Capsule Stage Reviews: September 18, 2014

Capsule reviews by D.L. Groover

The 39 Steps A.D. Players has one of its freshest, funniest productions in memory with Patrick Barlow's adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. This 2008 Tony-winner and Drama Desk award recipient for "unique theatrical experience" is just plain goofy — and that goofiness is its utter, unique charm. One of Hitchcock's best comedy/thrillers and his first truly international hit, the 1935 movie, loosely adapted by screenwriter Charles Bennett from the 1915 John Buchan novel, starred English matinee idol Robert Donat and radiantly blond Madeleine Carroll as dueling, unwitting partners in crime. Handcuffed together, the pair scramble over the Scottish moors looking for the criminal mastermind, eluding police and dodging suspicious Highlanders. Patrick Barlow reimagines the comedy/thriller as pure farce. A cast of four plays all the parts. Hitchcock's movie is there in plot, scenes and verbatim dialogue, but Barlow has added a great dollop of English panto and a generous seltzer spritz of Monty Python. We love the quick, blink-of-an-eye character changes that occur when a hat is doffed and another quickly put on, and the newspaper boy becomes a policeman and — hat change — back again to newsboy. Or when those boxes that represent the interior seats on a train instantly whoosh into the exterior of the train with our hero stranded outside over a looming gorge. Our hero flaps his own coattails in the wind. It's laugh-out-loud funny, no doubt about it. The play's a quirky homage to Hitchcock, but at its heart it's really an ode to theater. Protagonist Richard Hannay (a delightfully suave Kevin Dean as an oh-so-tweedy Englishman) seeks to clear his name for a murder he didn't commit and at the same time solve an international espionage plot, while the woman literally tied to him, A.D. Players newcomer Alexis German, thinks him daft and attempts to warn the police at every opportunity. They race through Scotland always one foot ahead of policemen who may in fact be bad guys. In one of the film's iconic and erotically charged scenes, the couple must spend the night cuffed together in the same bed at a rustic hotel, having signed in as honeymooning husband and wife to deflect suspicion. The film brims with cinematic sparkle and rustic characters out of Dickens, and all the heady sequences are reproduced onstage with comic inventiveness. But it's not just this movie that gets skewered. Many iconic Hitchcock films are referenced, either in the design (those crop dusters that menace Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Norman Bates's creepy Victorian house in Psycho) or mentioned somewhere as groan-inducing puns. The visual surprise is those super funny black-and-white background projections that pop up to fill in plot points or just be silly filler. No one is listed in the program as the film magician, but my hat's off to whoever it is. A.D. Players veterans Craig Griffin and Jeff McMorrough (both high-class Dickensian actors themselves) steal every scene they're in and have a hell of a fine time chewing the scenery as incompetent bobbies, a sweet innkeeper and his romantic wife; a pinched old farmer; a German spy; etc., etc. Through October 5. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Doubt, A Parable Did he or didn't he? That is the question that propels John Patrick Shanley's multiple award-winning play (Pulitzer, Tony, Drama Desk). Did Father Flynn, beloved parish priest and basketball coach at St. Nicholas Church and School, molest troubled student Donald? Did he get him drunk on altar wine in the rectory? Has he done this before? Exacting, conservative school principal Sister Aloysius certainly thinks so, and she will have none of it. In this heated production at Theatre Southwest, we never find out what really happened in the rectory, because certainty and circumstance collide and swirl and then go their separate mysterious ways in Shanley's provocative drama, confounding audiences as it always has. Is Sister Aloysius (Lisa Schofield) a heartless, cold-as-ice throwback to the Middle Ages, stomping with iron boots over creativity and caring, or is she the one true protector of her students, ripping out abuse in her school the only way she can, with innuendo, cunning and a stern eye. Is progressive Father Flynn (Bob Maddox) as noble and good as he professes? He pronounces his innocence as if written in stone, but refuses to answer Sister's most pointed questions, leaving her and us with a feeble "I cannot say." What exactly is he hiding? And what about his long, very clean fingernails? That can't be a sign of anything good. Does sweet innocent Sister James (Cassandra Austen), a first year teacher with fresh-faced ideals, really believe him, or has she been swayed — tainted, perhaps — by Aloysius's insinuations? And Mrs. Muller (Shatara Hale)? Donald's clear-eyed mother only wants her son to tough it out through June graduation when he'll be assured of getting into a good high school. What happened in the rectory with Father Flynn is no worse than being at home with a father who beats him for being "that way." What has precedence, Shanley argues persuasively, fact or emotion? Is Sister a monster, destroying an innocent man with nothing but her suspicion and fear because his hip new ways challenge her authority? Or is Flynn a serial predator who gets away with it because of the church's male power structure? One of Houston theater's best, Schofield never fails to delight and astonish. Paired with Bob Maddox (a frequent acting partner of Schofield's and another of Houston theater's finest), they turn Shanley's sparring into an edge-of-your-seat war of wits. Newcomer Austen is a dewy Sister James, a lamb unwittingly thrown into the lion's den. Through September 27. 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