Capsule Stage Reviews: Man from Nebraska, Reefer Madness, Stick Fly

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Man from Nebraska Each Tracy Letts play is unique unto itself. If you know the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright from only one work, you'd never guess he wrote the others. His first, Killer Joe, is gothic slasher; Bug is violent and paranoid; August: Osage County is all grown-up dramaturgy and scathing comedy; Superior Donuts is socially conscious TV sitcom; and Man from Nebraska is quiet and polite, so unprepossessing that it becomes all the more powerful for its lack of outright dramatics. It's a pocket drama that sneaks up on you and clobbers you over the head. At first, you wonder where it's going, for the opening scenes are cryptic and impressionistic. Ken (Paul Hope) and wife Nan (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) are in their car. We haven't a clue where they're going. We know they're in Nebraska. Video and slides of streets and landscapes play across the background screens. He drives; she looks out the window. "They're finally gonna tear down that ugly house," she says without much inflection. Next into view: They're at church, singing a hymn. Next: at the cafeteria after church. "How's your steak?" she asks. "Good," he replies. "How's yours?" Next: They're at the nursing home visiting Ken's mother (Sylvia Froman), with the TV playing too loud. The routine of living hits Ken hard, and when he suffers a debilitating crisis of faith ("I don't understand the stars," he cries to Nan in one of the play's many felicitous phrases), he's off to London by himself to find the answers, leaving wife and daughter (Lisa Thomas Morrison) to stitch together the missing family. The play comes fully alive when he takes flight, meeting the raunchy divorcee (Krissy Richmond), the knowing earth mother (Portia Gant) and her cheeky sculptor boyfriend (David Matranga). The splendid ensemble cast keeps the play alive until Ken discovers his abandoned feelings and reconciles his life — or as best as one can, so Letts writes, with someone by your side. Life is full of pain, it's mysterious and infinite — but you're not alone if you just ask. That's plenty of comfort for any play. Through May 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

Reefer Madness In no way do we at the Houston Press advocate or condone drug use — that just wouldn't be right. However...if you happen to get your grubby little paws on some herbal refreshment, it wouldn't hurt tokin' up before you see this stoned little musical. Based on the classic 1936 B-grade cinematic morality tale Tell Your Children, a.k.a. Reefer Madness (heartily revived in the '70s as a hip campus joke), this puffy little musical spins the cheesy movie into an equally cheesy little theater hallucinogen. It's totally whacked. Thank the cannabis gods that Theater LaB (who else would be so gleeful and giddy?) has procured the prodigious — and nutty — talents of director/choreographer Jimmy Phillips, who supplies the almost constant stream of hilarity when the smoky haze starts to disperse. He keeps us inhaling. The cast is spot-on, always just on the cusp of over-the-top, which would be the easy way out; instead, it stops short and lets us go over ourselves. The pluses include Kregg Dailey in his multiple roles as a lecturer ("The dread marijuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter...or yours...or yours!"), a friendly soda fountain proprietor who also happens to be a nefarious pusher, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Corey Hartzog as innocent Jimmy, who's whisked into degradation as soon as his first puff; Jessica Janes as low-down harlot Mae, who has a penchant for Chinese dressing gowns; Joshua Estrada as laugh-happy Ralph; and John Dunn in the show-stealing role of heavenly instructor. The tacky tinsel and Depression ensembles are perfectly spoofed through Pat Padilla's period costumes and Boris Kaplun's crayon-infused sets, and everyone kicks up their saddle shoes with abandon in the Busby Berkeley-inspired "Down at the Ol' Five and Dime" and the raucous "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy." Even without a toke, Theater LaB's kitschy production is a natural high. Through May 23. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — DLG

Stick Fly We're in alien territory with Lydia Diamond's 2006 award-winning family drama. It's not that we haven't seen fathers and sons (and daughters, too) thrashing out domestic problems before — that's what drama's all about, after all — but that this family, the LeVays, happens to be black and exceedingly well off. That is something novel for American theater. Patriarch Joe (Ensemble Theatre stalwart Wayne DeHart) is a neurosurgeon; spoiled oldest son Flip (Robert Marshall) practices cosmetic surgery; and youngest son Kent (Kendrick Brown), who's still finding his way, is a struggling novelist. Though constantly talked about, Mom doesn't appear, and her secretive non-presence becomes its own character as the drama unfolds. The LeVays are the first black family to own property on tony Martha's Vineyard, where the play is set. It's a sultry day when the family gathers for their annual reunion, and the boys have brought along their girlfriends — Kimber (Rachael Logue), a social worker in New York, and Taylor (Estella Henderson), an entomologist. The women are polar opposites. Kimber is white, or, as boyfriend Flip modestly introduces her, "Italian," as if no one would notice. Her unintentional condescension sets the professional Taylor on edge, and their culture clashes have a great deal to do with the audience's enjoyment. On hand to lend dignity and another layer of identity politics to Diamond's polemic is the faceted Cheryl (Florence Garvey), intelligent daughter of the LeVays' housekeeper, who has personal issues of her own, which, you may be assured, will be disclosed. But there are so many weighty issues discussed in the LeVay summer house — career, gender, race, class, family dynamics — that the impact of each gets diffused. The talk stimulates and intrigues, but it's deadly for the drama. The play doesn't flow so much as it is pushed along by Diamond, though the cast is superlatively adept at camouflage, which makes the pushing often seem agreeable. But Diamond says things not often heard in the theater, so if the theatrics are somewhat bumpy, the ends are certainly justified. Through May 2. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

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