Capsule Stage Reviews: Metamorphoses, Secret Order, Sunshine Boys, Times Square Angel

Metamorphoses This incredible show, a 2002 Tony Award winner, is the reason why theater was invented. What better way to tell these tales, bring myths stirringly alive, explain the world and deeply touch the heart? Roman poet Ovid's classic stories are reimagined by Mary Zimmerman — and freshened up by University of Houston's School of Theatre & Drama — in startling theatrical fashion that leaves one breathless at their scope and the fluency of the storytelling. There's the tale of minor godlet Phaeton (Bryan Kaplun), who almost destroyed the world by recklessly driving daddy's sun chariot, as spoiled Hollywood brat, lounging poolside and being glossed by an annoyingly intellectual psychiatrist. We also learn about familial sexual urgings from the tale of Myrrha (Sarah Haghpaykar) and her goading by jealous goddess Aphrodite (Tracie Thomason) to commit the most unnatural of sins, and the undying love of grieving Alcyone and Ceyx (Stephanie Holladay and Patrick Earl), metamorphosed into shore birds, who now sail together forever on the wind. Set around — and mostly in — an atrium pool, the stories blaze with mesmerizing insights that make the old, familiar tales seem surprising and new. The splendid young cast, under director Jack Young's agile eye, turns these lustful, vengeful, pitiable creatures into flesh and blood. No wonder these stories about love and betrayal fascinated the ancients — they will always evoke mystery and awe. Through November 23. UH Wortham Theatre, Entrance No. 16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-743-2929. — DLG

Secret Order A researcher and his lab hardly seem like the stuff of edge-of-your-seat theater, but that's exactly what Bob Clyman creates in Secret Order, now running at the Alley Theatre. The tale of lab coats and deceit takes us into the high-stakes world of cancer research, where money, publishing and power are all tied to lab rats and promising results. We first meet William Shumway (Dylan Chalfy), an unassuming researcher, as a young and gentle man in the Midwest. A bit of a geek, Shumway doesn't care a whit about getting famous or winning prizes — he just wants to have the time and the space to think out his theories and poke around the infinitely small universe of cellular biology. Of course, such thinking and poking takes a great deal of money. The equipment alone is worth, say, a soul or two — at least, that's what the play implies. After Shumway sends off a paper to Robert Brock (Larry Pine), the head of a cancer research institute in New York, his life is forever changed, in ways the earnest young man could never have imagined, as he makes a series of deals with the devil. Layered into this story is the tale of Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), an over-the-hill researcher who spends a good deal of time being jealous of all the attention Shumway is getting. When Brock takes all Roth's funding and gives it to Shumway, Roth starts plotting his revenge. As Shumway's world unravels, it's his female assistant, the eager Alice Curiton (Melissa Miller), who represents everything Shumway left behind in the Midwest — ethics, brilliance and a simple love of science. All four of the characters shape a terrifically tight plot, and the dynamic cast, under the sharp direction of Charles Towers, creates a high-stakes world that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Through November 23. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW

Sunshine Boys Neil Simon's tribute to bygone vaudeville and the troupers who gave it life is heartfelt and hilarious — one of his best. The laughs ring true and arise from genuine affection; the jokes aren't appliquéd but woven into the fabric. Lewis and Clark (James Huggins and Carl Masterson), formerly a comedy duo, haven't spoken in years — as a matter of fact, they hate each other — but are thrown together for a TV reunion special worked out by Clark's exasperated agent, who just happens to be his nephew (L. Robert Westeen). Unlike Simon's later work, which can be downright brittle and nasty, this lovely valentine from 1972 exudes warmth. Masterson and Huggins, fabulous pros, revel in the funny stuff as if basking in the sun, while Westeen plays the rumpled, annoyed nephew like a sheepdog left out in the rain. Marlo Blue, as Willie's registered nurse, is straight from Broadway central casting and about as perfect as can be. All in all, this comedy of grouchy manners is one of the most pleasant evenings in Houston theater this fall. Simon says, Go. Through December 13. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

Times Square Angel The camp's been beaten out of Charles Busch's loving Christmas homage to those 1940s Warner Bros. slice-of-Bowery-life movies. Country Playhouse plays it straight (and narrow) and takes all the buoyancy right out of this hard-boiled tale of scrappy Irish O'Flanagan and her rise to stardom, inevitable comeuppance and guardian angel interference. The story needs smears of red lacquer lipstick and quarts of Jungle Gardenia to be funny and effective, but no one knows what tone to take with this tongue-in-cheek material, and the many adoring references to a bygone past found mainly in the movies fall flat or go untapped and unexplored. The offstage role of the Lord is now given pride of place, which isn't a bad idea when He's played so roundly by Glen Lambert, but it throws the whole play out of whack, as we're constantly watching Him in his white lair at the far corner of the stage. Stacy A. Spaeth takes a game stab at playing un-drag, but the fun and the glamour's far away. Only Mia Marie Migliaccio and Cris Keller tease the Damon Runyon flavor out of Busch's savory tenderloin. This early gay holiday treat, which should have put us in the mood, needs to be rewrapped and put back under the tree. Maybe next year, just like fruitcake. Through November 22. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — 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
Lee Williams