of maternal pain when Alan confesses. These three anchor the play and make it piercingly alive, ably abetted by the others in the ensemble: Kurt Bauer, Taylor Biltoft, David Bradley, Brandon Hobratschk, David Holloway and Scott Holmes. Two years ago, an internet petition to grant Alan Turing knighthood prodded then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to apologize for what happened to Turing: "On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better." Whitemore's powerful tribute salves the hurt a little, too. Through April 30. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

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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
Jim Tommaney