Capsule Stage Reviews: July 24, 2014

All in the Timing Remember that old philosophy head-scratcher: Give a monkey a typewriter and enough time, and eventually he'll write Hamlet? That hardly gives proper credit to Shakespeare, but it says a great deal about Words, Words, Words, which happens to be the title of the second of six plays that make up David Ives's delightful All in the Timing (1993). He takes this premise and turns it nimbly inside out and upside down. Here in a nameless lab, three monkeys labor all day over their iPads. Type, type, type, bitch, bitch, bitch. They resent having to create something they don't even know. What's a Hamlet? they ask with simian inquisitiveness. They share their poetic drudgery with each other, while searching for fleas and eating the cigarettes thrown to them by their unseen caretaker. Called Swift (Lindsey Ball), Milton (Robert Meza) and Kakfa (Mai Hong Le), the three monkeys growl their discontent, but inadvertently come up with a Shakespeare quote every now and then. They've learned to "put an antic disposition on" to get treats. This experiment hath made them mad, says Meza's Milton. The laughs come from a certain rudimentary knowledge of Hamlet, but Ives's situation has comedy built in. Ives juggles like a circus clown. This sextet is a Sure Thing, the title of the opening play. Bill (the amazingly proficient Scott Gibbs with his pliantly rubber face and eyebrows) meets Betty (Le) in a crowded restaurant, asking to sit down in the unoccupied chair at her table. Whenever one of them says something the other doesn't like, a bell is rung, and the conversation rewinds to the previous sentence and they try again. "Is this seat taken? Yes. Ding. Is this seat taken? No, but I'm expecting somebody. Ding. Is this seat taken? No, please sit down. And off they go to the next topic until all problems are strategically worked out, everybody's content to go to the Woody Allen movie, they both like Faulkner and they vow to live happily ever after. Universal Language is a lovely study in communication and language, as Dawn (Sammi Sicinski) applies for a course in Unamunda, the new Esperanza, taught by Don (Will Gough Jr.). With proficiency and smarts that stop her stutter, Dawn picks up the wacky syntax and vocabulary — "Harvard U" means "how are you," that sort of thing — and the two of them are flying high in a gibberish that actually begins to make sense to us, too. Ives saves the best for last with Variations on the Death of Trotsky, a Monty Python sketch of the highest order. Sitting at his desk in Mexico, the Russian revolutionary founding father (Meza using incredulous deadpan) has a mountain ax sticking out of his skull. Whenever he quizzes his doleful wife (Sicincki) about why it's there or about the mysterious Mexican gardener (Gough), Trotsky suddenly drops over dead, then immediately pops back up alive, and another round starts. That Trotsky was indeed assassinated by his Mexican gardener using a mountaineer's ax only increases the existential comedy. In the bowling alley-size space of the trendy Alley Kat Bar and Lounge — through the bar, across the service alley, around another lounge and up the back stairs into the cement wall events space — director Paige Kiliany lets her actors loose in the intimate playing area. They can't move very much, but Timing doesn't require a lot of physicality. The lighting's rudimentary, but again, we're not here for atmosphere. In Ives's world view, not only do words keep us going, but if we laugh at the absurdity of it all, we delay the inevitable ever so slightly. Landing Theatre's Timing, abetted by some very comic actors, has got that down to a science. Through July 27. 3817 Main, 562-502-7469. — DLG

Fallen Angels While not in the pantheon of classic Coward (Private Lives, Cavalcade, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit and the films In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter), Fallen Angels is an utter lark of a sex comedy. Main Street Theater gives this romp the high gloss of Art Deco: stylish and stylized. The play gleams. Under director Claire Hart-Palumbo, who marshals her talented forces with the zing of a bracing martini, this cartoon farce is terrifically funny, constantly on the move and still rather shocking. Best girlfriends Julia (Crystal O'Brien in best comic form and looking period-lovely) and Jane (Lisa Villegas in Jean Harlow mode) are bored with their marriages. After five years, the passion has gone. They love their husbands, but there's got to be more. Can we blame them? Their husbands are fatuous and nonresponsive, and have more fun playing golf together than paying attention to their hot-to-trot wives. Fred (Bobby Haworth, super as a twit) and Willy (Dain Geist, insufferably stuffy) are clueless. Sporting a fine brush of a mustache, Haworth bears an uncanny resemblance to J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Years before their marriages, Julia and Jane each had affairs with Frenchman Maurice (Joel Sandel in perfectly smarmy Pepé Le Pew imitation oozes Continental charm like an oil slick). He's back in town and wants to see them. The girls are so giddy at the prospect, they practically swoon. With their husbands off on another golf outing, they make a pact to stay together and await the rendezvous. Julia drapes herself over the sofa, while Jane poses languidly against a column. They're ripe for picking. The waiting occurs in the second act; so does a lot of drinking and very little eating. The girls get blasted and secrets come out, as do the claws. Overseeing this farce is the classic sassy Coward maid who knows more than all of them put together (Elizabeth Marshall Black, who steals every scene with twinkling yet bulldozing aplomb). With a symmetry resembling Buckingham Palace, Coward structures his comedy with extraordinary technique, wit and surefire pace. Situations mirror each other, so if one couple has trouble, so will the other couple soon enough. When Julia and Jane have an argument, rest assured that Fred and Willy will fight, too. Coward juggles the nuts and bolts of playwriting with consummate flair, and the cast plays him with heigh-ho infectious glee. The production is tasty, enveloped in Eric L. Marsh's subtle lighting design and Claire A. Jac Jones's Deco-inspired set design. Margaret Crowley's costumes are aptly tweedy for the guys and diaphanous and silky for the gals. Julia's pajama pants are a singular Cowardly touch. But those wigs for the leading ladies?! They're appropriately styled for the period, but where'd they come from, Arne's? Sometimes an intimate theater space is just that, too intimate. Coward's deliciously prickly sex farce seems amazingly fresh even today. Julia and Jane eventually get what they want. If you think they're actually checking out Maurice's curtains as all three head upstairs, you've been watching the wrong marital comedy. Through August 10. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — 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